Women in Public Affairs to Know: Carly Fiorina

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This interview is part of a series on Women in Public Affairs to Know,” by the McGuireWoods Consulting Women in Public Affairs initiative. 

Carly is the founder and chairman of Carly Fiorina Enterprises, and of Unlocking Potential, a non-profit organization that invests in human potential by supporting local leaders who are solving problems in their communities and places of work; equipping them with the behaviors, characteristics, disciplines and tools to increase their leadership and problem-solving capacity. Carly’s experience spans from secretary to CEO, from public to private, and from for-profit to non-profit. She started out as a secretary for a nine-person real-estate business and eventually became the first woman ever to lead a Fortune 50 company.

When Carly was recruited to lead Hewlett Packard (HP) in 1999, the industry was facing the worst technology recession in 25 years. Under Carly’s leadership, revenue grew, innovation tripled, growth quadrupled, and HP became the 11th largest company in the U.S.

Carly was appointed by President Bush and CIA Director Michael Hayden to serve as the Chairman of the External Advisory Board of the CIA after 9/11. In 2015, Carly launched a campaign for President. Running as a political outsider, Carly spoke about empowering and engaging citizens to take back government from a political ruling class that has failed to deliver results. Carly is also a best-selling author. Her titles include Tough Choices and Rising to the Challenge. Her third book Find Your Way is out now.

The interview below was conducted by Michele Satterlund, senior vice president on McGuireWoods Consulting’s Virginia State Government Relations team.

Question: I read your third book, Find Your Way, and was struck by your statement that the essence of real leadership is the ability to solve problems.  Can you talk about problem-solving and your belief that everyone can be a leader if they choose the right problem to solve?

Carly Fiorina: We tend to think of leaders as people with position and title. When I was a young woman coming up, that’s what I thought. If you had a position, if you had a title, if you had the office, you must be a leader. Then, of course, I got wiser as we all do as we get older, and realized that people who truly lead are the ones that make a difference. And the way you make a difference, is that you change things for the better. And the way you change things for the better, is by solving problems – particularly problems that have festered a long time and that the status quo just allows to sit there, even though everyone knows they’re there. That’s why I say the purpose of leadership is to change the order of things for the better, not just manage to keep things the way they are, but to change things for the better. If that’s the purpose, then leaders focus on problem-solving, and when you think about the discipline and the skill and the characteristics of problem-solving, they are things that all of us can learn and that all of us can display. That’s why I say leadership isn’t about position or title. It is about, in its essence, making a positive difference, which means you’ve got to solve problems.

Q: Given the recent events that have laid bare the structural inequities and systemic racism that are embedded into our nation’s justice systems, what advice do you have for individuals who want to change the order of things for the better?

Carly: People closest to the problem know best how to solve it, and that goes back to your first question of focusing on the right problems. People closest to the problem know best how to solve the problem because they understand the problem. In many cases, maybe they understand it because they’ve lived it. The tragedy is that we so often fail to ask the people who understand the problem. A bunch of other people say, "well I know what to do." I believe that the best problem-solving always starts on the ground and in the community with people who understand what’s going on. If we want to change structural inequity in our society, I believe we need to start with people in communities who are experiencing that injustice and that inequity and ask them, "what would help?" What would help them solve the problem? If we listen, we will make progress. It’s one of the reasons that I’m excited about the One Heart Project because the One Heart Project started with the proposition of somebody asking a young man who was about to get out of prison with no pass, "what would help you?" And the answer to what would help him became the One Heart Project. People do understand what will make things better. We have to ask the right people and we have to act on what they tell us.

Q: I understand your company, Carly Fiorina Enterprises, counsels corporations of every size on effective leadership, diversity and inclusion training. How does this type of training benefit a corporation and does it positively impact a company’s bottom line?

Carly: Corporate America today spends $8 billion a year on diversity, equity and inclusion training. And yet, the numbers haven’t moved. If you look at the numbers of women and people of color in the seats in the board room, we’ve made some progress, but fundamentally, the numbers haven’t moved much. Clearly the money isn’t being spent in the right way. I think there are two fundamental reasons why we don’t make sufficient progress. And frankly, why we haven’t made significant progress on a lot of the problems we’re talking about today. Number one, we don’t often understand that fixing this problem is good for the bottom line. We convince ourselves that this is a nice to-do. It’s nice to include people. It’s important to be respectful. But, many businesses don’t actually accept the premise that performance is better when you have a diverse team at the table. And yet, when you look at the data, the data is clear. Diverse teams perform better over time.

The second thing that I think is a reality, is that people are most comfortable with people like themselves. That’s just true of all of us, it’s human nature. It doesn’t make us bad people, it makes us human. We’re all most comfortable with people like ourselves. That means it feels easier to work with people like ourselves and the truth is, it is. It’s actually harder to have a productive conversation with someone who is very different. It’s more difficult to understand what someone else is conveying to you when they have a completely different experience than you do. But it’s also true that the only time we as human beings learn or innovate is when we’re challenged by something new, something different. This is why people go through motions of diversity and inclusion but then they don’t actually want to do the hard work of building a diverse and effective team because they don’t believe the data, which is crystal clear, that diverse teams perform better. Just like the data is crystal clear that if you have more women engaged in every issue, the issue gets better. Or just like it’s crystal clear, particularly within the last 3 or 4 weeks, that if we have systemic injustice and racism in our country, and we clearly do, that the whole country suffers or is held back economically. We have social unrest that impacts all of us. In a pandemic, our hospital systems are overrun because some people haven’t had adequate access to healthcare for too many decades, just as a few examples. In other words, we have to accept that we all are better, if all of us get to play. And, we have to accept that it’s harder and takes more work.

