Looking at the pictures of the four past CEOs of Hewlett-Packard stretched across the top of the New York Times business section, I thought of what Casey Stengel used to say about his New York Mets ball club - "Can't anyone here play this game?"
That is the questions that new HP CEO Meg Whitman, who made her name at eBay, will have to ask herself and her team as she becomes the fifth CEO since 1999. Of the five, only Lewis Platt was an insider, promoted from the ranks. And therein may lie part of the problem. The last three have all been hired from the outside.
H-P's current woes may stem from the very top. As former H-P director Tom Perkins told Times columnist James B. Stewart, "It has got to be the worst board in business history." The latest CEO, Leo Apotheker, a former CEO of SAP, was hired somewhat sight unseen; some members of the board had never even met him. While there is sometimes a good reason to go outside for a CEO, all too often it does not work out so well.
It would be laughable if it were not so sad. Certainly H-P, nurtured as it was by the innovative and paternal hands of William Hewlett and David Packard, must have some senior managers who are ready to step up and take the lead. It was Bill and Dave, after all, who taught the world about "managing by walking around." As engineers, they welcomed good ideas from all levels of the company. And even while H-P grew from an instruments company to a defense contractor to a computer company, it did a good job of nurturing next generation leadership. But obviously not well enough.
Problems suffered by H-P, while extreme, are not unique. Boards of directors, like senior executives in general, are sometimes enamored of the next new thing. Certainly, that was H-P's thinking behind hiring Carly Fiorina. Her decision to merge with Compaq may have split the board but it was a wise move strategically. Carly's problem was that she never connected with the ranks, nor it seems the board.
Meg Whitman will inherit a company that seems to have lost its way. The sudden departure from the tablet market is one example of its lack of focus. Longer term, however, Whitman will need to rely on H-P's management team, the very one that's been deemed passÃ© by the board. Here are my suggestions for how Whitman can win over H-P's rank and file.
Take a page from the legacy. Manage by walking around. Not just your headquarters, but make a point of visiting every H-P facility. Hold town hall meetings as well as small meetings where people can ask you questions.
Admit what you do not know. Use your outsider status as an excuse to "ask dumb questions." That's a technique that I've heard newly hired CEOs advocate. This will encourage people to open up and share their ideas with you.
Position yourself as a resource. Ask your employees what you can do to help them succeed. Such is the power of this question that it instantaneously positions you as a leader who understands that your success depends upon the success of others. Not the other way around.
Focus on promoting from within. Right the management ship. Vow to be the last CEO H-P hires from the outside, at least for the next decade or so. You may have to bring in new talent yourself but groom them for leadership positions so that when you are ready to exit there is a bench of promising candidates who can take over from you.
These are only for starters. Whitman must convince the capital markets - as well as the already skeptical technology community that she has what it takes to lead a hardware manufacturer.
It too would be a good idea to replace H-P's dysfunctional board of directors, but that will not happen until Whitman establishes her bona fides and most important, unleashes the creative talent and management skills of a once great company.
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image courtesy of flickr user, megwhitman2010