Carly Fiorina was president and CEO of Hewlett-Packard from 1999 to 2005 and chairman from 2000 to 2005. Before joining HP, she spent nearly twenty years at AT&T and Lucent Technologies, where she held a number of senior leadership positions. She has a B.A. in medieval history and philosophy from Stanford University, an M.B.A. from the University of Maryland, and an M.S. from MIT’s Sloan School of Management. Fiorina currently serves on several boards of directors, including those of Revolution Healthcare Group and Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing. She and her husband, Frank, divide their time between Silicon Valley and Washington, D.C. They have two daughters and two grandchildren.
| A MEMOIR |
WRITING A BOOK involves tough choices as well. One of the toughest is what, and whom, to leave out. As I thought about this book, and wrote this book, people and places and events flooded my memory. Many hours could pass in the company of these reflections and I would silently thank again the countless people who have made a difference in my life. I truly wish I could have named everyone, but a book is not a diary.
For those who are disappointed by their exclusion, I beg forgiveness and hope they take some small comfort in my struggles to edit and reedit—careful to preserve the authenticity of the memoir, while recognizing that not everything is of relevance to the reader, even when it matters deeply to the author.
I was not sure I wanted to write this book at all. So now, I want to thank those who believed in it from the beginning, who encouraged me to keep going, and who were blunt when necessary. Frank read and reread every word. My sister, Clara Sneed, the real writer in the family, offered sound advice early on in the process and read the second draft with a critical eye. My sisters-in-law, Claudia Beyer and Ursula Feldman, provided unwavering support. And Deborah Bowker, Rollins Emerson, Kathy Fitzgerald, Barbara Marcin, Dan Plunkett, Carole Spurrier and Richard Ullman all gave their time, their care and their candor to me and to this book. Finally, and especially, Adrian Zackheim has my deepest gratitude and appreciation.
IN THE END, the Board did not have the courage to face me. They did not thank me and they did not say good-bye. They did not explain their decision or their reasoning. They did not seek my opinion or my involvement in any aspect of the transition. Having asked me to come to Chicago for a meeting, they left me waiting in my hotel room for more than three hours. As I waited, I knew whatever came next would be a turning point. After I finally received the call to rejoin the meeting, I thought about each Board member as I rode the elevator down past those twenty-four floors. I didn’t know what to expect, but I assumed I would be facing them. I wasn’t prepared for the empty conference room I entered. Only the two designated messengers and a lawyer remained in the room. The chair of the Nominating and Governance Committee said, “Carly, the Board has decided to make a change at the top. I’m very sorry.” I knew he had opposed my ouster. And then the new chairman said they wanted my help in “positioning” the news. She said they thought I should describe this as my decision: I should say I thought it was “time to move on.” I asked when they wanted to make the announcement. “Right away.” The meeting lasted less than three minutes. I asked for a few hours to think and I left the room.
I believe the truth is always the best answer, whatever the consequences. Less than two hours later I sent a message to the new chairman saying we should tell the truth: the Board had fired me. When the announcement was made, I simply said, “While I regret that the Board and I had differences over the execution of the strategy, I respect their decision. HP is a great company and I wish the people of HP all the best.”
I had always known I might lose my job. I was playing a high-stakes game with poweful people and powerful interests, but I had not expected the end to come in this way. I knew we were on the verge of reaping tremendous benefits from all our hard work, and I thought the Board knew this too. I wanted so much to be able to gather my team one last time and tell them how proud I was of all we had accomplished together. My heart ached that I was not given an opportunity to say good-bye to the people of HP, whom I had grown to love.
I knew the announcement would be big news. I was a woman, and a bold one at that, and things had always been different for me. All the criticisms that had ever been leveled against me would be recycled and thrown back in my face with new delight: “She’s too flashy.” “She’s just marketing fluff.” “She’s too controlling.” “She’s a publicity hound.” “The merger was her idea and it was the wrong thing to do.” “She’s imperious, vindictive and employees didn’t like her.” The coverage would go on and on, and the critiques would not be balanced against the facts or my contributions or the positive changes that had been made. It would be ugly and it would be personal.
I knew all this as I steeled myself for the public announcement on February 9, 2005. The reality of the coverage was even worse than I had imagined. It hurt me, but it hurt my family and friends more. I felt lonely, but no lonelier than I’d felt for the past six years. I was deeply sad that fellow Board members I had known and trusted would not pay me the simple respect of looking me in the eye and telling me the truth. I felt betrayed when I considered that some Board members, having spoken outside the boardroom, had broken their duty of confidence to one another and to me.
I felt all these things, but after a lifetime of fears I was not afraid. I had done what I thought was right. I had given everything I had to something I believed in. I had made mistakes, but I had made a difference. I was at peace with my choices and their consequences. My soul was still my own.
1 | A Gift from My Parents
HOW A STORY ENDS has much to do with how it begins, and so I must begin with my mother and father. My mother, Madelon Montross Juergens, was the only child of a Ford Motors assembly-line worker and a lovely woman of French descent named Clara Hall. They lived in Rossford, Ohio, a town where many European immigrants gathered. Clara Hall died of stomach cancer when my mother was only ten.
It was, according to my mother, an agonizing death and was surely a profound trauma for a young girl. Her memories were of a beautiful, loving, refined woman of imagination who spoke often of France and wanted a cultured life for her daughter. Her father had other ideas. He was a stubborn, taciturn, deeply practical man who quickly remarried. Her new stepmother, whose name my mother never shared with me, was neither affectionate nor concerned about my mother, whose childhood became unhappy and lonely. When she became a parent herself, she refused to talk about it in any way, other than to praise her mother. It seems her life began only after she ran away from home.
She did so because she wanted to go to college. She had been her high school’s valedictorian, and so her guidance counselor told her father that his daughter was the one student in school who absolutely should go to college and offered to help him obtain financial assistance. Her parents quickly concluded that this was a frivolous use of money and not worth the effort. Neither of them had gone to college, and besides, she was a girl. So they decided she should stay in Rossford and work until she got married.
My mother had different plans, and she left town on a bus one night without saying good-bye. At eighteen she joined the Women’s Army Corps, the WACs, as they were called during World War II, ending up at Shepherd Field, an air base in Texas. She quickly proved herself and became the secretary to the commanding officer, which was a very prestigious position. It was there that she met my father.
Eventually, when she was well into her sixties, my mother would earn both a bachelor’s and a master’s degree in art history. She would also take up her painting virtually full-time, ultimately completing hundreds of canvases brimming with color, energy and life. Today my home is filled with them.
My father, Joseph Tyree, was born in a tiny Texas town called Calvert. His father, Marvin Sneed, a well-respected rancher and landowner, died of congestive heart failure when my father was barely twelve years old. Mr. Sneed seems to have been an outgoing adventurer, taking the family on cross-country road trips in a Model T Ford, way back in the 1920s. His death created real financial difficulties for his family. And as devastating as the loss of his father must have been, less than nine months later, in September, my father’s elder brother, Marvin, died of a virulent infection caused by a botched tooth extraction. Marvin had been athletic, charming and good-looking, and clearly his mother’s favorite. My grandmother wore only black for the rest of her life and went into mourning for the entire month of September each year until her own death at eighty-four.
