Hewlett-Packard: glass cliffs in the boardroom

Jack Welch – once a self-confessed “neanderthal” on women in business – is perhaps the last person you’d expect to fret about the “glass cliff”.

But when I interviewed him a few years ago, he said he was worried that if three prominent female chief executives failed to meet the big challenges they faced it would set back the cause of getting more women into the boardroom. The trio were Pat Russo at Lucent (later Alcatel-Lucent), Anne Mulcahy of Xerox and Carly Fiorina, then CEO of Hewlett-Packard.

Well, Fiorina and Russo did “fail” – one left following the last but one HP scandal,  the other parted ways with Alcatel-Lucent after a string of profit warnings. The latest reshuffle of HP directors makes it look as though Welch’s fears were unfounded. Four of the 13-strong board will be women – and one of the new directors is none other than Russo herself. Come March, when four existing members depart, she will sit alongside fellow newcomers Meg Whitman (ex-eBay) and Dominique Senequier (formidable head of Axa Private Equity), and existing director Sari Baldauf, formerly of Nokia.

It goes without saying that all these women are exceptionally well-qualified for the role. But is this just another manifestation of the glass cliff?

Research shows that organisations in crisis – a fair description of HP following the abrupt departure of Mark Hurd last year – look to female leaders to put things right. Academics Susanne Bruckmüller and Nyla Branscombe have conducted experiments that suggest that “a company’s leadership history and common assumptions about gender and leadership” contribute to the phenomenon that leaves women leaders exposed to failure and criticism. (The article that recounts their work in this month’s Harvard Business Review is illustrated with pictures of Fiorina and Russo, as well as three women currently in tough CEO positions – Kate Swann of WH Smith in the UK, and Lynn Elsenhans of Sunoco and Carol Bartz of Yahoo in the US).

Bruckmüller and Branscombe add, however, that

as people become more used to seeing women at the highest level of management, female leaders won’t be selected primarily for risky turnarounds – and will get more chances to run organisations that have good odds of continued success.

I prefer to think that the rebalancing of the HP board is part of an attempt to create a model for other US companies. Its board will have a diversity of experience (not just gender or ethnicity) under an independent chairman, Ray Lane, still a rarity in corporate America.

Of course, this as much a hope as a belief.  The HP boardroom has twice been accused of being “dysfunctional”, once by Fiorina after she was fired and then again last November – by Jack Welch. Third time lucky.

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