Former Chairman and CEO of Hewlett-Packard, Carly Fiorina, discusses how to solve problems, make decisions, and connect with other people like a leader.
- Why to choose a path instead of a plan
- Three steps for arriving at the wisest decision
- Key prompts to ensure you’ve considered all the angle
Carly Fiorina is the former Chairman and CEO of Hewlett-Packard and a seasoned problem-solver. She started out as a secretary for a 9-person real-estate business and eventually became the first woman ever to lead a Fortune 50 company. Through Carly Fiorina Enterprises and the Unlocking Potential Foundation, Carly and her team strengthen problem-solving and leadership capacity across America. Carly is also a best-selling author. Her titles include Tough Choices and Rising to the Challenge. Her third book Find Your Way releases on April 9th. She and her husband, Frank, have been happily married for 33 years. They reside in northern Virginia near their daughter, son-in-law and two granddaughters.
Items Mentioned in this Show:
- Carly’s podcast: By Example
- Carly’s book: Find Your Way: Unleash Your Power and Highest Potential
- Book: The Fabric of the Cosmos: Space, Time, and the Texture of Reality by Brian Greene
Carly, thanks so much for joining us here on the How to be Awesome at Your Job podcast.
It’s great to be with you. Thank you, Pete.
Well, I discovered that you’ve recently become a podcaster yourself and apparently the backstory involves bumping into an NBA star. Can you tell us the story and what’s going on over at your show called By Example?
Well, yes, it’s funny. I was at a conference for social innovation in Chicago in the summer of 2017. One of the speakers was Baron Davis of NBA fame and UCLA fame. Now I have to immediately say, I’m not a big basketball expert, so, embarrassingly, I didn’t even know who Baron Davis was. But half my staff was like, “Oh my gosh, it’s Baron Davis.”
I listened to him speak and I was captivated by what he had to say. He listened to me speak and apparently liked what he heard. We bump into each other literally in the lobby of the Marriot on a break from this conference. We sit down and he says, “We should do a podcast together.” I said, “Oh Baron, that would be fantastic,” because he was talking a lot about leadership and I talk about leadership.
One thing led to another and Baron Davis was our inaugural guest on the By Example podcast and also brought to us an incredible additional leader named Dino Smiley. The By Example podcast was born in the head of Baron Davis in the lobby of the Chicago Marriott in July of 2017.
That’s cool. Well, I am in Chicago. I’ve been to the Marriott, so I can visualize the scene nicely. That’s cool. And you’re just still chugging along?
Well, what I was hoping to achieve with By Example based on that preliminary conversation was an opportunity to highlight for people real leaders. The reason I love doing this, first of all, I get to talk with fascinating, wonderful people, but also because I think in this day and age we are so confused about what leadership is. We think it’s position and title and fame and celebrity and it’s none of those things.
Yet, we also need more leadership. I wanted to introduce to people not just what leadership is, but who leaders are. Some of them are very famous, like Baron Davis or Colin Powell and some of them people have never heard of like Dino Smiley and yet, famous or not, leadership is always about some fundamental common elements. That’s what we talk about on By Example.
Excellent. If leadership is not that, what would you say it is?
Well, I would say that leadership is problem solving. Leadership is changing the order of things for the better, which is always necessary to actually solve a problem. Leadership is about unlocking potential in others in order to change the order of things for the better for the purpose of solving problems.
That requires many things that all of us are capable of executing against as human being. It requires courage and character and collaboration and imagination. Some people who have position and title, lead, many people with no position and title also lead, and too frequently, people with position and title are doing many things, but they’re not leading.
All right. Nice distinctions there. Thank you. Well, I think we could chew on that for a while, but I also want to make sure we talk about your book. Find Your Way, what’s the main message behind it?
Well, the main message behind Find Your Way is that each of us, all of us, are capable of leadership, that finding your way in life is about solving problems that impact you and others that you collaborate with or that you care about.
And that each of us can find our purpose, each of us can practice and become adept at being courageous when we’re frightened to death, having character when it would be easier to do something that is not honest or has integrity, that we actually must collaborate with others in order to accomplish anything, and that seeing possibilities is an essential element in making things better.
That’s one huge message in Find Your Way that finding our way in life requires finding our way to leadership, not the position or the title, but the essence of leadership, which requires us to step up to the problems that surround us.
The other message is that too often people get waylaid because they invest so much in a specific plan or destination or job that they lose the path, they lose their way towards becoming a stronger, better, more effective problem solver and leader and happier on top of all of that.
