Today, HP board of directors has dismissed Carly Fiorina as the company's chairman and chief executive officer (CEO), related to her failure to deliver on the promise of the HP-Compaq merger. OK, I was there during that promise. In fact, mine was the first question during the shareholders' meeting when we voted on the merger. My question was this, "Understanding that you are optimistic that the merger will succeed, what are your plans in the event that it does not?"
Her answer at the time was evasive, "We have a plan only to proceed. If it does not work, we will have wasted a lot of time."
Well, it really didn't work, and HP wasted a lot of time (and money), and now her plan seems to be to walk away, very rich. Almost everyone in the room (mostly HP retirees, employee stockholders, and Hewletts) knew this at the time. I knew it because I was a part of the Merger Support team. That was over three years ago, so I feel comfortable telling you this story about one of the hints that I picked up on back in 2001.
My role on the team was to provide technical expertise for remote collaboration between the Texas (Compaq) and California (HP) teams. I moderated NetMeeting and Placeware sessions (in the days before Breeze), hooked up projectors and mics, diagnosed networks, configured laptops, and generally Made Things Work. In short, I was the guy that everyone ignored until there was a problem. Occasionally, I was asked to moderate teleconferences and even present our findings to the group.
On one such occasion, we were working with the HP.com folks. Managers in charge of branding, strategic partnerships, and digital assets were in attendance. The head honcho gave a presentation, showing photos of Sony products, The Apple Store, and a few other brands. "When you look at a Sony product, you can see that it's from Sony. It has a certain color scheme, the lines are reminiscent of a basic design, it has 'Sony-ness'. And, look at Apple - just look at this store: everthing has an 'Apple-ness' about it. Unmistakably Apple." In retrospect, this comment is extremely interesting.
She went on like this, with examples of how the products of HP's competitors exhibit a recognizeable brand, while HP products do not. Compaq's products were a little better at this, but not by much. She asked us to break up and think about what HP's brand means to us, and how to create a new, more recognizeable singularity for future products and the online store.
Being the distance collaboration expert, my group was entirely on the phone. I took notes as people threw out ideas and words. I decided to speak up, "You know, we have this brand, 'Invent', but what does 'Invent' look and feel like?" No one had an answer. In fact, the Invent culture at HP is a bit of a farce. Most people at HP actually don't do any inventing during their day; they are encouraged to look to HP Labs for that. So, the brainstorming continued. another tack, "There is 'Sony-ness' and 'Apple-ness', but --"
"What is 'HP-ness?'" someone chimed in.No one laughed. In fact, they took the question seriously! I was aghast. They were trying hard to define 'HP-ness'. Our time was wrapping up, and I was required to present our notes.
Back in the main group, I had to represent everyone on the phone. I talked about the 'Invent' culture, I mentioned HP Labs, I said the word 'Apple-ness' again. Then, someone on the phone piped up: "What happened to our... 'HP-ness'?" One or two people in the room tittered. It was clear that the others were thinking hard about their 'HP-ness'. Someone spoke up, "What about the classic HP 'blue'? Is HP-ness blue?" I could barely stand it. I had to IM my buddy, a former HP Labs contractor, "Phil, someone in this meeting just said, 'HP-ness'."
Well, that was it. Every few minutes, he was writing me about 'HP-ness' in every conceivable form. I could barely contain myself; O, the Irony!
Needless to say, I soon left HP for purpler pastures. The memory of that meeting was regurgitated when HP announced its licensing of the Apple iPod. There, I thought, is your HP-ness! HP-ness is actually Apple-ness, but blue.
So long, Carly. Don't shrug me off next time. Keep more than one plan handy.