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Partnership Virtues

February 25, 2005
Related Topics: Featured Article

Not too long ago, I bumped into a former co-worker now at Hewlett-Packard. I asked how it was working at HP under superstar CEO Carly Fiorina. My question must have touched a nerve because she erupted, spilling out anecdotes about how terribly difficult it was having a job at HP. Not only did she feel disconnected from the strategy and goals of the company, but she was on her fourth manager in three years. Two of them had been fired outright, and the other two had been so busy playing politics that she never saw them.

    So much for the legendary and collegial "HP Way."

    I’ve thought of my friend a lot over the last few weeks while sifting through news coverage about the end of the Fiorina era at HP. Just what was it that caused the company’s board of directors to dump her? Was it her inability to execute her ambitious business strategy, or did she go too far by trampling on the HP culture?

    Although most believe it was the business failures that did her in, a new book makes you wonder if it wasn’t all about how she killed the HP culture.

    In The Enthusiastic Employee: How Companies Profit by Giving Workers What They Want, authors David Sirota, Louis Mischkind and Michael Irwin Meltzer argue that an organization’s culture is the most important factor in building a business that produces both enthusiastic employees and high performance. "Today," they write, "the choice facing organizations in managing their workers is between an arm’s length transactional relationship and an arm-in-arm partnership relationship."

    The "partnership organizations" emerge when the senior leadership "has the foresight to see what can be and not just what is," according to the book. These companies--such as FedEx and Southwest Airlines--build a strong relationship with employees by treating them equitably, by recognizing their accomplishments and by forging a comfortable workplace camaraderie. Only 10 percent of American companies are able to successfully reach these goals and maintain a high level of morale, the authors say. But for those that do, the rewards are huge: an average stock market return that is 20 percent higher than other companies in their industries.

    I asked Sirota about the HP Way, described by The Washington Post as "a set of values that believed in a flat management structure and a respect for all employees. The top officials were known for walking around … regularly and chatting up even the lowest-level employees at random." To me, the HP Way sounded very much like the highly successful partnership organizations Sirota describes in his book. Could the new HP, minus Fiorina, bring back the culture of the old HP?

    "I’m certain they could," Sirota says. "(HP) employees talk with great nostalgia about the old days. The company really had a great collaborative culture. It wouldn’t be a breeze to bring it back, and some things would certainly need to change, but it could work."

    One of the interesting findings in Sirota’s book is that employees generally are less satisfied with their jobs the longer they stay with a company. The opposite is true in the 10 percent of companies in which there is a true partnership between management and the workforce.

    "Look what happened at HP," Sirota says. "A new CEO arrives and decides that everything done in the past is no good."

Fiorina has a little time on her hands these days. She would do well to spend some of it reading Sirota’s book. It might help her fare a little bit better the next time around.

Workforce Management, March 2005, p. 8 --Subscribe Now!

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