Intriguing. Well, could you further distinguish for us the difference between a path and a plan? You say one of the dangers is if you get too invested in the plan, could you elaborate there?
Yeah, so I had a plan. When I graduated from college, my plan was to go to law school, which I did. Surprisingly, to me perhaps, I quickly discovered that I absolutely hated law school. The plan that I had created for my life – which my parents approved of, everyone was excited about this plan – was making me miserable, so I quit. I was definitely off plan.
More than that, I didn’t have a plan. My degree was in medieval history and philosophy, so I didn’t have marketable skills other than I knew how to type and file and answer the phones because I had worked as a temporary secretary in offices while I was going to Stanford and getting my undergraduate degree. I went to work as a secretary in a nine-person real estate firm. Totally off plan.
However, I stayed on path, which was I’m going to do a good job, I’m going to ask a lot of questions, I’m going to collaborate with others, I’m not going to be afraid to try new things, and eventually that landed me in AT&T, a company with a million people. I had no plan there either. I didn’t have an ambition to become a CEO. I was just trying to do a good job, which to me meant solving problems in front of me, which requires collaboration with others.
Some people would look at my life and say, “Wow, she became a CEO and she ran for president. She must have had a plan.” The truth is I never had a plan, but I never deviated from the path.
That is how I have found my way. I hope to share some of that experience and encouragement with people in this book because I think we hear a lot of messages from our culture and our society that you’ve got to have a plan. Further, I think we hear a lot of messages from our culture and those around us that not only do you have to have a plan, but you have to have a plan that everybody approves of.
We spend a lot of time seeking approval. In my case, I went off plan and was highly disapproved of as a result and accomplished more than I ever thought possible. The book is filled with stories of other people who have done the same.
That’s excellent. I’d love to hear about that sort of emotional process by which you kind of untether yourself from the need for this approval. It seems like – I’ve talked to some folks, it’s almost like they’ve never suffered from that. It’s like, “No, I’ve never cared what anybody wanted, needed, expected of me. I always did my own thing and it was just fine,” and others have struggled with it their whole lives, and others kind of had some epiphany or awakening moments to get liberated.
What do you recommend in terms of the practical tactical? If someone’s like, “I know the expectations of others has a real pull on me, I’d rather it didn’t. What do I do?”
A couple things. First I’ll take it out of the emotional realm for a moment and put it into the practical realm. You have a wonderful podcast about how to be awesome at your job. The people who come to you for advice, while they may say they are untethered from people’s expectations for them, let me just say, all of us are susceptible to criticism.
It is, in fact, why problems fester. Problems fester, let’s just say at work, because the status quo has power. The way things are even if they’re unacceptable stays the way things are principally because when people try and change the way things are, criticism erupts, critics abound. “No, no, no, you can’t do that. No, no, no, we’ve already tried it. Who do you think you are that you can tackle this?”
The truth is all of us are susceptible to criticism and critique, especially if it comes from colleagues, even more if it comes from a boss. People can say we’re totally untethered, but, of course, none of us are.
If you want to solve a problem, if you want to solve a problem, which generally speaking is a requirement for being seen as awesome at your job or getting ahead in your job, you’ve got to bring value and that means solving problems, actually. You have to be willing to accept that challenging the status quo will cause people to criticize you, will cause people to say why they’re invested in the status quo.
I think it just starts with a fundamental recognition that to change the way things are, you have to challenge the way things are. To challenge the way things are, you have to be prepared to accept the criticism that comes with that challenge.
I’d like to talk about what preparation looks like in practice. I guess part of it is that you’re expecting it, you’re not blindsided by it. It’s like, “Oops, where did that come from,” but you’re sort of thinking of, “Yes, to be expected. Here is that criticism I was counting on. It has arrived.” That’s part of it.
Do you have any other approaches in terms of perspectives or self-talk or how you deal with that? You’ve certainly had your share of criticism. Running for president will bring it out in droves. How do you process it and rise above it?
Well, I would say at a very practical level, even going back to your previous question, I would say people ought to think about three things. The first is look around. The second is ask questions and the third is find allies. If I can expound just for a moment on each of them.
Look around, one of the stories that I tell in Find Your Way is something that I learned when I was 15. I happened to be living in Ghana, West Africa. I was driving around with some friends and there were these huge termite mounds everywhere I looked. I was asking about, “Wow, this is amazing. How do these termites build these things?” Bear with me, this is relevant. Don’t get nervous.
My friend said, “Well, termites, they follow the same path day after day. They move their dirt along the same path for their whole lives.” He said, “It’s funny, but people are a lot like termites.”
