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Tuesday, 19 September 2006

My strange personal connection to the Patricia Dunn/HP Story

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As I was browsing the magazine rack at the Newark airport last week, I saw the cover of Newsweek with the picture of Patricia Dunn, embattled Chairman of Hewlett Packard's board.  I read the story with great interest for the following two reasons:

  • I used to work for Patricia Dunn many years ago at my last "real" job (ie as an employee!) at Barclays Global Investors.
  • Hewlett Packard was my first client when I became a consultant, and I worked on a small project to redo the HP Way video

My memories of working for Ms. Dunn are slightly vague since so many years have passed, but I do remember that she was an excellent communicator, was impeccably dressed and was very smart.  At the time, she was second in command.  I would often organize new employee events where she would speak, and I always enjoyed hearing her story of how she started at the firm as a secretary, and made her way up through the ranks of management.  As a fresh-faced 20-something, not yet jaded by what I would learn about corporate life, I found her story inspiring and encouraging. On a personal basis, she was always kind and polite.

When I left Barclays and started consulting at HP, I was excited to step into the culture of a firm that was still very well regarded by leadership consultants and practitioners.  They had an amazing legacy of good management practices started by Bill Hewlett and David Packard, or Bill and Dave as they were remembered around the hallways.  Lew Platt was CEO at the time, and although it was clear that the culture was shifting and changing, there was still a pretty fierce and widespread support for the HP Way, the statement of values that Bill and Dave had articulated many years before.  And it was not just corporate HR folks that embraced it, it was the rank and file, from administrative assistants to programmers.  (the HP Way is spelled out here)

I am sure that the drama of the Carly Fiorini regime, the Compaq merger and other major organizational changes really dampened the spirits of longtime HP'ers who liked to believe that the legacy of the founders could live on despite the turmoil.

But this latest fiasco just leaves me baffled and sad. 

What, exactly, was the board thinking?  Did the thoughts, feelings, perceptions and trust of the employees they were supposed to be representing ever come up?  Why did it have to come down to a bizarre and covert sting operation to get them to talk openly with each other?  Who were they accountable to? 

All this highlights how insane the senior levels of  corporate leadership can get when left to the modern day business practices of greed, hubris, polarization and conflict.  I know that I should not be surprised at this behavior anymore, but I still am.  I am disappointed that someone I respected was involved in such a royal mess.

And can you imagine the repercussions?  How will any senior leader be able to stand up with a straight face and talk to employees about the importance of trust, ethics and basic human decency in the workplace after the public antics of their board?

What a sad day for HP.  I have to believe that Bill and Dave are peering in on the mess and wondering how the boardroom of their beloved company turned into such a nasty place.

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Comments

robert

Pam,

If I may, it seems that in recent history the escalation of incidents corporate bosses cutting themselves off from their workforce (and in certain respects the shareholders) and carrying out acts that defy all the rules of responsible management and leave us asking why?

Where did the word accountability stop being part of boardroom parlance?

Mike

You forget that in modern corporations the only measure of accountability is share price, not employees, not customers, and not even you or I the stock's owner, usually its the big mutual funds, insurance companies, and hedge funds the have the real say in corporate governance these days.
Wow, this is early in the day even for me to be this cynical...;)
Keep up the great work.

Mark

The HP way deteriorated in many parts of the company long before Carly arrived on the scene. I worked there for 11 years, including Lew Platt's and John Young's tenures. I kept a log of changes, for the better or the worse. There *were* changes for the better. Smoke-free workplace, carpeting, better overhead lighting, better rec facilities. But there were also many changes for the worse--rule by bean counters and cost-recovery by departments leading to silly cost savings, like no more Wednesday doughnuts, or canceled Christmas parties and picnics. No more petty cash. Or travel advances. Lab stock cabinets were locked up. No more corporate jet service.

The continual move toward outsourcing led to a complete change in the feel of the workplace. I would come into work and find that some night-shift janitorial contractors had used my desk for their meal and left all their dirty dishes on my desk. We went from name badges to picture IDs with card access to get past doors.

Outsourcing also caused a steady decline in services--things like relocation or travel.

Apart from management by bean counting, there was also management by lawyer-fears. Our hiring process became steadily less human and the communication to candidates and employees pervaded by legal concerns--drug testing, immigration forms, etc. Not that these aren't real issues, but the human voice and touch were lost. We hired lots of flex-force temps for a year or two each, but we couldn't treat them as co-workers even though they were. We had to get tested before being allowed to use the new fitness center (didn't want us keeling over on the exercise bike and suing the company).

I sincerely hope this decline in humane-ness has turned around in the years since I left. There are many brilliant, wonderful people at HP, and the HP Way was by no means dead when I left. I'm sure there are pockets where it is both alive and well, places where courageous and compassionate managers find ways to still care about people *and* results. But I think there is something that happens when entities get large, particularly when they are publicly held. And the thing that happens isn't something I like...

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