How to Get Fired in Less Than a Year

Posted 09.23.2011

Hp-ceo There are a lot of things you could say about the board of directors at Hewlett Packard but being afraid to pull the trigger is not one of them. With its dismissal of Leo Apotheker, the HP board has fired three CEOs in the past six years. Apotheker lasted 11 months at HP.  He came to the company from the enterprise software giant SAP and had a vision of transforming HP from primarily a hardware manufacturer to a software services and cloud computing leader.

Earlier this week, I wrote a post called How to Save Your Change Management Program from Cancellation. Of course, the first step to keeping it from getting cancelled is to avoid getting cancelled yourself. Apotheker is the second high profile CEO I can think of to get fired this year after less than 12 months on the job. The first was Jack Griffin, the former CEO of Time Inc.

Together, the stories of Griffin and Apotheker represent the top two reasons managers fail as determined in a study conducted by the Kelley School of Business at Indiana University. In Griffin’s case, it was failure to demonstrate the relationship and interpersonal skills needed to lead significant change in a complex environment. I shared my lessons learned from his tenure in Five Ways to Avoid Being Fired in Five Months. The headlines back then were:

1.    Do Your Homework

2.    Pace Yourself

3.    Genuflect When Necessary

4.    Build Allies

5.    Don’t Paint Targets on Your Back

One or more of those factors may have been in play at HP. Based on the reporting around Apotheker’s case, though, it sounds like one of the big reasons he got the boot because of the number one reason managers fail – ineffective communications skills and practices.

In his short time with the company, he set in motion an $11 billion acquisition of a British software company, announced that HP was probably going to get out of the personal computer business and killed their answer to the iPad just a couple of months after it was introduced.  All of his stakeholders – customers, employees, Wall Street and, ultimately, his board – were confused and worried by the sudden changes. There are a lot of things that Apotheker could have done to strengthen his communications around his plan. He might have started with three simple questions:

  • What?:  i.e. What are we doing and why are doing it? What’s the picture of what the future will look like after we do what we’re going to do?
  • So What?:  This is the “What’s in it for you?” question. The answers will vary for each target audience. While all of the answers should be built around the future strategy picture, you have to consider the differences between stakeholders and address their unique concerns in answering, “So what?”
  • Now What?:  This is where things got really crazy at HP. The changes and announcements were coming so fast and furious that no one knew what was coming next.  When you’re the leader communicating change, you’ve got to do all you can to give people the sense that the changes hang together in some coherent way.

So that’s my analysis. What’s yours? If you’re following the HP story, what’s your take? Even if you’re not, what’s your take on what leaders need to do to avoid super fast failures?