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The Problem at HP: The Glass Ceiling Was Never Broken

I just finished both reading The Big Lie, a fabulous book if you are into board room dynamics and disasters, and doing massive coverage on the HP Mark Hurd scandal. It is, however, a little unnerving to see some of the most powerful people in the world behave worse than six-year-olds.

My own management training forces a process that focuses on the cause for problems rather than the people to blame for them. I still think this to be a better method and one of the only ways to avoid repeating stupid mistakes. Clearly others disagree, because this is the second time HP has lost a CEO, and while both events were avoidable, the second, coming right after the first, was particularly so.

Several things jumped out at me as I correlated the stories, and we’ll cover a number of them, but the biggest was that the Glass Ceiling that prevented women from entering the executive ranks was never broken, it wasn’t even really cracked. Just because someone is given a title doesn’t mean they are given the support and respect that goes with it, and at the core of HP’s problems is that neither the key men nor women involved seemed to realize this.

Let’s chat about the unbroken glass ceiling this week and also cover a product that does much of what the iPad does but blends in Kindle functionality and costs under US$190. The holidays are coming up, and seriously, how many of us can afford to give $500 + gifts in this economy?

The Bigger Lie: Women Are Treated Equal

We see survey after survey about women as a class being treated unfairly. They are paid less, asked to do more, and generally not given the tacit authority to do the jobs they have been tasked with. What was clear particularly in reading The Big Lie was that the two key initial players, Carly Fiorina (HP CEO) and Patty Dunn (HP Chairwoman), regardless of working their way up from being low-level secretarial help, were largely viewed by many of the critical players they depended upon as misplaced secretaries.

What was particularly fascinating was that this wasn’t just between them and the men, but between each other as well. In fact, not only wasn’t there a sense that there was a shared problem between the key women, but both also seemed to exacerbate the related exposures as much as any man did to each other and often didn’t seem to even acknowledge, beyond lip service, the status that both had earned.

The Knight in Shining Armor Fantasy

On top of this, both women appeared to expect men to come to their defense when they were exposed yet didn’t recognize that at their levels there is no senior knight in shining armor who will step in to save the day. Both had had senior managers who provided substantial support to their career advancement, but neither is reported to have done that for anyone else. Also, once they reached the top, neither moved timely to replace the protection they had grown to depend on.

At the end, both felt betrayed by those closest to them even though they both received substantial warnings of exposures throughout, with one extreme being Patty Dunn’s attorney relegating his warning of Mark Hurd’s coming betrayal to a number because he got tired of saying the words he’d had to say them so often. He’d just say “23” rather than “Mark Hurd is going to throw you under a bus,” which is exactly what Mark Hurd did to Patty Dunn.

Titles Don’t Grant Authority

At the core of this is that while the titles suggested both women belonged in their respective posts, the behavior by most involved, including the two women, would better support the conclusion that this was not the consensus. And it should have been obvious, given that fact, that the HP board would eventually eliminate the aberration of a woman CEO and Chair. And that was the result.

Much of this could have been avoided if both women had developed stronger loyalties with those they needed support from, acquired expert help to offset their lack of actual authority, and worked aggressively to reform their support structures (and their own behavior) to transform the ecosystem they were operating in into one that was more tolerant, if not more supportive, of female executives. Both effectively stepped into a pot of hot water and instead of looking for ways to turn it into a hot tub, had signs printed saying “lunch special, women executives, half off”.

Clearly that would have entailed getting rid of, or retraining, key players of both sexes that simply would not accept a woman in either role. That wasn’t done, and both failed, and HP was badly damaged.

Perkins vs. Dunn

I have to admit that in all my years, I have never read a more embarrassing account about two adults who misbehaved and should have known better. Unfortunately, I also saw myself in both people and realize that I too have been a total ass at times. Tom Perkins was the guy that blew the whistle on HP’s spy scandal and was, at one time, the most powerful person in technology. He is also known for being incredibly vindictive and increasingly erratic. Kind of like a walking nuclear bomb with a twitchy fuse.

He likely defines an imperial male dominant type-A personality, and being on HP’s board, he refused to see Patty Dunn as a chairwoman and found being subordinated to her an abomination. There were three real choices for Patty if HP was to be protected: Get rid of Tom (while avoiding blame for it), resign the chair, or simply resign from the board.

