HP's Hurd, Dunn and Fiorina Could Learn from Superheroes

Rob Enderle
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The book 'The Big Lie' clearly has me thinking about CEOs this week and why they so often fail. (We are also looking at the adverse impact of excess CEO salaries this week.) While reading about the major challenge of the concept of the glass ceiling in older companies, one thing really stood out for me. Initially I believed this just had to do with the glass ceiling, but it allowed me to look at other patterns and I think another problem emerged.

Anyone who reads comic books would understand that sidekicks are important. HP's Carly Fiorina, Patricia Dunn (ex-chairman) and Mark Hurd (though his history is less clear) lost their positions after making mistakes that could have been mitigated by a strong No. 2. But even though each at one time apparently played that role themselves, they never implemented it when they came into power.

The Importance of a Sidekick

The role I'm speaking of is stronger than that of an aide. It's typically someone with a powerful title, but is subordinated to a more powerful manager who has his or her back. This person advances largely by assuring the advancement of the executive being supported and makes it into the top ranks when that superior retires or leaves. He or she moves into that person's position, then becomes eligible to be CEO. Success is a team effort, rather than an individual one.

The advantage of a sidekick can't be understated. A CEO's job is simply too broad for any one person, and the CEO often can't keep track of who are loyalists or rivals. Subtleties can be lost, perspectives twisted, and the CEOs can easily either lose their way or be unaware of threats to their jobs. The sidekick fills these gaps, steps in at meetings with critical levels of support, points out conflicting agendas that might not be obvious, and is consoling against foolish behavior before that behavior becomes apparent. This last is a protection that likely could have saved Mark Hurd.

More Important with Women and Minority CEOs?

It's probably more important with women and minority CEOs because there are few of them and they often find themselves dropped into a predominantly white male organizational structure. I imagine the same would hold true for any initial diversity at the top level. We tend to like similarities and unless we have been given time to get comfortable with diversity, regardless of the legalities, will attempt to maintain the status quo.

Because these diverse executives are more likely to be betrayed in office, loyal support is even more crucial for them. Yet it seems that folks who have been sidekicks before -- and that is the best way to become a CEO if you're not a white male -- don't like to have sidekicks. And that seems to leave them even more exposed.

Why Sidekick CEOs Don't Like Sidekicks

I have two working theories based on my recent reading. One is that, after holding the role themselves for years, they believe that their function was to cover for an increasingly incompetent superior, something they don't believe themselves to be.

The other is that because they had designs on their boss's job, they don't want someone who is closely chasing theirs and who could quickly replace them in a pinch. In both cases -- assuming at least one is correct -- the interesting thought is that they believe the executive who trusted them in that role was stupid. Either too stupid to do the job or too stupid to know that the sidekick was quietly planning for their fall.

It is interesting to note that Hurd, Fiorina and Dunn each got fired and, for the most part, their mentors didn't. (Dunn's mentor did seem to think that Dunn orchestrated his resignation, though she claims she didn't.)

Wrapping Up: Watching Your Back

It seems like the consistent lesson from failed CEOs is that they often don't realize the value of a trusted lieutenant. While it's important for any manager to know who has your back, it appears doubly critical in the CEO and chairman roles. One thing that stuck with me about Patty Dunn was that even after she hired a leading attorney to back her up, she refused to listen to his warnings about Mark Hurd. Those warnings evidently were so frequent that he gave each one a number so he wouldn't have to repeat the sentence, as Anthony Bianco describes in "The Big Lie." This points out that even if they have someone qualified, if they don't trust them enough to listen to what they have to say, it won't make any difference.

In the end, running a company is a team effort. CEOs or superheroes who forget that likely will not last long.

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