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Carly Fiorina, who was the first woman to lead a
Fortune 200 company, urged HR professionals to be “change warriors” to help their organizations unleash the human potential needed to compete in today’s economy.
“The highest calling of leadership is to unlock the potential in others,” said Fiorina, speaking at the Society for Human Resource Management’s 2014 Employment Law & Legislative Conference in Washington, D.C., on March 18.
“Leadership isn’t management,” she said. “Management is producing acceptable results within known constraints and conditions. Leadership changes those conditions. Leadership is about seizing the possibilities.”
Fiorina served as chairman and chief executive officer of Hewlett-Packard from 1999 to 2005, where she said she had the top HR professional report directly to her. CEOs must partner with HR to ensure that their strategies succeed, and HR professionals must be leaders in their own right, she said.
“You’ve heard of change agents? I use the phrase ‘change warriors.’ I use that phrase because change is hard. People who drive change get a lot of arrows in the back. You need people who are willing to fight for it,” she said. “I think HR has to be filled with change warriors.”
When she arrived at Hewlett-Packard, Fiorina said, the company had 87 separate business units led by people who were reluctant to give up their power, although they knew change was needed.
During her tenure, she led the company’s successful acquisition of Compaq Computer, transformed its cost structure and tripled its rate of innovation. But she was forced out by the company’s board when Hewlett-Packard fell behind in its competition with IBM and Dell.
To unlock human potential, leaders also must be willing to give up some control, let their employees take risks and know that sometimes they will make mistakes.
“You must be prepared to say, ‘Perfection is not the goal. Progress is the goal,’ ” Fiorina said.
She admitted that she used to be a perfectionist and a control freak. However, after surviving cancer and the death of a daughter, Fiorina said she realizes that there is little she can control besides how she chooses to spend her time.
As a CEO, she would often give the go-ahead to employees who were passionate about plans they presented to her—even if she had reservations about whether the plans would work.
“If they feel strongly, I would let them do it because I might be wrong,” she said, adding that she prefers asking questions to giving orders because “giving orders is not the best way to tap human potential.”
Currently, Fiorina serves as chairman of Good360, a philanthropy organization that distributes corporate donations to charities.
She also is active in politics. In 2010, Fiorina was the GOP candidate for U.S. Senate in California, losing to Democratic incumbent Sen. Barbara Boxer. Fiorina serves as vice chair of the National Republican Senatorial Committee.
Dori Meinert is a senior writer for HR Magazine.
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