Even the idea of going to battle with a multi-billionaire in his 70s known to be both vindictive and with poor judgment should be considered grounds for being committed. Patty could win battles, but she could never win the war, and Perkins spent around $1.5 million (going rate to have someone killed is about $25,000) in his largely successful attempt to knock Patty Dunn off her perch — and he could have likely spent $1.5 billion. Collateral damage was likely in the billions to HP’s brand and its ability to execute, and it set the stage for HP’s most recent problems.

Thanks to Dunn, Perkins likely did more real damage to HP than any competitor in recent history has done. Perkins can also now take credit for setting Hurd to nearly destroy HP, which Perkins appeared to actually care a great deal for. He damaged friends, betrayed both Hewlett and Packard’s memories, and corrupted his own ideals because he couldn’t stand the idea of being subordinated to a woman. Now that defines poor judgment.

Hurd vs. Fisher

This brings us to Hurd and Jodie Fisher, the woman who filed a sexual harassment complaint against him. Thanks to Perkins, Hurd not only had power that easily matched his failed predecessor; he also had little in the way of oversight and lots of time. His measurements were tied to bottom-line performance, and like a lot of other CEOs with similar compensation packages, he optimized HP to optimize his own income. The end result was the collapse of employee morale and loyalty, which meant he was like an acrobat in a circus who was flying high with no net — and the carnies had picked up guns and were looking for a lucky shot.

That shot came in the form of a business wife that HP arranged for him to have at company events. Let’s see, no one saw a problem with an alpha male with lots of time around an attractive trained-to-be-submissive female for long periods of time. That was certainly going to end well? However, the entire concept of providing a submissive female to executive events stinks of old-school, male-dominated, glass-ceiling companies.

And this takes me back full circle.

Wrapping Up: Glass Ceiling BS

I think this all suggests that in most companies, the so-called glass ceiling is still alive and well and hiding behind a facade of false tolerance and surrounded by a protected layer of inbred chauvinism. Until this is recognized by everyone, particularly both the sexes at the top of these firms, problems like those at HP will continue, both publicly and privately, and the move to true equality will be significantly delayed. If we don’t recognize a problem, and particularly if we all cover it up, it will never be corrected.

Women have been in the workplace since the ’40s; it is well past time that both sexes accepted this and moved on to a better future. However, until then, Safra Catz, who actually runs Oracle, should be the best example of how women need to behave to be successful as powers in male-dominated companies. She is likely one of the most truly powerful female executives in the world, and she works for one of the most obviously chauvinistic companies. She knows that it is the authority that matters, not the title.

She has learned you have to kiss a lot of ass as a woman if you want to kick a lot of it. (However, I kind of pity what will likely happen to Larry if he ever loses his dominant position). I once asked her what she was bringing to Oracle. “Whatever Larry wants” was her response. Unfortunately, that was exactly right, and she is still in her post. That’s the reality that needs to be accepted before it can be changed.

Product of the Week: Pandigital Novel

Product of the WeekThe iPad has captured an amazing amount of interest, and clearly it has emerged as the Cadillac of the new tablet class.

However most of us are Chevy people, and this is the market the next wave of devices is targeted to address.

One of the first of this wave out is the Pandigital Novel, a smaller tablet about the size of the newest Kindle but with iPad-like features.

The Pandigital Novel

The Pandigital Novel
(click image to enlarge)

While the TFT display it uses isn’t as good as the ePaper display of the Kindle for reading, it will do most of the things the iPad is capable of and is tuned to be better for reading than the iPad is (though it too will be difficult to use outside).

Using the Android platform and initially tied to the Barnes & Noble store this device will run most Android applications, and it is WiFi-enabled just like the $500 iPad but costs under $190.

Pandigital is the company that first made good digital picture frames affordable. Their goal is similar with this product and they have a good quality and value reputation.

This is a tough market, and for manyh, $500 for an iPad, no matter how good, is simply too expensive. For them, the Novel may be a better alternative, and that is why the Pandigital Novel is my product of the week.


Rob Enderle is a TechNewsWorld columnist and the principal analyst for the Enderle Group, a consultancy that focuses on personal technology products and trends.

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