What happens to us, I think, is we get very consumed by the day-to-day. We put our heads down and we move our dirt and we do our work. Sometimes it’s really important to pick our heads up and look around. What else is going on around you? Who else is troubled by this same problem perhaps? Look around. See what’s going on around you. See who is going on around you. Don’t be a termite.
Step two, ask questions. Ask a lot of questions of a lot of people, maybe those people you discovered when you picked your head up and looked around. Because when you ask questions as opposed to maybe telling people the answer, which sometimes as bosses we feel like we have to tell people the answer, sometimes the most valuable thing you can do is ask a question instead and listen to someone else’s answer. You’re always going to learn things that you can use.
The final step, find allies. As you ask questions, as you look around you, you will find people with whom you can ally yourself, with whom you can collaborate, people who will step up and defend you when that criticism comes, perhaps protect you from some of that criticism and perhaps join with you so that the group of people who are focused on solving the problem actually is bigger and more powerful than the inevitable group of people who just want to sit around and criticize but actually doesn’t want anything to change.
And with those allies it’s sort of like – I felt it before in terms of just being able to reconnect from time to time with a group of like-minded folks. It’s like, “Ah.” It’s like refreshing. It’s like we can all say what we really think about this thing here and you’re rejuvenated and able to keep up the good fight afterwards.
Yes, absolutely. And I would add there’s one caution to that. We are all most comfortable with people like ourselves. We are all most comfortable with people who think like we do. If taken to an extreme, what happens is we only talk to the people that we agree with. That’s a very dangerous place to be. You can see that happening in our culture. Everyone’s sort of devolving into tribes. It can happen in a work setting as well.
Finding allies doesn’t mean only talking to people who agree with us 100% of the time. Finding allies may mean I need to work with people who also think that this is a problem that we can solve but who maybe have a very different point of view than I do or an additional perspective to share with me about how to make progress.
I like it. Thank you. Well, so you talked a little bit about some of the expectations, the criticism, the fear side of things. I want to get your take on when it comes to actually solving the problems or using your brain to make some wise decisions with consistency, what are some of your real go-to principles or tactics or questions that you ask yourself to be making the wisest decision more often than not?
It’s several steps. First is I gather as much information as I can. That means talking to a lot of people. It may mean, depending on the subject, depending on the problem, it may mean meeting a lot, it may mean both.
But gathering information, that’s another way of saying pick your head up and look around. Gather information, facts, perspective, data from a variety of points of view so that you have a full picture. You can’t wing it. Particularly if you’re tackling a tough problem, you can’t go into it thinking you already know the answer.
The second step then after that perspective gathering, information gathering, fact and data gathering, is reflection. Reflection for me is very important to take the time after you’ve asked all the questions, gathered all the data, to really take the time to reflect on what you’ve learned and what you’ve heard. As you know, thinking substantially is not easy. It takes time. You need to give yourself the time and space to have that kind of thought process.
Then the final thing I would say is I get pretty analytic about it. What I mean by that is I tend after that period of gathering information, perspectives and data, followed by real reflection and substantial thinking, then I tend to get pretty analytic and explicit. I write down here’s options, here’s the pros and the cons of those options. I find it very, very helpful to be as analytical as possible and as explicit as possible.
I would say I’ve done this with all kinds of decisions, not just big decisions like a merger or how to run for president, but decisions like the care and treatment for my cancer because I think it’s easy to get mushy in our thinking, in our decision making. The more careful, thoughtful, deliberate, and intentional we can be about our reflection in our decision making, in my experience, the more successful those decisions are.
I’d love to get your take and some detail on the reflection step. Thinking substantially does require the time and the space. Some decisions are way bigger than others. But I’d love it if you could share, do you have any sort of rules of thumb with regard to how much thinking time, whether it’s in minutes or hours of quiet or sort of days upon which you can sit and wrestle with something that you try to allocate for yourself when making a decision?
It’s such an interesting question. Well, the first thing I would say is honestly it does depend on the decision. There are some decisions that may require days, months of reflection. There are other decisions that require minutes or hours.
However, I would also add that finding the time for introspection and reflection is especially difficult now because everything in our culture, and technology in particular, drives us to hurry up, hurry up, hurry up, hurry up. In fact, we’ve all become accustomed, “Oh my gosh, I sent you a text. You didn’t answer me in the last five minutes.” “I send you an email. We need a decision right now, right now, right now.”
It is true that an imperfect but timely decision is usually better than a perfect but too late decision. This question of how much time is vital. However, in general, I would say hurry up and rush is always the wrong answer. The biggest step I think in finding the time is to give yourself permission to take the time. You don’t have to answer in the next 30 seconds. You don’t have to decide just because somebody else wants a decision from you.
