Verdicts on Carly Fiorina's time as CEO of Hewlett-Packard seem to run the gamut from faint praise to sweeping indictment.
On the "sweeping indictment" side, there's Yale's Jeffrey Sonnenfeld, who calls Fiorina "one of the worst technology CEOs in history."
In the faint praise column, Justin Fox writes, "no, Carly Fiorina was not the greatest CEO in corporate history. But she certainly wasn’t the worst, either."
But here's an even hotter take: it doesn't really matter what kind of CEO Fiorina was.
There's just no reason to believe that the job someone did as CEO of Hewlett-Packard between 1999 and 2005 will tell us much about the job they'll do as President of the United States of America in 2017.
As CEO of Hewlett-Packard, Fiorina had to decide whether it made good business sense to merge with Compaq. But she didn't have to decide whether to launch air strikes on Iran, or deal with a Democratic Congress, or try to get key hires through the Senate confirmation process, or appoint anyone to the Supreme Court.
The aims of a public company like Hewlett-Packard are clear: generate returns for shareholders. The aims of the United States government are contested: should it try to cover every American with health insurance? Make sure abortions are illegal across the land? Keep peace in the Middle East? Fight global warming? These aren't merely questions of execution, or even of empirical research — they're questions of values.
Even where the issues don't raise such fundamental questions, they still foil the basic calculus of sound corporate management.
For instance, should the US government invest most where it can expect the highest returns? That's what a business would do, after all.
But it's not what the federal government does. Instead, the government sends checks to the elderly to make sure they stay out of poverty, and it sends postal workers into rural areas to make sure they get mail, and it spends money to fight AIDS in Africa.
The best argument that Fiorina's time at HP is relevant to her presidential campaign is that it shows that amorphous set of skills known as "leadership abilities": the capacity to inspire, to persuade, to manage, to negotiate.
But leading different kinds of organizations really is different. As CEO, Fiorina could fire a department head who wasn't executing her strategy quickly enough; she can't fire the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee because he's dragging his heels. And when it comes to making the bureaucracy work, she's even more constrained: where she could once close whole product lines if they underperformed, as president, she can't even axe individual members of the civil service.
(The closest analogue to the presidency might be Fiorina's dealings with a board of directors that was at least partially hostile to her plans — there's an obvious connection there to Congress. But it's not a very comforting comparison for Fiorina: instead of eventually finding a way to work with her board, she was fired by them.)
There's a widespread fantasy that some hard-charging CEO could take control of the America government and make it run like a business. But it's mere fantasy: the US government can't run like a business because it isn't structured like a business, it doesn't have the goals of a business, and it doesn't have the tools of a business. It's possible for a brilliant CEO to be a terrible president, and vice versa.
Carly Fiorina's time at HP might tell us a lot about her, but it won't tell us that much about what kind of president she'll be, if only because she'll have to be different as president than she was as CEO.
Perhaps the simplest way to see that is to remember that virtually the entire conversation over Fiorina's tenure at HP is about her acquisition of Compaq; if the US has a bad couple of years, she can't just go buy Canada.