A Chief Executive Officer Becomes a Professor

By John Yoest Published on September 11, 2019

She sees that her trading is profitable,
and her lamp does not go out at night.
Proverbs 31:18

Most people know Carly Fiorina as former presidential candidate and CEO of HP. But she is now a Distinguished Clinical Professor in Leadership in the Busch School of Business at The Catholic University of America.

In her new role, she recently gave a lecture to our students. It was not the typical business lecture on, say, the net present value using discounted cash flows. Indeed, she confesses to have never taken a business course in college.

Lecturing on Leadership

Instead, she talked about ways to “unlock human potential.” That’s the real heavy lifting of leadership. Her talk referred to her three books: Tough Choices: A Memoir (2007), Rising to the Challenge: My Leadership Journey (2015), and Find Your Way: Unleash Your Power and Highest Potential (2019).

These are business books written for ordinary readers. Fiorina doesn’t just have standing. She has a compelling personal story. She survived cancer, a senate campaign run and a humiliating public termination. Choices recounts the journey of a woman who worked in a male-dominated structure — and succeeded. Rising outlines her public policy views. It opens with Carly losing her daughter to addiction. Finding suggests that a life-path is more important than any plan.

From her we learn that encouraging behaviors works better than demanding numbers.

From her we learn that encouraging behaviors works better than demanding numbers. “Leaders” she writes, “are defined by three things: character, capability and collaboration.” Busch School of Business Associate Dean Harvey Seegers praised her. He said, “Carly Fiorina will make significant educational contributions to our humanistic study and teaching of strategy, management, and operations.”

Renaissance Woman

“What kind of a Fortune 500 company chief executive majored in Medieval History and Philosophy and proudly declares that ‘the most valuable course I ever took at Stanford University was not Econ 101 or Poli-Sci but an advanced course in medieval philosophy’?” asks Michael Pakaluk. Pakaluk is a Professor of Ethics and Philosophy at The Catholic University of America. His rhetorical question points us to the fit between Fiorina and the University. Here at CUA, we see business as a force for good.

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It has been said that leaders are readers — and writers. I once talked with Carly’s husband Frank about her first book, Tough Choices. I asked about all the work and research and background needed. I was asking, indirectly, who really “wrote” her first book? CEOs usually retain ghost writers to produce a draft. No, he gently corrected, “She typed every word.” She also narrated the audiobooks of Choices and Finding Your Way.

Carly speaks of abandoning her (father’s) dream of law school and pursuing another path. In our “never quit” culture, Carly addresses making difficult choices. The gift, the courage, is knowing when to stop and change direction. “Successful people ‘quit’ all the time,” says marketing guru Seth Godin. The key is knowing when to alter course.

Perfect Enough

“Leaders are criticized in their time,” Fiorina writes. And she certainly has her share of critics. Academic case studies highlight the challenges of charismatic leaders attempting to change corporate directions and culture.

Fiorina reminds the students and readers of the challenge of leading perfectionists. This describes many engineers whom she led during her tenure at HP. They were forever perfecting the hardware but less concerned in meeting deadlines. The perfect was the enemy of the good, to paraphrase Voltaire. Carly worked to speed up “plodding” engineers. She told them their product was “perfect enough” to move to the next phase. This meant that she was not always popular.

Focus on Those Closest to a Problem

Fiorina, while at HP, would find and encourage those staffers who were closest to a problem or opportunity. In the process, she consolidated divisions and reporting structures. This met resistance at HP. But she was able to improve bureaucracies in her non-profit organizations. For the public sector she calls for reducing regulations that hinder innovation.

Carly’s life, and her business lessons learned, now benefit a younger generation seeking to unite faith and reason. After her lecture in Catholic’s new Maloney Hall, students queued up for photos. Carly loved the students. And they loved her. “I am so excited,” one student later said. “I can’t wait to tell my mom.”


Jack Yoest is Assistant Professor of Leadership and Management at The Catholic University of America in The Busch School of Business, in Washington, DC. He is the author of the book The Memo: How the Classified Military Document That Helped the U.S. Win WWII Can Help You Succeed in Business.

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