Eyes on HP

Hewlett-Packard is not just any company. It is iconic. Like Disney, Ford, General Electric, Apple, Microsoft, and a few others, it is not only part of business history, it is deeply wound into the fabric of American history. Modern Silicon Valley pretty much begins with Hewlett-Packard—the foundations of information technology as a new sector of productivity, the power of innovation, the hardware/software product life-cycle, the beginnings of west coast venture capital, and the splitting atom of employees spinning off from the mothership to become founders themselves. The Hewlett-Packard story until recently is a magnificent tale.

HP WayBill Hewlett and Dave Packard really did start in a garage. One of the very first products they sold was a precision audio oscillator, to of all people, Walt Disney. They captured their thoughts in a book, The HP Way, reinforcing the need for a company to have a mission and a vision. When we talk about a job being more than a paycheck, a lot of that comes from the work ethic and values of Hewlett and Packard. They set the stage for a generation of entrepreneurs. They made it okay to fail, as long as that failure contained learning that was honestly disseminated. HP on an engineer’s resume was gold. The sales and marketing team was second to none.

It is almost impossible to understand the impact of a global company with over $125B in annual revenue and 325,000 employees changing CEOs four times in six years, not including the interim CEOs between hires. Carly Fiorina, Mark Hurd, and Leo Apotheker each left the company for different reasons, and while the HP board is now taking a lot of heat for perhaps not scrutinizing their decisions around these leaders carefully enough, that is unfortunately water under the bridge. The company is now under the direction of former eBay CEO and recent California Gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman, who will need to move quickly and definitively to steady the ship.

HP has seen numerous mergers, divestitures, and acquisitions throughout this period of seismic change, and each time one strategy replaces a previous version, the impact is costly. Whitman has said she believes the strategy in place at HP now is largely correct, so if the issues she is facing are managerial, perhaps we will see a positive impact sooner rather than later. My guess is she will dig into strategy a bit more in the coming months, and then move aggressively to make her mark. The sooner she can restore confidence with customers, employees, and shareholders, the better it will be for all those who do care deeply about the company’s future.

Why is HP so important in the scope of business enterprise? When you dig into exceptional business books like Built to Last and Good to Great, both by Jim Collins, you realize just how hard it is for even the strongest corporations to go the distance in an environment of creative destruction. As Collins points out so often in the data he cites, only 62 of the original Fortune 500 companies named on the original list in 1955 remain there in 2011.

The great former CEO of Intel, Andy Grove, talks at length about the “strategic inflection points” facing companies at every stage of their evolution—particularly technology companies—in his critical study Only the Paranoid Survive. Grove makes it all too clear how easy it is for a well established organization with vast resources and expansive markets to miss a fundamental change in the continuum of progress, only to catch its error to late to be fixed, having been lapped by any number of competitors.

Where Collins approaches the challenge largely from the aspect of defining and reinforcing a brand, Grove looks at it from the point of view of ceaseless innovation and refusal to accept the status quo as satisfying. Both approaches are vital, but neither has a chance in the face of organizational chaos. Products, features, and benefits must remain in constant flux, but ideals and values are their balancing counterparts. Remove the rudder from a very fast ship and it really doesn’t much matter what is powering the engine room.

It takes both leadership and strategy to steer one of these mammoth ships through the rough seas of business change, and simply taking those notions for granted is the easiest way for a company to fall from grace. Robert Burgelman, a colleague of Andy Grove who teaches strategy at the Stanford Graduate School of Business (and is also a former board member of mine), tells us that strategy becomes real when we apply resources to concepts. We see that very much in action now at HP, but we see those resource decisions changing too frequently in real-time. The leadership of the CEO drives that strategy from concept to action, from white board idea to investment cost center, and if strategic shifts are reversed before cost centers become profit centers, value can be destroyed at an astonishing pace.

No CEO or strategy is meant to last forever, but change them too often, and costs pile up without reward. The toll on staff morale is immeasurable, and the lost jobs from reversing decisions may never be recovered. Employees feel the impact in loss of income, shareholders get pummeled. Customers just move on.

It’s time now for HP to turn the corner. As I said, HP is iconic, it is Silicon Valley. We need it as an example in the tech sector of a company that is Built to Last and can continue to grow from Good to Great. HP dates to 1939. It is the standard-bearer for all the great companies that followed its mantra, were born in garages, and now have office space in the adjacent neighborhoods. If we want to believe companies like AOL and Yahoo can find new creative life through reinvention, we have to have models for long-term success. We need succession plans that show great companies can transcend their founders and achieve new levels of success by ensuring that values are more than words in the employee handbook, and that they are liberating, not confining, as long as the leaders who embrace them help guide their teams through increased commitment to innovation with coherent planning and rigorous evaluation. No shooting from the hip, but no fear of change.

On a pragmatic level, we also need the jobs, particularly in HP’s home state of California. Surely the majority of new jobs in our nation will come from small business and startups, but we can’t afford to lose the ones we have in the enterprise, not for the families who depend on them, not for the state budget that needs the payroll tax. Because of its deep history in the community and legend, HP leads the ethos in Silicon Valley in so many ways, its stability is a reflection of hope, its instability a drag on the headlines when we need a shot of optimism.

This is a once in a lifetime career and company defining opportunity for the new CEO at HP. It’s like getting the chance to manage the NY Yankees after three bad seasons no one saw coming. They might be on a losing streak, they might have made a bunch of bad trades, but they’re still the Yankees. Everyone knows they can win, that they have the resources to win and a history of winning. Meg Whitman just needs to ask herself, what kind of game does she want her team playing, who does she want in the line-up, and where does she need to better read the competitive landscape. A little consistency in management will go a long way.

Let’s hope Hewlett-Packard has it right this time. There is already new criticism of HP’s board that they acted too quickly in hiring Meg Whitman, that she should have first been named interim CEO, or that her background is not right for the job. Their decision has been made, so I am rooting for the new CEO. This isn’t politics, this is P&L. It is critical that Meg gets this right and succeeds. A win for her in this role is a win for all of us.

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