Community / August 25, 2014

Women at Smith: Carly Fiorina, MBA ’80

Limitless Resource

Unlocking the Potential at the Intersection of Diversity, Risk and Innovation 

Hewlett-Packard already had made strides in diversity when Carly Fiorina, MBA ’80, arrived as CEO in 1999. The Silicon Valley giant had progressive policies, feeder pools and employee networking groups in place. With the recruitment of Fiorina, HP also had the first woman leader of a Fortune 20 company.

“We did everything right,” Fiorina said. “Except when we looked at our senior management ranks, they were not diverse at all.”

Fiorina’s response was a new hiring process that shook up conventional thinking about what an ideal candidate looks like. For every opening above a certain level, supervisors had to consider at least one qualified woman and one qualified racial or ethnic minority.
Supervisors who came up empty were told to go back and try again. Often their searches led to candidates with nontraditional backgrounds from unfamiliar sources.

“You have to change the process to get different results,” Fiorina said. “People have to be willing to take a risk on someone they do not know, and someone who is different.”

The risk also goes the other direction. Women and other candidates focused on perfection can worry about failure when they accept stretch assignments.

“Sometimes women fear failure when placed in new roles outside their comfort zones,” Fiorina said. “Sometimes they choose to walk away from risk.”

She said companies can help by building environments that tolerate mistakes when testing new ideas. The key is to understand the power of “perfect enough.”

At HP the new promotion policy paid off. By the time Fiorina left the company in 2005, half of her direct reports were women.

While many people champion workplace diversity as a matter of social justice, Fiorina also views the issue in pragmatic terms as a matter of good business.

“It is the smart thing to do,” she said. “There is a direct correlation between innovation, risk taking and diversity. When teams are confronted with somebody who is different — or with new ideas — it causes them to think differently. That is where innovation comes from.”

She said companies that only look for safe resumes can lose their edge in the hypercompetitive global economy.

“People misunderstand the real risk,” she said. “In an unpredictable world, where the competition is intense, maybe the predictable resume is actually riskier because those people might not be able to see things differently or find new ways to approach problems.”

Fiorina said companies that hope to keep pace must tap every ounce of potential they have, which means they cannot leave women on the fringes.

“Human potential is the only limitless resource we have,” she said. “If we do not fully tap human potential, then we do not solve our problems. And women are the most underutilized resource in the world.”

Related story: Smith Builds Momentum on Women’s Issues

Women at Smith

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About the University of Maryland's Robert H. Smith School of Business

The Robert H. Smith School of Business is an internationally recognized leader in management education and research. One of 12 colleges and schools at the University of Maryland, College Park, the Smith School offers undergraduate, full-time and flex MBA, executive MBA, online MBA, business master’s, PhD and executive education programs, as well as outreach services to the corporate community. The school offers its degree, custom and certification programs in learning locations in North America and Asia.

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