Saturday, August 14, 2010

Toxic Leadership

Once again, I've got to hand it to Joe Nocera.
I've been scratching my head for more than a week, puzzling over the dismissal by the HP board of CEO Mark Hurd. The way the story of his firing broke made no sense. Hurd had presided over a remarkable reversal of HP's performance. He came in on the heels of Carly Fiorina, who'd run HP as if it were a corporate platform for her own celebrification, and in short order had made the place spin like a top.
And then, all of a sudden, he was fired.
A woman alleged sexual harassment. The board investigated, and found no sexual harassment. But it discovered something on the order of $20,000 worth of phony payments to the woman. And Hurd was fired. Fired and awarded a going away present of roughly $72 million.
How did any of this make any sense?
In today's New York Times, Joe Nocera explains.
Hurd was a toxic leader. He made HP spin like a top. And he did it by destroying the lives of the work force, slashing the company's investment in R&D, poisoning the company's culture, and earning the hatred of the company's top executives.
It was all about Mark Hurd.
To get at the story behind the story, Joe turned to Tony Bianco, who I knew 30 years ago when he cut his reporting teeth at Willamette Week in Portland, Oregon, and who recently wrote an book investigating the HP spying scandal that wracked the board a few years back. Tony is an investigative reporter in the best tradition of muckraking, and what he found about that spying scandal made him conclude, he told Joe, that Hurd lacked "the moral character" to be HP's CEO.
Then Joe interviewed Chuck House, who I knew back in the days of HBR and Fast Company. Chuck practically broke into a chorus of "ding dong the witch is dead" when talking about the evil influence that Hurd had had on HP. He made the numbers; he destroyed the company's capacity to do great work going forward.
All of which raises a couple of questions.
Why did the HP board need a trumped up $20,000 payoff problem to fire a man that they deeply distrusted and who had lost the confidence and support of the people who did the work to make the company go? Why couldn't the board summon the "moral character" (to borrow Tony's term) to fire Hurd for toxic leadership, and do it on the up and up?
Maybe, just maybe, boards of directors have become so distanced from their real responsibilities and from the actual world of work that they can't do their jobs responsibly. They need some smokescreen that gives them permission to do what they're actually there to do--provide real oversight and governance for the company, and to evaluate management's overall performance and hold it accountable.
And second, why did it take more than a week for a good, solid journalist to sniff out the real story?
Among my friends in business journalism, the Hurd firing was the biggest head scratcher, not just of the week, but of a good long time.
You'd have thought that enterprising reporters would have wanted to be the one to suss out the real story and bring it to light.
Joe Nocera did it. He gets the credit.
And it's the kind of reporting we need a lot more of. More digging, more putting the sources together, more asking the right question.
Hats off to Joe; now let's have more of it.

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