As Carly Fiorina prepares to come to town this month, she said she’s been inspired by the Queens University of Charlotte motto: “To serve, rather than be served.”
Fiorina, 58, spent two decades at AT&T and Lucent Technologies before being named CEO of Hewlett-Packard in 1999, becoming the first woman to hold the top job at a Fortune 20 company.
She left HP in 2005, a few years after shepherding the company’s highly controversial but ultimately successful merger with Compaq. She ran unsuccessfully for the U.S. Senate in California and now is involved in the public and private sectors.
Fiorina will draw on that experience while speaking at Queens University on Sept. 27 as part of the school’s national Learning Society of Queens speaker series. She spoke with the Observer on Friday about business leadership, innovation and politics.
Answers have been edited for length and clarity.
Q: This year, a record 18 women were among the ranks of Fortune 500 CEOs, up from 12 in 2011. Should we celebrate the record number, or be worried that it’s not higher?
Both. It is both progress to be celebrated and it’s not enough progress. Clearly, 20 years ago, 25 years ago, you could make the argument that there were not enough women in the feeder pool, but you can’t make that argument today. We’ve both come a long away, and there’s a long way to go.
Q: Meg Whitman is now the CEO at Hewlett Packard. What is it about the company that has fostered female leadership?
I think any company that focuses on management diversity and grooming and preparing diverse leaders is ultimately going to have a diverse executive suite. I know that’s an obvious statement. HP has focused on grooming diverse leaders for quite a while. IBM has, too, and now you see a woman CEO.
In order for women or anyone else to reach the CEO’s office, they have to have a broad set of experiences in business. And that takes time and thought and planning. The organizations that do that well end up with a more diverse talent pool to choose from and ultimately that’s in the best interest of the business and the shareholders.
Every game is better when everybody gets to play, and that’s true in business as well.
Q: Hewlett Packard is in a rough patch, announcing Tuesday that it was cutting another 2,000 jobs. Is there still room for a large hardware company, and how do you survive in the business?
When the merger with Compaq was completed, Hewlett Packard led in every product category and in every market segment where it competed. That leadership was squandered by five years of failure in investing in the future, in R&D, and marketing and sales.
Any company that fails to invest in innovation, fails to invest in the future, will have a difficult time.
Q: What do companies, and not just tech companies, need to do to spur innovation?
Innovation is not just about R&D, though that’s clearly very important. Innovation is also about, for example, staying in very close touch with customers. Customers will tell you what you’re not doing well for them.
In addition, you have to very closely monitor your competitors. A good competitor will always emerge and will always try to replicate what you do. An example: When I was at Hewlett Packard, and we were acquiring Compaq and completing that integration, people said to us that “You can’t ever beat Dell.”
Of course we could beat Dell and we did beat Dell. The reason we beat Dell is we replicated their distribution model. Any innovation can be replicated. A company has to constantly innovate with R&D and improve their product and services capability.
Q: What is your future in politics?
Oh, who knows? Honestly, I’m not trying to be coy. That’s the real answer. Right now I’m trying to help other Senate candidates win. I serve as the vice chair of the National Republican Senatorial Committee.
What the future holds, I don’t know. What I do know is that the political process, as flawed as it is, is incredibly important to the future of our nation.
Q: The Republican Party appears to have a wing that focuses more on business issues and a more socially conservative side. Is it becoming more difficult for them to mesh?
I don’t see that as a problem. I know there are some members of the media who want to make a lot of that.
The Republican Party has always had a variety of views. It truly is a big-tent party. What voters are focused on right now are economic issues, starting with their own. That’s why so much of the Republican candidates’ message is about economics right now.
Q: Do you think the Republican Party has drifted too far to the right on social issues?
Again, it depends on who you talk to in the party. If you look to the party platform, there hasn’t been much change in the last few cycles.
I actually think it is the Democratic Party that is shifting to the extreme. I think the discussion over the platform in your fair city of Charlotte was shocking. I think they’ve gone from pro-choice to pro-abortion. Now, it’s abortion at any time, for any reason, in any place at taxpayer expense.
Q: Who’s going to win the presidency this year? How close will it be?
This is going to be a very close election. My own judgment is we won’t know the outcome until quite late in the night. There’s so many unpredictable events going on, over which neither candidate has any control. It could be what’s going on in the Middle East. I think economic events are unpredictable right now. I think it’s going to be close.
Of course Mitt Romney has a chance to win, and I believe a very good chance to win.