The burden of being the only man in the family rested very heavily on a young boy’s shoulders. In contrast to his brother, my father was a small, sickly child, born with severely reduced lung capacity and one missing vertebra. His mother consulted many specialists about these physical difficulties (my father has called them “deformities” all his life). Ultimately the doctors told her that he should avoid physical exertion and that he should never play football. But football was the rite of passage for all young men in Texas, and my father was determined to measure up. And so almost by sheer force of will, he became a winning player on his high school team. His ferocity on the field was legendary and made up for his lack of physical gifts.
My father knew, however, that his future lay in the use of his mind. He knew as well that he had to escape Calvert. And so he went on to college and eventually enrolled in law school, but he jumped at the chance to join the Army Air Force during World War II. Because of his physical impairment he could not fight; he ended up at Shepherd Field.
Both my parents grew up feeling they had something to prove and something to escape. They were strong, self-reliant and deeply insecure all at the same time. They were determined to build a better life for themselves and their children. For both of them, a better life was to be found in education and hard work. They believed hard work, discipline and willpower were essential ingredients of a worthy life and an admirable character. My father wanted his children to be educated in a classical way—history, literature, Latin. He was a man of letters—he had become a professor of law—and his children should be the same. My mother wanted everything for her children that she remembered her mother talking about, and so I was taking French lessons at four, going to the opera at seven, visiting museums and taking classical piano. She wanted her children, son and daughters alike, to be cultured, refined, successful. If my father judged his success by his own career, my mother judged her success by her children.
Perhaps because I knew the stories of their childhoods, I grew up afraid that I would lose my parents. It was almost an obsession. Nothing could be more terrible than this. The death of a mother or father was like falling into an abyss. I would dream of just such a fall often—I suffered from violent nightmares and a vivid imagination from the time I was a young child until I was well into college. Several times a week I would wake out of fear and go stand silently by my parents’ bed. I would stare at my mother, making sure she was breathing, willing her to wake up. When other children would delight in slumber parties with their friends, I would never go in case something terrible happened to my family while I was gone. When I finally went to my first pajama party as a teenager, I lay awake all night picturing our house in the dark and wondering if my mother and father were safe. I could imagine all sorts of tragedies that might befall them. When my parents would go out for the evening, I would stay wide awake until they returned safely home. I would say the Lord’s Prayer, over and over like a chant, to calm myself. And it became almost a joke in our family that when my parents had to travel out of town, I would always fall ill just before they left. Psychologically, it seems, I was hoping to shame them into canceling their trip.
We were a modest, middle-class family. My mother was a full-time mother and homemaker, my father an academic, and there were three children to raise. Success was not, to my parents, about fame and fortune. It was ultimately about the quality of one’s mind and one’s character. There was never any question about whether we would go to college or graduate school. It was assumed. Character was everything, and character was defined as candor, integrity and authenticity. Candor was about speaking the truth, and about speaking up and speaking out. Integrity was about preserving your principles and acting on them. Authenticity was about knowing what you believed, being who you were, and standing up for both. For my parents, success was measured on the inside, not judged from the outside. From a very early age, I clearly understood that my mother and father would not compromise on their expectations of my mind or my character.
My parents were rigorous, disciplined, demanding and judgmental. Always they would focus on what I could do and what I should do. The fact that I was a girl made no difference to their level of expectation, and while this seemed entirely natural at the time, it was only later in life that I realized how rare this was, particularly in the 1950s and 1960s.
My sister, the eldest, was the child my parents thought they would never have. They waited eight years for a child, and when Clara Hall (named for my mother’s beloved, deceased mother) was finally born in 1952, they were sure she was the last. My father always remarked on Clara’s beauty and her physical resemblance to his side of the family. He loved that she was an avid reader of great books. My mother rejoiced in her creativity and artistic nature. She wasn’t a painter like our mother, but she was a gifted writer from a very young age. At age eight she wrote her first award-winning poem, and she’s been writing ever since. My mother said Clara had an artistic temperament to go along with her talent. She was tempestuous and frequently defiant. Perhaps because mother and daughter shared a creative passion and a willful nature, they also clashed on many issues for many years.
My brother, the youngest, was the only son, born after my mother had suffered a painful miscarriage. Named after my father, Joseph Tyree IV was tall, strong and athletic. My father was proud that his son excelled at every sport he tried. He was creative as well, becoming his elementary school’s cartoonist and drawing elaborate cartoon strips every week of a fanciful world filled with “coot birds,” which he published for his class. They were funny and smart, and my mother loved them. But Joseph didn’t much like schoolwork, and as he grew into his teenage years, the tension between father and son became a fixture of our family life.
I was the middle child, named after my father’s mother, Cara Carleton. I didn’t feel particularly smart or creative in any way. One Sunday at church I received a small coaster that read “What you are is God’s gift to you. What you make of yourself is your gift to God.” I decided early on that my gift to God would be to please my parents. I idealized and idolized them.
To please my father, I studied hard and always got good grades. To please my mother I became the family diplomat—always intervening in every family argument, listening to every side, empathizing with everyone and trying to find a way to bridge the gaps. To please them both, I was obedient, diligent, cheerful and reliable. There were many times when I felt as though no matter what I did, it simply wasn’t quite as much as they expected. To my siblings I was probably an insufferable goody two-shoes most of the time.
Both my parents pursued excellence in everything they did. My father was a gifted teacher and a true intellectual. Learning was not simply a way to make a living—learning was a goal in and of itself. My mother was a unique and talented artist, but she largely put her painting aside to raise her children, and invested all her energies in them. My parents’ expectations were high and sometimes felt like a heavy burden. I grew up afraid of losing them and afraid of disappointing them.
My mother wanted each of her children to study an instrument, and so I studied the piano. Although I started because it was expected of me, I soon found that learning the music and perfecting my playing could completely absorb me. I would practice for hours on end. I enjoyed the rigor and the attention to detail that was required, but I also came to find in music something beautiful that spoke to my own fears, self-doubts and nightmares. Many years later, someone asked me who my favorite composer was. Without hesitation, I said “Beethoven,” because whenever I was troubled, I would choose his music. “Why not Mozart?” I was asked. I had to think. It was a good question. Mozart’s music was angelic and otherworldly in its beauty. I could imagine divine inspiration, but I couldn’t hear human struggle. I could hear angst and fear in Beethoven. His music was sublime, and ultimately triumphant in its suffering and humanity.
My parents were not sympathetic to fear, insecurity or self-doubt. Perhaps it was because they had so much of their own. They were stoic and expected me to be the same. And so I never told them about my own fears or insecurities. I told them only of the things that would please them. I remember moving, for the fifth time since I had entered high school, to a new school as a senior. I missed my friends, who were all in California, and North Carolina seemed like another world. The senior class at Charles E. Jordan High School in Durham was tightly bonded and formed into various cliques as all senior classes are. It was hard breaking in, and I cried a lot. My parents did not seem to understand just how difficult this move was, but their expectations were clear: neither my piano study nor my grades were to suffer. When I came home with my first report card, which contained one B and seven As, they reminded me that I was capable of straight As. The next semester I got them.
