Style Points for the New Guy at HP

Posted by: Peter Burrows on June 15, 2005

Everyone knows that when a new boss arrives in the corner office, that his or her personal style counts a lot. And it counts even more at companies with proud old legacies, such as Hewlett-Packard Co.

It certainly did for former CEO Carly Fiorina. While most HPers were initially thrilled to have the charismatic Lucent sales chief come aboard back in 1999, she quickly began to rankle much of the rank-and-file. Her grandiloquent speeches sounded great at first, but their impact soon faded with many of HP’s engineering-minded troops—many of whom prefer their technology talks metaphor-free. Fiorina further hurt her cause when she agreed to appear in a TV ad, standing in front of a mock-up of the garage where Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard founded the company in 1938. That was near-blasphemy in a company in which “self-promotion” had long been a four-letter word. And as HP’s fortunes faded, Fiorina came under criticism for all manner of transgressions—including one that her critics couldn’t miss when they entered HP’s Palo Alto headquarters: a portrait of Fiorina, hanging right there next to those of the revered Hewlett and Packard.

That's not to say Fiorina didn't have her fans, right to the end. She received hundreds of e-mails from employees after her Feb. 7 ouster from well-wishers who were inspired by her brand of leadership, says a source close to her.

Still, new boss Mark Hurd seems more in step with the gestalt that made HP famous. While Fiorina was known for her designer clothes--she was known as "Carly Armani" back at Lucent--Hurd's fashion sense is pure Dayton, Ohio. Lots of jackets and ties, nothing fancy. "He's a mid-westerner," says one top HP insider. That's good, HP-wise, since much of the company's culture was set by the ranks of engineers that came to work there in the 1950s and 60s from Midwestern universities such as Purdue and Northwestern.

Also, Hurd is all business when it comes to communications. There's sports references, to be sure--but his standard internal stump speech is all about HP's need to lower its costs and increase its margins. "I haven't heard one reference to the HP Way, or to HP’s commitment to corporate citizenship, or to the legacy of the founders or to HP’s impact on Silicon Valley," says one staffer. It doesn't come off as disrespect, but rather as geniune. "Look, he doesn't know about any of those things, so he’s not trying to bullsh__t anyone. But he's a very warm, down to earth guy. People seem to like him."

Indeed, those who felt Fiorina was out of line by deigning to put her image in that headquarters lobby will find more to like about Hurd. An insider says that Hurd has decided not to put his image on the wall, but to let Bill and Dave remain their on their own. "Mark feels that this is everyone’s company. It’s not his company. And he feels that area deserves a special place of respect.”

Now, I'm not saying that a old-school fashion sense or a disdain for great speakers is what HP needs to compete in the modern era. Nor am I arguing that the inbred humility in HP's culture, born of Bill and Dave's Depression-era values, will help the company sell more computers and printers. Indeed, Hurd's style points won't make a bit of difference, if his strategy and execution don't improve HP's lot. Some insiders are already wondering what HP veterans will think of Hurd if the rumors of a 15,000-person layoff prove to be true. After all, that's more pink-slips than Fiorina ever handed out at one time, if you don't count a similar-sized round made in connection with the Compaq merger.

Still, Hurd does seem to be striking the right chord with the employees he'll need to rely on in the years to come. And that can only be a good thing.

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Bloomberg Businessweek writers Peter Burrows, Cliff Edwards, Olga Kharif, Aaron Ricadela, and Douglas MacMillan, dig behind the headlines to analyze what’s really happening throughout the world of technology. Tech Beat covers everything from tech bellwethers like Apple, Google, and Intel and emerging new leaders such as Facebook to new technologies, trends, and controversies.

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