Over the last dozen years, I have studied failure and leader's career ending mistakes. Each year I announce my list of the worst CEOs -- this year releasing my worst five of the year. The "best" of the worst, in the number five spot, is Leo Apotheker, HP's former CEO.
Is there another CEO in 2011 who had as many missteps as Apotheker? There are others who made even bigger mistakes (coming to the blog in the next days), but I don’t know who actually did more things wrong in one year than this guy.
Where to start? Decided to sell or spin-off the consumer PC business, then changed his mind and said he would keep it. Launched the H-P tablet to great fanfare, and mothballed it just a couple of months later. Announced financial targets then proceeded to miss them. Acquired enterprise software company Autonomy by paying a rich $10 billion for the company. Throw in a few leaked memos and you’ve got the makings of a great case study for “Why Smart Executives Fail.”
Let’s also not forget, however, that Apotheker was aided and abetted by a dismal board of directors. First they chose the guy without even meeting with him together as a board. Coming from SAP sounded great, but did he really understand consumer businesses (witness the PC debacle)? And did he want to remake H-P in the image of his former employer (witness the Autonomy acquisition)?
The track record of the H-P board when it comes to hiring and firing CEOs is not particularly good, a remarkable point when one considers that the people in the boardroom seats have changed over time. Carly Fiorina was a dismal failure, the wrong person for the job. Mark Hurd had a great run, but the numbers dramatically tailed off in the last couple of years of his tenure. And then he was dismissed in a highly controversial manner. Enter Apotheker. Exit Apotheker. And now Meg Whitman of eBay fame is the CEO, hired without a significant search process. I have confidence in Meg, but I don’t like the process the board undertook to bring her on.
Will 2012 bring more of the same to H-P? I think Meg Whitman will bring adult supervision to an unruly crowd, and the strong assets and talent base of the company will begin to rise up after what must have been an upsetting run to put up with. Nonetheless, I can’t help but compare H-P boardroom turmoil to the seamless CEO succession process at IBM in 2011. I hope the H-P board goes to school on IBM and tries to emulate how professional organizations manage at the top. It may be galling for H-P to look to IBM for anything, but the events of 2011 really highlight worst, and best, practice in executive leadership.
Stay tuned tomorrow, when I reveal my selection of the #4 Worst CEO of 2011. Hint: he’s the only one of the Worst 5 that runs a non-profit, and unfortunately, he’s been very much in the news this fall.