We moved a lot because my father was working his way up the academic ladder. He taught at the University of Texas, Cornell, Yale, Stanford and Duke and took sabbaticals at the London School of Economics and the University of Ghana in Accra, West Africa. (Eventually he would become a federal judge on the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.) I went to elementary school in New York, Connecticut and California; to junior high in California and England; and to high school in Africa, California and North Carolina. In the course of all this moving around, I learned a lot about people and a lot about change.
I was perpetually the new kid in class, and as the new kid, I wanted desperately to fit in, to be liked, to make friends. Over the years I had watched my mother at her many famous parties (she threw great theme parties). She always asked her guests questions and was always interested in the answers. And so I did this too. (Friends from those early years recall me almost backing them into corners to “interview” them.) It turns out that people, whether they’re children or adults, like to be asked about themselves. They’re flattered by the attention that’s paid to them, and they feel good when someone listens. I made friends quickly this way and also learned a lot about wherever I was. Much later, as I moved from job to job, I discovered that this is a great management tool as well. You not only pay others respect by asking to learn from them, but you get smart fast by listening.
I was always encountering adventures. In England, I went to an all-girls school in London. The whole experience seemed almost like a movie to me, with our uniforms, and our headmistress and our all-girls version of Romeo and Juliet. I was given the part of Juliet, which I played with a distinctly improper British accent. Even the name of the school seemed right out of a novel: the Channing School for Select Young Ladies. I loved that time. My newfound friends seemed high-spirited and daring. We spent so much of our time trying to break the school’s rules that we didn’t have any time to get into serious trouble. I learned how to roll up my skirt above regulation length and how to tear down the back staircase of school so no one would know we had been hiding in the classroom when we were supposed to be outside for break. It was all harmless and silly, but we had the excitement of being bad.
In Africa I experienced being the only white person in a room, and reflected on how the few blacks I knew back home must feel. I felt both anxiety and sympathy when children would surround us and beg for money each time we went to the city markets. I remember hearing, for the first time, Muslims pray, and how over time their sound evolved from being frightening in its strangeness to comforting in its cadence and repetition—I would feel the same peace when I listened to the sound of summer cicadas around my grandmother’s house. I grew to love being awakened in the morning by the sound of the devout man who always came to pray under my bedroom window. I learned to play owari, a West African board game played with seedpods, with a ten-year-old boy from a nearby village. He was bright and funny, and somehow, over this game, we bridged a world of difference.
My father was teaching the new Ghanaian constitution to law students. Ghana in 1969 was experimenting with democracy after the overthrow of Kwame Nkrumah. I listened to great debates at our dinner table when my father’s Ghanaian students would visit. I saw how difficult building a nation was when smaller but more powerful tribal loyalties conflicted with the larger but more abstract idea of a nation. Much later, at HP, I would recall this experience and coin the phrase “a thousand tribes” to describe the intense turf battles waged between executives and their divisions at the expense of the company.
In North Carolina I understood for the first time what football meant to high school life in some parts of the country and the pressure my father must have felt. I taught remedial reading to several of the football players. They were about to graduate from high school, were stars on the football team, but they literally couldn’t read. It was heartbreaking and frightening to witness their frustration, but together we were able to make progress. I also began teaching severely retarded children as a volunteer. I still remember one of my favorites: a boy named Kenneth. He was five, and it took me six weeks to teach him to identify and say “eye” and “ear.” We were both triumphant when he finally got it—almost—and from then on, every morning when he would see me, he’d shout across the playground, “Eye! Eee!” When I came home from college on Christmas break, I went to visit him, and he remembered still. He could not say his name, but he still shouted, “Eye! Eee!” It was the first time I felt that joy and exhilaration that comes from helping someone achieve something they believed they couldn’t.
Over time I learned to recognize the pattern of change and became familiar with that churning, nervous feeling that was both fear of the unknown and the excitement of something new. And whenever I met new people, I could get past the fear and move on to the excitement. I discovered that there were sometimes vast differences between people and cultures, but I also learned that those differences could usually be bridged by showing respect and developing empathy.
I wrote long entries in my diaries and long letters to the friends I made along the way. When I read those diary entries today, they are filled with facts, observations and feelings. I’m struck by what I said in writing as compared to what I could say in conversation. Later, when I went to college, I would write my mother and father voluminous letters. I said to them in those pages what I could not say face-to-face.
And now, writing about my childhood, I can say that I experienced firsthand the power of high expectations: had less been demanded, less would have been achieved. I saw my parents’ fears and feelings of inadequacy propel them forward, and their example persuaded me never to allow my own fears and insecurities to stop me in my tracks. I learned that change can be both difficult and exciting: with each separation and loss came a great adventure. I discovered the impact of asking a question and listening to the answer, because people everywhere have something to teach and are eager to share. And I realized how truly fortunate I was.
My favorite memories of my mother during my childhood are from when she would wash my hair. I had very long hair, and she would wash it in the kitchen sink and then comb it out and rebraid it in front of her dresser. These were ordinary, everyday times, but our conversations were intimate—sometimes serious and sometimes funny. We were all alone together. When my hair was finally finished, she’d put me to bed and stroke my forehead with her hand. Sometimes she would sing to me. I can hear her voice and feel the touch of her hand to this day.
My favorite time with my father was when we drove across country together. We were moving again, and it was just the two of us and the dog, and a lot of boxes. We had grown-up conversations, and it felt as if we understood each other in a grown-up sort of way. He let me drive the car and took me to a restaurant every night. Today my father’s memory is dimming, but he still remembers that road trip.
Later in their lives I realized how much character my parents really had. They were not perfect people, but they were truly honest and authentic. They believed in self-determination.
I did not feel gifted as a child. I know now that my parents were the most precious gift I had.
2 | The Stranger
WHEN IT CAME TIME TO GO TO COLLEGE, I chose Stanford University. California was far enough away from North Carolina (I was clear I wanted to move away for college), and yet it was also familiar, given that I’d spent time as a child in the area. I had no notion of going to college to earn a living. Because I had always assumed I’d go to graduate school, I thought of college as a time for pure learning. My parents encouraged this approach, and so I had the wonderful experience of studying the subjects that truly interested me. I took classes in chemistry, biology, physics, economics, anthropology, astronomy, music. This smorgasbord of newfound knowledge was both exhilarating and intimidating. I wrote a letter home and exulted in the fact that I had suddenly realized how little I actually knew. I also realized I loved to learn. And history and philosophy truly captured my passion.
