Thursday, September 18, 2008

GOP to Carly: Time To Get Off The Bus

Photo from AP Photo, by Charles Dharapak

Not sure if you have all been following the ebb and flow of Carly Fiorina's political ambitions but they seem to have come to a crashing halt over the past few days as the increasingly exasperated Republican party finally lost patience with her inability to say the right things when speaking on the public stage.

Quick recap of the story so far: following her departure from HP, Carly was casting around for a way to stay engaged and, well, famous. In an interview in October 2006, she signalled her interest in a political career as well as leaving open the possibility of taking on another CEO role, though clearly no company chair seems to have been offered that was sufficiently tempting. Plan (a) therefore prevailed when she became, albeit briefly, a political commentator on the Fox Business Network, a channel owned by Rupert Murdoch and running with a political agenda to match. For a while this seemed to scratch the dual itches of both allowing her to do what she likes best - self promotion - whilst also further bringing her to the attention of the Republican party.

Fame - at least, of the political flavour - duly followed, and so Fiorina became an advisor to the McCain campaign on business and economic matters, culminating in a staring role at the Republican Convention held in early September, 2008. However, all was not quite as rosy as it seemed.

From the get-go, Fiorina had an uncomfortable habit of saying what she thought McCain's position was - or perhaps should be - rather than instead following the party line and parroting what the spin-meisters at Republican HQ said it had to be. Increasingly, she began to irritate the party hierarchy, and likely so big time when she kicked the sacred right wing cow of abortion rights in the stomach(s) by claiming that McCain was pro-choice.

The final straw this week was saying that Sarah Palin wasn't qualified to run a company. Maybe she is and maybe she's not, but this came at a time of maximum public scrutiny of Ms. Palin over her lack of political experience and overall naivety. In trying to pull off a save, Carly then went on record as saying that none of the candidates could be a CEO, McCain included. Ooops.

Politics is an odd cove; being right and being honest aren't valued as highly as one might like, whilst consistency and an unwavering belief in the self seem to be mandatory, as does a built-in instinct to avoid saying anything negative about one's party cohorts.

Similarly, being a CEO and being President are also two different animals, each requiring their own particular sets of skills and instincts on the part of those pursuing one path or the other. But here's the rub: politicians and executives frequently share at least one key attribute - absolute self belief. At HP, Fiorina could never accept that the board had a valid view of her performance, just as she could never accept that she was falling short on driving the operational aspects of the job. Argue as you might about whether the wisdom or otherwise of her acquisition strategy - and I happen to think it was right - the difference in company performance at HP after she was replaced by someone who lives and breathes operational effectiveness just shows how much this actually was the problem HP was facing.

In the political arena Fiorina comes across as polished, poised and passionate. Unfortunately - for her, at least - she just cannot accept a back-seat role on this particular campaign bus. Her ego simply won't allow it. Consequently, and in an echo of how HP's board ultimately settled the matter, McCain's campaign managers now seem to be kicking her off the coach entirely, stranding her in Silicon Valley. If the unstated goal was to achieve some sort of prime and highly-visible public office after a glitteringly successful campaign role then you'd also have to conclude that will miss her Washington connection onwards to real political power too.

Still, being left behind in a multi-million dollar mansion in the Los Altos Hills isn't all bad, especially with a $20+ million severance package to keep you warm.

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