CEO Games

“Isn’t it about time Hewlett-Packard had a strategy?”


In spite of what people often claim about supertankers, they actually turn quite quickly; stopping though is another matter altogether. Hewlett-Packard has demonstrated this quite well recently as its new leaders have thrown the wheel from side to side in the hope of finding clear water ahead. Isn’t it time it stopped relying on each new helmsman’s hunches and planned a proper course?

In the past couple of years the HP supertanker has had three captains. Mike Hurd left two years ago now after “losing the confidence of the board” arguably after doing quite a good job of generating profits rather than investing in growth, as his predecessors had done. Léo Apotheker took over and swung the wheel hard the other way, declaring that HP was now going to sacrifice profits and take the growth course again. He dissed the PC business and then made Mike Lynch’s day by paying way over the odds for Autonomy, a business that it has since demonstrated it wasn’t capable of accommodating within the HP fold anyway.

Now Meg Whitman, former CEO of Ebay, has spun the wheel back again, thrown her arms around the PC business binnacle, while merging it with printers and coming up with the wonderful insight that perhaps a plan that has: fewer products, lower costs, greater simplicity of operations, may do the trick. Yes, Meg, it’s undoubtedly a good idea, as it would be for just about any business, but where are you heading with all this?

Being Silicon Valley’s broadest computer conglomerate is no longer good enough. HP has been criticised for many things: not being clear if it was a “growth stock”, or not; not choosing between business and consumer customers; relying on big acquisitions like EDS to transform its prospects; and relying too much on its cash cow imaging business. That may all be true, in fact, I am sure most of it is but the biggest thing HP should be criticised for is its strategic naivety.

US corporate culture is too reliant on heroic and autocratic leaders to both create economic success, but perhaps more frequently to be the symbolic sacrifices of failure. While this has undoubted political utility, protecting others from the fallout when things go wrong, it is a big distraction. “New brooms” will always turn the wheel the other way; it’s partly their function in the CEO games.

Even I can tell you that HP: is not a growth stock; it is not very good at transforming itself by acquiring others; it has much too broad a market presence; and it needs to stop relying on one person to dictate its strategic direction.  Oh, yes, and it doesn’t need another CEO anytime soon – let’s just hope Meg stays around for a while to sort this mess out.

If you run a business and think this has nothing to do with you, think again. Exactly what is your strategy?  Do you have a map with a course on it for your particular little boat? Is it heading towards a fast flowing stream? Do you keep changing direction? Do you rely too much on one person to make your decisions for you, perhaps even yourself? To what extent does ego get in the way? Do you think business development is just buying other businesses? Are you too broadly spread to really compete in a rapidly changing world?  I could go on, but I hope you get the point.

While your smaller boat may be easier to stop than HP, it will end up in a similar mess if you keep throwing the wheel around, or, worse still, you just drift on aimlessly – without a chart you will fall off the end of the world, eventually.


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