When I was choosing my very first semester of courses as a freshman, I remembered a book I’d read in high school French class. My teacher had asked the class to read a work of fiction by a French author in the original language. I don’t quite remember why I was attracted to L’étranger, by Albert Camus. Perhaps, given that I’d just moved again, I identified with the title: The Stranger. Certainly it was an ambitious choice—the philosophy of existentialism was tough enough in English. I found it difficult, absorbing and rewarding work. I’m not sure how much of it I actually grasped, but the book was a revelation to me. It was about a big idea and how an idea, a philosophy, can motivate action. It was a story of a man who chose to live his life based on that idea. The power and importance of choice, the act of becoming rather than the stasis of being—these were to me profound ideas with personal meaning: “. . . what you make of yourself is your gift to God.” If we cannot choose our circumstances, we can always choose our response to them. If we cannot choose who we are, we can always choose to become something more. To stop choosing is to start dying.
I decided to take as many philosophy courses as I could. Ultimately I would study philosophers from the ancient Greeks to the modern age. The power of ideas to fundamentally change how people see the world; the impact of ideas from one century on the people and ideas of many centuries later; the fact that the human race, not just individual human beings, can learn—all this was exciting.
Hegel had as profound an effect on me as Camus. The philosophy of thesis, antithesis, synthesis, the possibility of reconciliation between two seemingly opposing ideas, seemed both brilliant and practical to me. Later in life I would use this mental model over and over in business. In fact, many years later when a reporter asked me who my favorite business author was, I responded, “Hegel. You know: thesis, antithesis, synthesis. At Lucent we were trying to turn a one-hundred-year-old company into a start-up. At HP, we’re trying to both celebrate our history and create the future.”
I studied ethics and learned that questions of right and wrong could be nuanced and complex, requiring rigor to unravel. I would remember these courses when we were wrestling with the dilemma of ownership of our customers’ information at HP. How we chose to use that information was a business opportunity, but it was also an ethics question. Ultimately we decided to forgo the business opportunity that might come from selling customer information because of the ethical considerations involved; our customers owned their information and it was our responsibility to protect it, not sell it. I studied logic and discovered that disciplined thought processes and well-structured questions are as powerful as the answers. In many ways this recognition gave me the courage to move into a number of different jobs and industries. And whenever I encouraged an employee to move out of the comfort zone of their experience into a new job for a development opportunity, I advised them: “Never underestimate the power of logic.”
I decided to keep studying languages in order to read works of philosophy as originally written, so I studied ancient Greek—to read Plato and Aristotle—as well as Latin, French and German. (I took Italian classes, but that was just for the fun of it.) Because my father loved history, I studied that too. I found I liked it because it was about people, and mostly it was the story of people who chose to make things different. I learned that although history is frequently made by rich and powerful people, it’s just as often made by ordinary people who, inspired by the idea of something different, choose a new course.
Among the most valuable classes I took was a graduate seminar called Christian, Islamic and Jewish Political Philosophies of the Middle Ages. Each week we had to read one of the great works of medieval philosophy: Aquinas, Bacon, Abelard. These were huge texts—sometimes we were reading a thousand pages a week. And by the end of the week we had to have distilled their philosophical discourse into two pages.
For me the process would begin with writing twenty pages. Then I’d edit to ten, then five and finally two. I finally would get to a two-page, single-spaced paper that I hoped didn’t merely summarize, but rendered all the fat out of a body of ideas, boiling it down to the very essence of its meaning. Two pages were not an easy, superficial abstraction of a work; they were the distillation of all the details of a work. Certainly the philosophies and ideologies left a deep impression on me, but the rigor of the distillation process itself, the exercise of mental refinement, the ability to say clearly in two pages what previously had been said in twenty—all were important new skills. Invariably I learned that I understood the text much better when I finished this process than when I’d begun. Without knowing it at the time, I was developing an important management tool: how to understand and get from a seemingly overwhelming amount of information to the heart of the matter. And I was learning a leadership lesson: understanding and communicating the essence of things is difficult, takes a lot of thought, and has a big impact.
From the time I started learning French at four, until I took my last college course at twenty-two, I was exposed to all kinds of knowledge: important analytic skills like math and science, food for the soul in art and music, enrichment of the spirit in literature and philosophy. I was given the opportunity to educate my character as well as my intellect. I saw a bigger world that changed and broadened my perspective, and I know it has made all the difference. And so many years later, in 1989, I wrote a master’s thesis at MIT entitled “The Education Crisis: Business and Government’s Role in Reform.” I argued that our education system is failing our nation: we are falling behind in teaching competitive skills and increasingly ignoring those subjects that are fundamental to character. The education crisis has deepened since 1989 across every dimension, but still, as a nation, we have not yet harnessed the collective will or sense of urgency to address it. Our competitiveness as a nation requires us to understand the bigger world, and prepare our children’s hearts and minds to lead.
As freshman year turned to junior and senior years, the pressure to decide what to do with my life began to build. The truth is I didn’t have a clue. I had spent my life until then trying to please my parents and get good grades. The success criteria for both were clear, but beyond that I had never had particular goals or obvious direction. I was interested in a multitude of things, and at one time or another I had wanted to become everything from a firefighter to a dancer. My parents had always encouraged each ambition. Anything was possible for me, but whatever I chose had to be something that I would do with excellence, dedication and discipline. Both my mother and father had taken great risks in their own lives and were not afraid for me to do the same. All they insisted upon was that I be fully engaged in a pursuit worthy of my talent and passion.
I couldn’t paint like my mother. I could play the piano, though, and so I imagined that I could be a professional musician—that was as close as I could come to emulating my mother. Over time I learned that although I loved the music, I could not live with the isolation that came along with it. And who knows whether I really had the talent anyway?
My father fervently loved both the law and the classroom. And so it was entirely predictable that eventually I would decide to go to law school. If I could not follow in my mother’s footsteps, I would follow in my father’s. I don’t think I used any imagination at all in coming to this decision. I never even really considered the alternatives. The decision would satisfy my mother and please my father immensely.
My time at Stanford wasn’t particulary happy; my college years were serious ones. I was afraid I couldn’t measure up because everyone seemed so much smarter. I carried a huge course load, wrote an honors thesis on medieval judicial systems and trial by ordeal, and worked three days a week to earn the money to pay for room and board. I contracted a very bad case of mononucleosis and struggled with bad health for a year. I don’t remember having a lot of fun; I do remember working all the time.
The day I graduated I was afraid. I was scared to leave the protective bubble of the university, afraid of the choice I was making, afraid of squandering the incredible gift of my Stanford experience. I was afraid of making irrevocable mistakes. If I could talk to that young woman today, I’d tell her to lighten up, but at the time it all seemed like such serious business to me.
I went to UCLA Law School without enthusiasm, and from the very first day it left me cold. I found the focus on precedent confining. What about creating something new? The decisions that were hailed as brilliant frequently had, to my way of thinking, nothing to do with justice and everything to do with legal constraints predetermined by other case law. Although I could respect the law, I felt no passion for it. I had terrible headaches every day and barely slept for months. When my father came to visit, I told him I hated it. He was concerned, but he didn’t want me to quit. Quitting was failure—you stuck it out, even in a tough situation. And so, although I had planned to tell him I’d decided to leave law school, I didn’t. I went back and stuck it out for another month.