Q: I know you are passionate about the One Heart Project, a nonprofit that is transforming the lives of youth within the juvenile justice system. Can you talk about the organization and how it is changing the lives of incarcerated youth by giving them not only a vision, but also the tools to achieve that vision?

Carly: It’s easy for us to say, out of sight, out of mind. We don’t see it so it doesn’t matter. Then, something like a pandemic hits, or the murder of George Floyd hits and all of the sudden, we all come face-to-face with the reality that actually it may be out of sight, but it can’t be out of mind, because it ultimately will affect us.

The One Heart Project focuses on juveniles who have been through the criminal justice system and so many of these kids started out with the whole deck stacked against them in many ways. I believe based on experience (but I believe it passionately) that everyone has enormous potential. We shouldn’t in this country have that potential squandered because of someone’s appearance or someone’s circumstances. This is the country of second chances and third chances and fourth chances. Everybody deserves a chance and sometimes more than one. As I mentioned, the One Heart Project started by asking a young man who was about to be released from prison, "what would help you?" The project works with people in the criminal justice system, starting with that proposition. They have potential, they can make an impact, they can make a difference, for themselves, for their communities, for their families, and we need to help give them the resources, the tools, the support and the confidence to do so. One of the reasons I’m so passionate about this is because it reinforces every belief I have about problem solving and about an individual’s potential, but I’m also passionate about it because we cannot be performing at our best as a community, or as a commonwealth, or as a nation, if we are leaving whole generations of people behind.

Q: McGuireWoods Consulting will be working with you in your role as Chairman of the One Heart Project Virginia to bring greater attention to the needs of justice-involved youth. When you think about our nation’s juvenile justice system, what steps do you think policymakers can take to begin reforming and rebuilding a more equitable juvenile justice system?

Carly: This is an area where the data has been really clear for a long time. I was giving an interview the other day and I had said publicly for some time, systemic racism exists. And somebody said "well, does that mean everyone’s a racist?" And I said, "no, that doesn’t mean everyone in a system is a racist, but what it does mean, is that the rules in a system are applied in a discriminate way towards a race, or it means the rules themselves are designed to discriminate against a particular race." I start with that because, if you look at the data, there is no question. I come from business, so data and facts matter to me. Numbers matter to me. There’s just no question that the judicial system, in virtually every respect, discriminates in a punitive way against, in particular African Americans, as well as people of color in general. That starts at the very beginning for why someone is thrown into the criminal justice system, whether or not they are given a chance for a different kind of path, given the very difficult circumstances in which they live. Imagine being a juvenile and thrown into an adult incarceration system. Imagine what that does to a young man. Imagine being released one day and told, "you’re on your own, good luck." The chances of that working out well are incredibly small. We have to look at the data, understand what it’s telling us and then act on it. We must give people who have served their time, and paid their dues and faced the consequences, particularly young people, the opportunity for a second chance and the support to make that second chance work.

Q: Courage is a constant theme throughout your writing and speeches. Can you share your thoughts on what courage means and how we can all learn to be more courageous?

Carly: One of the reasons that I speak so often about courage is because criticism is always the price for problem-solving and leadership.

You have to have courage to withstand criticism. I start there because one of the things that people sometimes expect is “Oh, if I’m going to step up and solve a problem, if I’m going to step up and change the order of things for the better, at any level, in my family, in my community, in my company, I’m going to get a lot of ‘atta boys’ and ‘atta girls’.” People are always so stunned when frequently exactly the opposite happens. When you step forward to try and solve a problem, and what you get instead of "atta boys," is "why are you doing it that way, why are you doing it at all," and "why don’t you just leave it alone." In other words, criticism always happens when you challenge the way things are. However, you cannot solve a problem unless you challenge the way things are because the way things are has allowed a problem to fester.

When you challenge the way things are, people who are in that system are going to criticize, or people who are afraid of change are going to criticize and make it so you can’t tackle a problem. There will be criticism tackling a long-standing, festering, important, and difficult problem, and therefore courage is essential. Because, without courage, you get thrown off track by the criticism which can sometimes, in the era of social media, be immediate, visceral and cruel. Some people have called me fearless, and that’s absolutely not true. Someone said to me once, “how did you get to be so fearless?” I said, “I’m not, I’ve just had a lot of practice getting over fear,” and that’s the truth. I’ve had a lot of practice. Courage is not the absence of fear. It’s confronting fear, and moving on and moving through it. We do a lot of work through my foundation of unlocking the potential with wounded warriors. You think of wounded warriors as being the bravest people on the planet and they are in many ways, and yet they’re afraid of many things. They’re afraid of being pitied, they’re afraid of not getting hired, they’re afraid of looking foolish. The truth is, we’re all afraid of things that when we say them out loud, sometimes seem foolish. I’m afraid of making a mistake. I’m afraid of getting criticized. I’m afraid of looking stupid. I’m afraid I’ll look like a fool. We’re all afraid of those things. I’ve learned with practice, that to get over fear, we have to start by naming our fear. What am I afraid of? I was just talking with a young man who went to jail at 16. He went to jail for a decade for a crime he didn’t commit. He knew who committed it. He would not snitch. Those were his terms, because in his neighborhood, if you snitched, your family suffered or perhaps died. You might die in jail. Those are real life substantial fears. But most of us have fears that can be equally debilitating, they’re just not as profound. I say name our fear and then think through, okay, what’s the worst that can happen? I get criticized. I make a mistake. But what’s the best that can happen? I make a difference. We make progress. We actually change somebody’s life.

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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