People will have to find their way a little bit. I offer some practical suggestions, but the first and most important step is give yourself permission to take the time to find the time to reflect before you decide.
I like that. When you talk about being analytic and explicit, you’ve written down the options and the pros and the cons, when you said analytic and I’m thinking about tech. I’m imagining sort of like spreadsheets or criteria or weightings of the criteria and scoring of things. Are there any tools along those lines that you invoke or is it pretty much simply, hey, write down the options and then the pros and cons?
Well, of course, I don’t mean to suggest too number intensive when I say analytic. I use and highlight in the book something called the leadership framework, which is a tool that I have used over and over and over and over to lay out all of the aspects and the facets of a problem so that I am not missing anything as I think about how to achieve goals. I’ve used it personally. I’ve used it professionally. The leadership framework is one such tool that I talk a great deal about in Find Your Way.
The other thing I would say is another analytic tool is to be explicit about what’s wrong with the current state, whatever it is. What’s wrong with it? Let’s write it down. Let’s get clear about it. This isn’t just for an individual to think about alone in their time of reflection. It also might be extremely useful as you are asking questions of others. Why is this a problem? What could we be doing differently? Then to be equally explicitly about the future state.
The leadership framework and current state, future state analysis are tools that I have used honestly all of my life in every setting. We talk about them in more detail in Find Your Way. But what I would say is don’t let the term analytic scare you. It isn’t necessarily all numbers. In fact, sometimes it isn’t numbers at all.
But it does help to explicitly explore all facets of the situation, which is why the framework helps. It’s also extremely helpful to get very clear about why do we have a problem and why is it a problem and what would we like to be different and better?
Within the leadership framework that helps you ensure that you’re not missing anything, could you give us a couple of the prompts that are often super helpful in surfacing something that might be missed?
Yeah, so for example, the leadership framework starts with what’s the problem we’re trying to solve, what’s the goal we’re trying to achieve. I know that sounds so fundamental, but you would be surprised how often people get into a room and spend hours, months, years even and they’ve never come to an agreement on what the problem is or what the goal is. Our political process leaps to mind.
But the point is, people can talk past each other forever if they don’t start with “Do we actually agree on the problem? Do we agree on the goal?” That would be an important first prompt.
Another important prompt would be who has to do what, who actually has to do what to make progress? It’s something that sometimes people forget. I’ve been in many, many rooms where people will get all fired up. Let’s say they agree on the problem.
Let’s say people agree on the goal and everybody starts talking and getting excited, and to your earlier observation, like-minded people get together and say, “Yeah, yeah, yeah we all know it has to get done.” Then they rush out of the room. Nowhere has there been an explicit conversation about okay, but who has to do what? Who’s going to do what? Are there people who are not in the room who are going to have to also sign up? That’s another prompt.
A third prompt might be, how are we going to know we’re making progress? How are we going to measure success? Is there anything that’s going to tell us we’re actually getting something done or are we just going to go back in and tell ourselves that we feel good about things? What are we going to measure? How are people going to behave? Those are some prompts around the leadership framework.
What is the problem? What is the goal really? Who’s going to have to do what really? How are we going to measure whether we’re actually making any progress really? How do we have to behave with one another and with others to continue to make progress really?
Thank you. I get a kick out of the reallys because they really can spark another important thing when you kind of push beyond sort of the quick answer that satisfies, check the box of there’s been a response to this question, but truly addressing the root of it. I dig that.
The other thing you know people do confuse activity for accomplishment. I think our technology encourages that actually. “Oh my God, I answered 150 emails.” Well, that may not necessarily be accomplishment, although it’s a whole bunch of activity.
One of the reasons to ask the question about really is to help ourselves distinguish between “Am I busy and active or am I actually accomplishing something, having an impact, making a difference, achieving progress?”
Well, now I want to hear a little bit in terms of your rapid career rise. You mentioned that you stuck to the path of trying to solve the problem that was in front of you.
But I’d also love to hear if you had any sort of secret weapons or tactics or approaches that you applied day after day that really can get a lot of credit for how you managed to become the first female CEO of a Fortune 50 company. That’s pretty special. What do you think you were doing differently than many of your peers and colleagues?
Well, I think it comes back to those three things that I said. Looking around. I always look around and see what’s going on, hear what’s going on. It’s so easy to get in a rut. Jobs are pressure-filled. None of us have enough time. We’re all more comfortable with people like ourselves. The discipline, the habit of looking around and seeing what’s going on I think has been hugely important for me.