I came home one weekend to visit. I was in turmoil. As dramatic as it sounds, it really is the case that I had an epiphany while taking a shower on Sunday morning. My body had been trying to tell me something with all those months of headaches. I can still picture the exact tile in the shower that I was staring at when I suddenly realized I had no idea why I was in law school at all. At twenty-two, at that moment, it finally dawned on me that my life couldn’t be about pleasing my parents. If I was to use all of my capabilities and all of my gifts, if I was to make something of myself, then I had to find something that challenged my mind and captured my heart. My life was my own. I could do what I wanted. My headache disappeared. I got out of the shower and prepared to disappoint my parents.
It was Albert Camus who said, “To be happy, we must not be too concerned with others.” Having arrived at what was for me a momentous decision, I felt happy—afraid but happy. I grew up that day. I had made a truly difficult decision on my own. I felt lonely in that choice, afraid of its consequences, but certain that I had chosen well.
3 | Don’t Think About the Next Job
THE NEXT SEVERAL HOURS were terrible. My mother said, “This is so out of character for you. I’m very worried.” My father said, “I’m very disappointed. I’m not sure you’ll ever amount to anything.” When they asked me what my plan was, I literally had nothing to tell them. I had to make a living—I had been putting myself through law school and my parents could give me no assistance—but I did not know how.
In 1976 a history and philosophy major wasn’t exactly employable unless he or she wanted to go back to school for another degree. In all the time from childhood to the day I dropped out of law school, I had never considered the world of business as a career. My parents had no experience with it, and I don’t even remember hearing the term business until I was in college. We’d always lived on or around college campuses. We simply didn’t know any businesspeople; all my parents’ friends were academics or artists or homemakers. If my mother had any opinions about business, they probably had been influenced by her father’s, and as an assembly-line worker, his were not positive. My father was an intellectual, and business didn’t seem very intellectual to him. At the dinner table every night we had serious conversations and light ones. We talked about art, music, philosophy, history, politics, the weather, our day at school, our friends; but we never talked about companies in our area, or where the products we used came from, or economics.
The closest I had ever been to a businesswoman was on television. My parents were very strict about television. We didn’t even own a TV until I was about ten or eleven, and so I had to choose the shows I would watch very carefully. For some reason I loved the world of espionage (my best friend and I used to pretend that we were CIA agents on a regular basis), so The Man from U.N.C.L.E. and Mission: Impossible were my favorites. On Mission: Impossible there was a woman spy. She was in business of some sort, and I thought she was wonderful. Her name was Cinnamon (played by Barbara Bain), and she was elegant and capable. Always cool, she hid neither her intellect nor her beauty. She was a full partner to the men on the team. She was frequently underestimated by the enemy and always got the last laugh. She was, I decided, how I wanted to be when I grew up.
Back in the real world, I never met anyone who was a business owner until I went to work to earn money of my own. During the school terms at Stanford I needed to pay for my room and board, so I worked at DJ’s Hair Design—a local salon that’s still at the same address—doing their books, answering phones, making appointments. I don’t remember thinking particularly about the business aspects of the salon: the revenues, the products, the costs. I was more fascinated by the clients and their behavior and the hairdressers and their challenges. I learned a lot about how some people treat those they perceive as powerless—in this case I was the powerless receptionist who stood between a woman and her hairdresser. I saw both the best and the worst in women. I used a lot of the diplomatic skills I’d learned at home, and picked up some new ones. I loved the hairdressers—the owners, Dan and John, ran a fun, boisterous shop. I met gays for the first time. Those were the days when no one talked about sexual orientation and many monogamous gay couples would go to parties with appropriate female dates. We would have long conversations, and some great laughs, about how painful and funny this could be sometimes. I was fascinated by the people of this business, although I never thought about the profit of it.
During the summer months, when I needed to work full-time, I would sign up with a temporary agency, Kelly Girls (its name has since been changed to Kelly Temporaries). I could always get a job as a secretary, and thanks to junior high school typing lessons, which my mother had insisted upon, I could type very well. I was sent to many companies, including Hewlett-Packard. At the very bottom of the totem pole—a temporary secretary—I didn’t get any sense of what a particular business, or business in general, was about. I remember typing a lot, and answering phones, and the other women in similar jobs (there were no men) who were usually kind and frequently frustrated. I remember being coached about the importance of quality in our work. This made sense to me because I had been raised to believe that quality was important in every aspect of work and life, but I don’t remember having any sense of why we were typing whatever we typed.
Now, having dropped out of law school with no plan and very little money, my first real introduction to business was searching the want ads. I looked for secretarial and receptionist jobs. I took every interview I could get and accepted the very first job offer. My first apartment was a dive, but it was all I could afford. It was in a questionable part of town, and because I couldn’t afford a car, I walked every day to work. I lived next door to a couple who fought continually and the walls were paper thin. All in all, it wasn’t a very auspicious beginning to my new independent life. Still, every step felt like a triumph. I was scared, keenly aware of the sound of my parents’ concern and disappointment every time we spoke, but exhilarated. I was doing it! I was making my own way into the great unknown world. I was a Grown-up.
Marcus & Millichap was a commercial property brokerage firm. It was, and still is, located one block from the headquarters of Hewlett-Packard in Palo Alto, California. There were two other women who worked at the firm then, one of whom hired me. One was the secretary to Messrs. Marcus and Millichap. She was, as far as I was concerned, the big boss. Her subordinate would be my immediate supervisor. My job was to sit at the front of the offices and greet all visitors, answer the telephones and direct calls, and type whatever I was asked to. I threw myself into the job, frequently arriving early and staying late. I was determined to be good at it. I didn’t think about where it would lead, and I didn’t think it was beneath me. I was grateful to have a job, interested in learning about what was for me a new world, and eager to prove to my bosses that they hadn’t made a mistake.
I liked the people at Marcus & Millichap. I liked the hustle and bustle of the office. I saw how excited the brokers got when they made a sale, how dedicated people were to growing the business. I learned that a simple thing like how I answered the phone could say a lot about how customers viewed the business. I remember a customer coming in and saying he’d decided to do business with us, after talking to a number of other companies, because I was so friendly and helpful when he called. I started to identify with the people of Marcus & Millichap and experienced, for the first time, the feeling of being on a team. My academic studies had been reasonably solitary. I liked this newfound teamwork.
I took pride in my work and went out of my way to volunteer to do things to help out. People started to take a chance on me. I will be forever grateful to brokers like Charlie Colson and Ed Dowd, who saw more than a receptionist. They began to ask me to help them write up proposals, visit and assess property, make cold calls, and participate in strategy sessions about upcoming negotiations. I found I loved the dollars and cents of a deal. It was great fun to figure out how to make the numbers work—for us and for a client. I loved the pragmatic nature of the work. This wasn’t academic and it wasn’t abstract. You did something and something happened. I loved the pace of it. I always had the feeling of forward momentum.
