Fiorina As CEO: 'Colossal Failure' Or 'The Right Leader'? The former Hewlett-Packard CEO defended her business record in the latest Republican presidential debate. But is her past an asset or a hindrance?
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Fiorina As CEO: 'Colossal Failure' Or 'The Right Leader'?

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Fiorina As CEO: 'Colossal Failure' Or 'The Right Leader'?

Fiorina As CEO: 'Colossal Failure' Or 'The Right Leader'?

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Carly Fiorina campaigned in South Carolina this week trying to build on her strong showings in the debate. The former CEO of Hewlett-Packard defended her business record. As NPR's Yuki Noguchi reports, that's something she'll likely have to keep doing throughout the campaign.

YUKI NOGUCHI, BYLINE: Donald Trump says, as a businesswoman, Fiorina would be unqualified to lead one of his companies.

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DONALD TRUMP: The head of the Yale Business School, Jeffrey Sonnenfeld, wrote a paper recently - one of the worst tenures for CEO that he has ever seen.

NOGUCHI: Sonnenfeld's actual title is senior associate dean, but he says the rest is true.

JEFFREY SONNENFELD: Her business record was a colossal failure.

NOGUCHI: Fiorina, the daughter of a law professor turned judge, rose quickly at AT&T, becoming its first female senior vice president, then later, president of its spin-off, Lucent. Lucent was a business supernova. It burned bright then faded soon after she left. Part of its downfall lay in questionable but legal accounting that boosted revenues by loaning money to its customers. Still, Sonnenfeld, along with many others, say Fiorina's biggest misstep happened at HP, the expensive and unprofitable merger with Compaq. He says Fiorina pushed hard for a deal that was strategically misguided and would end up hurting HP.

SONNENFELD: Stapling together the carcasses of failing businesses is not a successful track record.

NOGUCHI: Still, Sonnenfeld says, executives often fail.

SONNENFELD: Leaders go through adversity and we benefit from their failures 'cause they come back and tell us how to get through it. But she doesn't 'cause she doesn't acknowledge it.

NOGUCHI: It's a failure of character and leadership, he says, that instead of accepting criticism, she shoots the messenger. Former Compaq turned HP senior vice president Bill Mutell defies the critics.

BILL MUTELL: She was the right leader at the right time.

NOGUCHI: Mutell, who has not contributed to her campaign, calls Fiorina, a leader with character, courage and conviction. He argues the Compaq merger was a success that shored up both companies.

MUTELL: Had that merger not occurred, I'm almost certain that neither company wouldn't be here today.

NOGUCHI: Much of the debate over her corporate performance boils down to two disparate views of HP's woes. Her critics attribute them to her decisions and leadership. Her supporters, and Fiorina herself, blame the times.

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CARLY FIORINA: I led Hewlett-Packard through a very difficult time, the worst technology recession in 25 years.

NOGUCHI: Tom Perkins is a Silicon Valley venture capitalist and former HP board member who, at the time, voted to fire Fiorina. But in a full-page ad in the New York Times paid for by a pac supporting Fiorina, Perkins defended her record and leadership. Much of the political criticism of Fiorina's career stems from the 30,000 layoffs soon after the Compaq merger. Her eventual successor at HP, Meg Whitman, who, like Fiorina, has run for office in California, has defended that decision. Here Whitman is speaking to CNN Money in June.

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MEG WHITMAN: When Carly made those reductions, it was probably the right - I wasn't here, but I suspect she was trying to do in some ways what I've tried to do is make this company more competitive.

NOGUCHI: She says the price of inaction would have been far greater. Yale professor Jeffrey Sonnenfeld points to other strong female contemporaries, saying gender was not Fiorina's issue. He notes the chair of HP who fired Fiorina was a woman named Patricia Dunn. Sonnenfeld argues her contemporaries - now IBM CEO Ginni Rometty and former Xerox CEO Anne Mulcahy - have better records.

SONNENFELD: I do think that there are some added challenges that women CEOs have had, but it doesn't seem to be relevant in the particular case of Carly Fiorina.

NOGUCHI: But that, like everything else, is likely still up for debate. Yuki Noguchi, NPR News, Washington.

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