Was HP's Mark Hurd Set Up or Bitten by the Reality TV Show Bug?

Rob Enderle
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By now you've seen the news of Mark Hurd's (clearly involuntary) resignation from HP and likely seen some of the he-said, she-said, they-said that has followed. The good news for HP is that in an umbrella corporation, each operating division has full responsibility and the CFO (who has taken the reins on an interim basis) is fully capable of making sure none of them suddenly go nuts and do anything stupid. This means that HP is in good fiscal shape and that unless the job stays open for six or more months, there will be no lasting impact.


Was Mark Hurd Set Up?


However, I was asked by several folks working on stories whether I thought Hurd had been set up by someone inside HP who wanted his job. Mark Hurd appeared to be well prepared to defend against an internal coup. He had consolidated the offices of the CEO and Chairman of the Board under him and, over time, had replaced many critical support roles with people he had handpicked and that should be loyal to him.


In addition, while HP is bureaucratic and clearly has a high number of folks well practiced in playing politics, these folks are also relatively conservative and the risk of getting caught in a coup would be termination. It seemed unlikely that the benefits of the attempt, which would arguably be another outside CEO and an unknown stepping in for Hurd, would justify the risk. Younger firms might not make that strategic analysis, but HP is staffed by seasoned executives who are likely to understand that the risks would outweigh the rewards.


Finally, the people likely to be considered for the job are relatively far removed from Mark Hurd, each running what amounts to their own full company. There certainly could be animosity between them and Hurd, for anything from bad performance reviews to a lack of access to corporate perks like jets, but there is no real opportunity to do anything about it. Companies like HP have multiple levels of controls and that simply increases the risks and reduces the likely awards to levels that are unacceptable.


Was Hurd Bitten by Reality TV?


However, what if the attack on Hurd wasn't from inside and by one of the folks who might benefit from Hurd being fired but from outside and for a different purpose entirely? Over the last couple of years, we have certainly seen a host of attempts tied to reality TV show ex-stars and wannabes ranging from the inflated flying saucer hoax, to an invasion of a Presidential event (and a recent alleged attack by Whoopi Goldberg on one of the invaders), to poorly timed and life-threatening around-the-world sailing attempt by a minor.


Politics is even going reality TV with Sarah Palin doing a show, even though she was less than excited about one about her extended family.


It would seem that, once bitten by this bug, people will do incredibly questionable things to get the attention they think will lead to one of these lucrative shows. Personal alarms started going off when I learned that Jodie Fisher, the "other woman," had been on the 2007 reality TV show "Age of Love" and had hired high-profile celebrity attorney Gloria Allre, who is often tied to those seeking publicity and reality TV shows.


Could it be such a stretch to think that Fisher set Mark Hurd up to make it appear that they were having an affair in order for him to use his extensive media contacts to set her up in a show? We don't know what she thought she was promised or any details of the alleged sexual harassment, but the HP investigation concluded that none had occurred. Yet Hurd was fired and she, evidently, got a substantial check.


Given that mistresses are seen to be an informal perk here in Silicon Valley for CEOs, I can certainly imagine a reality TV show where CEO mistresses are featured. I'm more than a little concerned that I too might watch such a show. This would be kind of a more mature version of "Undercover Boss." I'm left wondering if Mark Hurd lost his job because Fisher used him to get the visibility she needed to launch a new show.


Wrapping Up: CEOs Need to Be More Careful


This goes out to both CEOs and the folks who support them. The job comes with a lot of power and control and often can lead to bosses who think they can do almost anything. The risks associated with doing "almost anything," with the advent of reality TV shows, which are shown long after they are filmed, and citizen journalists with camera phones, have become exceptionally high. Exploring the dark side now comes with new career-ending risks for both the CEO and his or her direct support staff. Everyone should be motivated to keep things above board. If someone as powerful as Mark Hurd can be taken out, anybody can be taken out. And I'll bet there are a few CEOs sweating bullets this week as a result.

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