Most of all, I loved the people of business. I loved working with them; I loved collaborating with them and negotiating with them. I learned for the first time that some people in business are driven by facts and numbers, some are driven by judgment and intuition, and most are driven by both. And some are driven by emotion and ego more than others. I loved the camaraderie of working hard and then winning, or losing, together. I even found the politics of office life interesting, because I was often asked to intervene to help people find common ground.
That receptionist’s job at Marcus & Millichap formed the basis of the career advice I have given ever since: don’t think about the next job; focus on doing the very best you can with the job you have. Learn everything you can from everyone you can. Focus on the possibilities of each job, not the limitations. Look for the people who will take a chance on you.
George Marcus and Bill Millichap paid me the tremendous compliment of asking me to train to become a broker for their firm. Their confidence in my abilities gave me the courage, ultimately, to pursue an MBA. And they taught me an invaluable management lesson: a boss’s confidence is a powerful motivator. Because they saw potential in me, I began to look for it in myself.
4 | New Fears
ITHOUGHT TODD WAS A GOOD MAN, and he was someone I had known throughout college. He knew exactly what he wanted to do and where he was going. He seemed sure of himself, and for me he was comfortable and familiar. And perhaps that is why I fell in love with him—I was so unsure of what I wanted and where I was going, and he seemed safe, providing continuity and security. My mother was tremendously disappointed for reasons she couldn’t completely articulate and which only later I would understand. At the time I resented her criticism. Todd and I were married in June 1977 and immediately left for Italy, where he was studying at the Bologna campus of the Johns Hopkins School for Advanced International Studies.
We lived in a shoe-box-sized apartment. I loved Italy, loved Italians and loved the whole crazy adventure that was our first year of marriage. I learned to drink coffee, learned to drink wine and learned to make Italian food. Todd was, in very real ways, my teacher. He had lived in Italy before, and I was following him as he pursued his studies and his career. I admired him and relied on him to make the decisions about our life. While we were husband and wife, we were not peers.
Todd was studying full-time and we needed money. I didn’t have a work permit, but I could work as a private language tutor. So I taught English to Italian businessmen and their families and built up quite a clientele by word of mouth. At ten dollars an hour, the teaching work supported us.
I was often asked by my businessmen clients to “explain American business.” Of course, I knew very little about it, but, determined to try to respond, I began reading as many American business journals and newspapers as I could get my hands on. Then I would use the most interesting articles to both teach English and talk business. While I hope I earned my money and satisfied my students, those lessons were also a great experience for me. I perfected my Italian but also furthered my knowledge and interest in business. So after thinking about it for quite a while, I concluded I would seek an MBA. Applying to graduate school from Italy in 1978 wasn’t an easy process. I traveled to American military bases to take the GMATs, the entrance exams for graduate business studies. My first attempt was stymied by the Italian postal service—the exams were literally lost in the mail, so after arriving at the base, we were told to go home and wait four months for the next opportunity.
If I had been looking for a sign to reassure me that I was making the right decision, the signals so far weren’t all that encouraging. Having finally completed the exams, I filled out a single application: to the Robert H. Smith School of Business at the University of Maryland. At that time, it was the only accredited business school in the immediate area of Washington, D.C., where we would be living while Todd finished his second year of studies. I received a rejection notice.
It turned out my application had been late. The Italian postal service went on strike regularly, as did the railway workers. Besides missing the deadline, the application itself wasn’t very impressive. Sure, I’d scored well enough on the GMATs and I’d graduated from Stanford with honors and distinction, but I was a history and philosophy major, a receptionist and an English teacher. It wasn’t exactly a recipe for success—I sounded lost and directionless. And if I couldn’t get into business school, I had no alternative plan.
I decided I had to talk to someone. I knew I was an unlikely student from the school’s perspective, but I was convinced I had chosen the right path. After several weeks of trying to get through the various admissions committees and officers, I finally got to talk to the head of the Admissions Council, Dr. Ed Locke. I called him on a regular basis while he deliberated. My stomach was in knots for every call, and I practiced each in advance, writing down the key points I wanted to make. As hard as those calls were for me to make, though, the thought of getting thrown off my game plan before I’d even started was much worse.
I knew how to be a good student, and I was a good business school student, graduating with straight As. The fact that I could learn all these new disciplines—marketing, finance, accounting, organizational behavior and so on—gave me some confidence that I could actually succeed in business. Yet I also worried because I knew that being a successful student wasn’t the same as being in the real world, and so what happened outside the classroom had a great impact on me. Once again someone believed in me, and that encouraged me to believe in myself. And when I became a teaching assistant, I realized I could make a difference for others.
For whatever reason, the dean of the business school, Dr. Rudy Lamone, saw something in me, and one afternon he asked me to come to his office. I was very nervous; perhaps I’d done something wrong. Instead, he asked for my help in devising a more effective alumni program. I was amazed. Whatever did I know about such a thing? He gave me an opportunity to work with him; and learn from him; and most important, be taken seriously by him. He treated me as an adult and as a peer. He thought I had potential and wanted to help me explore it. I have embarrassed him by telling this story many, many times to students at the university over the years. It was a simple thing he did, and yet it made all the difference for me. Believing in someone else, so they can believe in themselves, is a small but hugely significant act of leadership.
In one of Dr. Locke’s courses I wrote a paper on the famous Hawthorne experiments. Much had been previously written, but I thought I saw some aspects of the subject that others had missed. He reassured me that I had brought a new perspective to an old subject. He believed in my contribution enough to put his name alongside my own and publish the results. I felt as though I could conquer the world the day the journal was published.
Dr. Bill Nichols was a marketing professor. I needed to work, and he hired me as a teaching assistant. Watching him teach, I learned the power of humor and the impact of storytelling. And working as a teacher myself (I taught eight undergraduate classes a week), I had also discovered that people sometimes learn best when they have to figure out things for themselves. And so rather than lecture on the importance of brand, for example, I devised an experiment for my students. I sent them to stores, identified types of articles they should buy, and then asked them to explain their purchases. It was fun and rewarding to literally see the lightbulbs go on when a student realized how often their decisions were based almost exclusively on that amorphous but potent emotion that surrounds a great brand.
I found out that some of my students were afraid too—afraid they couldn’t make the grade, afraid they wouldn’t measure up. They explained their fears when they asked for my help, and I found that I could make a difference for them by building both their confidence and their capability. I think it was the first inkling of what ultimately became my favorite description of leadership: “The good leader is he whom men revere. The evil leader is he whom men despise. The great leader is he of whom the people say, we did it ourselves.” (From Sun Tzu, The Art of War.)
Dr. Locke encouraged me to consider getting my PhD, but the real world beckoned. I wanted a job in business that wasn’t secretarial, so I made the interview rounds with all the big firms that came on campus to recruit. I splurged on my one blue interview suit. I talked to consulting companies, accounting firms, automobile manufacturers, banks—you name it. If they arrived on campus and were willing to talk to me, I was willing to talk to them. I really had no idea what kind of industry or business I was looking for. The company that finally intrigued me was the one most of my professors advised against: Ma Bell, the phone company. In 1980 the Bell System was huge—with over one million employees. It was a mammoth bureaucracy by any measure and included local telephone service, long distance, telephone equipment and Bell Laboratories. It was a complex, regulated corporation whose stock every widow and orphan should own and whose familiar bell-shaped logo implied safe, secure, reliable and ubiquitous service.
