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.