Asking questions, asking questions. I’ve asked a million questions. I always learn something. Sometimes I learn a lot about myself by asking questions, but I always learn about the situation around me, the people around me. And what I learn helps me make further progress.
The third, finding allies. I try always to build relationships, not break them. I try to always see the good in people, not the bad. Sometimes that’s hard.
I tell the story in the book about my first business meeting with a client was in a strip club. The gentleman who created that situation did not wish me well. It’s why he created a very difficult situation for me. And yet, I came to understand, tried to understand his point of view. Why was he doing that to me? We ultimately became very strong colleagues and allies.
Finding allies takes work. It doesn’t always mean people that are naturally friendly to you or that naturally like you or that naturally agree with you. I always found allies and tried to see the best in people and to leverage the relationships that I built for a common purpose that we all could agree on.
All right. Thank you. Tell me, Carly, is there anything else you really want to make sure to mention before we shift gears and hear about some of your favorite things?
Well, I think we’ve covered a lot of ground. I’ve tried to distill all of those life’s lessons into the books, but certainly you’ve asked really penetrating questions. I’ve so enjoyed the conversation thus far.
Oh, thank you. Me too. Now could you share with us a favorite quote, something that inspires you?
If I have to pick one, I would pick the one I heard from my mother when I was eight years old, which is “What you are is God’s gift to you. What you make of yourself is your gift to God.” Because, for me, when I first heard that and every time I remind myself of it, it says every one of us is gifted and filled with potential. I believe that based on experience.
It also reminds us that as we are each filled with potential, not all of us get the opportunity or the chance or take the risk to fulfill our potential.
Thank you. Could you share with us a favorite study or experiment or a piece of research?
I was in church the other day and I will not get this exactly right because the pastor brought forward this piece of research. But it was research about the power of self-talk, you used that phrase earlier, the power of self-talk among professional athletes, the power of self-talk among children.
But what the research essentially said, and again, I won’t get the citation exactly right – kudos to the pastor – but what the research says is that whether we’re 4 or 40, that we each have a tremendous ability to either help ourselves fulfill our potential or, conversely, talk ourselves below our potential.
We have a tremendous ability to help ourselves become better problem solvers, more awesome at work, better collaborators, better leaders and we also have the power to do the opposite for ourselves.
Thank you. How about a favorite book?
I read so much that it depends on what I’ve just read. But one of the books I’ve just incredibly enjoyed recently is actually a science book. But it is called The Fabric of the Cosmos. It’s by a physicist named Brian Greene.
It’s heavy going in some part, but to me it was an incredibly fascinating and inspiring read because not only did I learn a lot about the fabric of the cosmos, but what was most interesting to me was the collaboration of scientists, in this case physicists, over centuries, the importance of courage and taking risks for science as well as problem solving, and the incredible collaboration that’s required.
Einstein is lauded as a singular genius, but in fact, Einstein had to be inspired by many others, he had to build on the work of many others, and he had to collaborate with many others. Believe it or not, The Fabric of the Cosmos to me was not only a fascinating look at physics, but it was also a reminder of all the fundamentals of problem solving and leadership that we’ve been talking about.
Thank you. Tell me, is there a particular nugget you share that really seems to connect and resonate with audiences or readers?
It’s interesting. I think stories always connect with people. I try to talk in stories. Stories, my own story. I think one of the things that connects, whether it’s in my own story or in the story of a woman I met on the rooftop in the slums of New Delhi, who was living in desperate circumstances and no one’s ever heard of, but wow, she was one of the most amazing leaders I have ever witnessed.
I think the aspect of any one of those stories that connects is no one’s life is a smooth trajectory. No one’s life follows a smooth plan. Most people fall off the plan for whatever reason. Most people get thrown off their trajectory. Every life is filled with set back and difficulty, even the lives that look perfect from afar.
It is, I think, relieving to people to know that you can indeed find your way through all of the thicket of issues that each of us encounter in life and that life is not one smooth ascent. It never is.
Thank you. Well, do you have a final challenge or call to action you’d like to issue to folks seeking to be awesome at their jobs?
Yes. If you’re seeking to be awesome at your job, find people around you that you think are awesome. Don’t get too hung up on how awesome you are yourself. Look for other awesome people and try and leverage what makes them awesome. In the process, I think you’ll become more awesome yourself.
Thank you. Well, Carly, this has been a lot of fun. I wish you lots of luck with the book and the podcast and all your adventures.
Well, thank you. And the same to you.