People told me it was too slow, too bureaucratic, too dull. Nevertheless, I was interested. Communications itself seemed fascinating; it was a basic tool and yet a complex technology. There were rumblings of industry change in Washington. An upstart firm named MCI was shaking things up and demanding new rules. We’d talked about the telecommunications industry a lot in my economics courses at Stanford and about the difficulties of maintaining a monopoly position when technology changed rapidly. Beyond that, the Bell System had something called the Management Development Program, where young managers were rotated throughout different departments. It was known as an up-or-out opportunity. You either performed well enough at each assignment to be moved on to other new responsibilities, or you were asked to leave the company.
I thought it sounded like a great challenge. I figured I’d get a lot of training in the industry, which was clearly growing. I liked the exposure to many different departments, since I didn’t know which would be most interesting to me. Even if I left after a few years, which seemed probable, it would be a valuable experience. I signed up.
The first decision I had to make as a brand-new recruit to AT&T was choosing the department I would start in. I could go to finance, engineering or sales. After much agonizing, since I really didn’t know much about any of them, I picked sales. I’m not sure how I made this decision, other than that the only businesspeople I’d known previously were the brokers at Marcus & Millichap, and they sold things. I do remember someone telling me that sales was a good place to start because you had to learn all about the company’s products. That made sense. Over time I also discovered that you learn not only a lot about a company when you sell its products, but you also learn a lot about yourself and how to communicate effectively with other people. I believe every aspiring business executive should have at least one sales experience.
The beginning of my Bell System career seemed a lot like school. I was sent off to nine weeks of sales and product training. I sat in a classroom with other brand-new recruits, and for a while it was a lot of fun to be with new colleagues. But it wasn’t very challenging. After a few weeks it was time to put the books aside and actually start performing—literally. We were learning something called the Seven-Step Selling Process. It was easy to study, but soon we were involved in competitive role-playing exercises where instructors played the part of customers, and we had to develop complicated proposals and sell them. It began to get pretty tough. I’d never experienced role-playing before, and I’d never sold anything. Actual selling, as opposed to reading or talking about it, was a lot harder than I’d realized.
I almost didn’t make it past the very first role-play. It involved having to convince a gatekeeper—a prospective client’s secretary, as played by an instructor—that what you had to say to this client was important enough for the secretary to allow you to speak with her boss. I was put into a windowless conference room with a telephone. This was a simple exercise, but I was literally paralyzed with fear. I remember sitting in that room, staring at the phone, trying to gather my courage to dial the number. I was sure I would make a fool of myself and fail the first test. I told the instructor several times that I wasn’t ready, that I had to postpone the role-playing. I was afraid to fail, and so I was afraid to try.
Eventually, I had no option. The rules were clear: if you couldn’t make it past this first exercise, you couldn’t continue in the course. My first sales call was pretty pathetic, but the instructor, probably out of pity, let me past the dreaded gatekeeper. I felt tremendous relief and triumph—not because the exercise itself was all that important, but because I had mastered fear and moved forward. I approached the rest of the role-playing with newfound energy and confidence.
Over the years I came to recognize this same pattern in others; I wasn’t the only person who was afraid. And like me during that role-playing, when confronted by something new and unfamiliar—even something relatively simple and meaningless—people often become immovable because of their fears. In the course of those long hours in the conference room, I’d learned, once again, that each time I overcame my own fear, I was stronger. There are some who would argue that a manager’s job is to use fear to motivate people, but I believe a leader’s job is to help people overcome their fear.
5 | Not Till the Lady Leaves
SALES SCHOOL, like every school, presented an idealized version of its subject. It still took a lot of hard work, but in sales school the customers were always willing to spend time with you if you had a good idea, it was possible to talk directly to the decision maker, and your teammates were always willing to help you. When I finally arrived at my real desk and started my real job, I was in for a rude awakening.
I joined Government Communications—that part of AT&T that served the federal government. I didn’t know it on my first day of work, but I was the first MDipper to join the sales team to which I’d been assigned. MDipper was the not-so-flattering term used to describe people like me who came in with graduate degrees through the Management Development Program. Everyone knew who we were, and some of us quickly developed reputations for being arrogant and impatient to move on to the next assignment. The sales district I joined was very successful, and they didn’t think they needed any help from someone like me.
I approached my first day on the job with great anticipation. I was on my way! I was going to do real work! I don’t know what kind of welcome I expected, but what I got was a big letdown. My boss said good morning and directed me to my desk. It was stacked two feet high with books and papers. He said, “I’ve written down the accounts we’re assigning you to. You can read up on them. Welcome aboard.” On a single sheet of paper were the letters USGS, BIA, WPRS. I asked what they meant. He said, “You’ll find them in there” as he motioned to the stack of reading material.
I don’t know whether I was being tested or whether my boss just didn’t know what else to do with me. I did as I was told. I started reading. Five days later I was still reading. I knew that BIA was the Bureau of Indian Affairs, USGS was the United States Geological Survey and WPRS was the Water Protection and Resource Service. I also knew what the AT&T billing was on each account, what the account team was hoping to sell them, and what each agency’s mission was. Then I started talking to my new colleagues. I did what I always had done when encountering a new situation. I asked a lot of questions, and I’d read enough so that I could appreciate something about the answers. I asked questions about our customers and what we were trying to accomplish. And I asked questions about each of my teammates: how long they’d worked there, what they liked about it, what they didn’t like about it.
My boss was well intentioned, but he was having a romantic relationship with a woman upstairs, and he didn’t have much time for me. We sat in low-walled cubicles, and my desk was directly across from his. I came to recognize the particular way he sounded when he was talking to his ladylove, and I learned to make my interactions with him short and to the point. His boss, who ran the entire sales district, seemed very impressed with his own importance and was always busy bustling somewhere else.
Marie Burns had been in customer service for many years and was heartened to have another woman on the team. She would freely offer counsel and perspective. Steve Frantz was in customer service and was willing to work with anyone who was willing to work with him. Bill Allan had been on the team the longest and was reserved and thoughtful. He would wait and see how I measured up before committing himself.
And then there was David Godfrey.* David had been brought into the Washington, D.C., office from Oklahoma. He was legendary for the relationships he’d built with the Bureau of Indian Affairs. BIA was the government agency responsible for managing relations with the country’s Indian reservations, and it was a very large Bell System client. They had a massive, nationwide network connecting regional BIA offices, and each Indian reservation had its own communications systems. David was very protective of his turf and close to retirement. He came in early and always disappeared at lunchtime, usually not to return until the following morning. It was said he could sell anything. I was assigned to “comanage” the BIA with him. No one knew what this actually meant, or who was supposed to do what. David thought the whole thing was a very bad idea—dreamed up by our bosses, “who,” David informed me, “don’t know what they’re doing anyway.”
One day David let me know that the two most important regional managers at BIA were coming to town. They held the purse strings for the national network and approved all the network upgrades. David was going to meet with them to discuss our latest proposal. I thought it was important that I meet them as well, so I asked if I could join him. David seemed genial enough about it and invited me along. I was delighted. It would be great to have my first introduction to these customers come from David: it would almost be an endorsement from him. Maybe he thought I could help after all!
The day before the meeting David came to my cubicle. “You know, Carly, I’m really sorry. I know we’d planned to have you meet the two directors. The thing is, they have a favorite restaurant here in D.C., and they’ve requested that we meet there. You know, I always do what the customer wants, and so I don’t think you’ll be able to join us.”
“Why not?” I asked.
“Well, we’re going to The Board Room. Sorry.” And he walked off.
I needed to consult with Bill. He gave me a slight grin and said: “Carly, it’s a strip club.”
The Board Room was more than a strip club. As its name implied, it was an upscale “gentlemen’s club” on Vermont Avenue. It was famous not just for what happened on stage. Between acts, the young women who worked there would dress in see-through baby-doll negligees and dance on top of the tables while the patrons ate lunch.
The BIA customers wanted to go there, so David and Steve were going to The Board Room. As all of this dawned on me, I was both very embarrassed and very anxious. I went and sat in the ladies’ room to think about it in private. I thought for a couple of hours and worked myself into a state of near panic. I had no idea what I was supposed to do in this situation. I couldn’t tell myself it didn’t matter—it clearly was important to meet these clients and to convince David that I should be taken seriously. It never occurred to me to be outraged and demand that they not go—it wouldn’t have worked anyway. I had been presented with circumstances that others had created. Fair or not, it was my problem to solve and decide how to respond.
Finally, I went to David’s desk and said, “You know, I hope it won’t make you too uncomfortable, but I think I’m going to go to lunch anyway. I’ll meet you all there.” You could have heard a pin drop in the office as everyone watched the scenario unfold.
The next day arrived and I was scared to death. That morning I chose my outfit particularly carefully. I dressed in my most conservative suit and carried my briefcase like a shield of honor. “I am a professional woman,” I whispered to myself. I got into a taxicab and, feeling like an idiot, gave the driver the address. He turned around to stare at me. “You’re kidding, right? Are you the new act?” This wasn’t starting out well.
I arrived at the destination, took a deep breath, straightened my bow tie (Dress for Success for Women, a must-read in those days, recommended floppy bows tied at the throat of all blouses), and stepped into The Board Room. It was very dark and very loud. There was a long bar down the right-hand side of the place and a large stage to my left. There was a live act going on with probably ten or more women. My colleagues were sitting as far from the door as possible, and the only way to reach them was to cross in front of that stage. I clutched my briefcase tighter and walked to their table, looking seriously out of place and quite ridiculous.
I was cordial and tried to appear relaxed, tried to sound knowledgeable about BIA business, and desperately tried to ignore what was going on all around me. David was in high spirits and really didn’t have much interest in working. He was slugging back gin and tonic and kept calling the women over to dance on top of the table. The other men were either amused or slightly embarrassed, but no one tried to stop him. In a show of empathy that brings tears to my eyes still, each woman who approached the table would look the situation over and say, “Sorry, gentlemen. Not till the lady leaves.”
After a few hours, having made my point, I left them all there. They heaved a sigh of relief, I’m sure, but the next day in the office, the balance of power had shifted perceptibly. I had shown David and Steve that I would not be intimidated, even if I was terrified. I had proved that I wasn’t just another MDipper; I truly cared about doing my job even when it meant working in difficult circumstances. Having tried to diminish me, David was himself diminished. He was embarrassed. And Bill decided that he would take me under his wing and help me succeed. We cannot always choose the hurdles we must overcome, but we can choose how we overcome them.
We never spoke about what happened at The Board Room, and David and I became a great team. It was Bill who told me that David drank too much to be effective. He knew everyone, though, and the customers liked and respected him for his work over the years. So he would get our meetings set up, and then I’d do business. There was a lot of business to be done; we provided communications systems to every Indian reservation in the country, as well as data and voice networks to the Bureau. David would sit looking like a proud father and let me work with the clients. I trusted his judgment about whom to see, and when and where to see them. I traveled to a great many Indian reservations all over the country. I addressed tribal councils. The Bureau of Indian Affairs turned out to be a great account and a great experience.
We met in bars a lot. In part it was because David liked to drink and in part it was because many of our customers wanted to get better acquainted in a relaxed setting. Really getting to know who they were dealing with was just as important to them as what we were talking about. Trust was important to business. Years later I learned that drinking rituals are an important part of doing business in many cultures, particularly in Asia. I wasn’t much of a drinker, but I drank gin and tonic, as David did. And as the night wore on, and my colleagues grew more comfortable, I would slip away to the bar and tell the bartender, “From now on, anytime I order a gin and tonic, make it just tonic. And this is just between us.” I don’t think anyone ever figured it out. I was paying respect to our clients by letting them choose the settings in which we’d do business. And I was doing what was necessary to protect myself.
I traveled all over the country visiting BIA, USGS and WPRS customers. When I called on customers at Washington headquarters, I learned things. When I traveled to meet with people in the field, I learned more. In every job since, including as a CEO, I’ve found that if you really want to know what’s going on, you have to travel. The farther from headquarters you get, wherever headquarters happens to be, the more you find out about what’s actually going on.
It was on one of my trips to Denver that I first met a regional manager with the Bureau of Mines, part of USGS. He was frustrated by his current telephone system, a PBX, and said no one on the local Mountain Bell sales team would listen to him. He said they kept trying to solve his problem with existing technology, and it wouldn’t work. USGS needed a way to handle a huge number of incoming calls and track the data that resulted from those calls. More important, in emergency situations they needed a way to convene huge teleconferences quickly and pull together a large number of participants in diverse, remote locations. While this is easy to do today, in 1982 the technology didn’t exist. When I talked to the local sales team, they complained that it would take too much time and energy to work on this opportunity. There were easier sales they could make.
The regional manager was a potential customer who needed someone to actually make the investment of time to understand his problem and then be willing to design a solution to fit his needs. I didn’t argue with him. I listened hard and asked a lot of questions. After several long meetings I told him that although I didn’t know what the solution might be, I really did understand his problems and his objectives. I promised I would work on it.
Around this time I was given the opportunity to rotate to a different department. By now, though, I was committed to my customers. I had unfinished business with them, so I decided to stay in my current job, even though as an MDipper I was overdue for another assignment. Many coworkers told me I was making a mistake. The colleagues I really cared about appreciated that finishing the job I had was more important than moving on to another one.
Over many months I talked with several Mountain Bell people about the USGS opportunity. I knew there was something big there, even if I couldn’t define the answer. Most of them dismissed me pretty quickly, saying I didn’t really understand the technology challenges involved or perhaps I’d misunderstood the customer’s situation. I was new, I was young, I was a woman—I clearly didn’t know what I was talking about.