How Carly Fiorina’s Nonprofit Seeks to Help People Become LeadersCarly Fiorina
This week’s Business of Giving features Carly Fiorina, former CEO of Hewlett-Packard, a Republican presidential candidate in 2016, and the founder of the Unlocking Potential Foundation. She is also the author of Find Your Way: Unleash Your Power and Highest Potential.
Fiorina says that nobody is a born leader, and her foundation’s aim is to help people unlock their leadership qualities. The organization uses coaches and “Leadership Labs” to help people at nonprofits hone their problem-solving skills.
Read the transcript below:
Denver: Social problems are best addressed when the private, governmental, and nonprofit sectors are all at the table working together. So, it stands to reason that an individual who’s been the CEO of a Fortune 50 company, run for president of the United States, and has founded and led several nonprofit organizations might have a fresh, interesting, and holistic approach to solving problems, and my next guest absolutely does. She is Carly Fiorina, the former CEO of Hewlett-Packard, a Republican presidential candidate in 2016, the Founder of the Unlocking Potential Foundation, as well as the author of Find Your Way: Unleash Your Power and Highest Potential.
Good evening, Carly, welcome to The Business of Giving!
Carly: Good evening. Thank you so much for having me.
Denver: Let’s start with the book. You have said that one of the reasons you wrote it was because we’re a little confused about leadership – how it’s currently being portrayed as opposed to its essential nature. Speak to that, if you would.
Carly: I think people assume that leaders are those with big titles, with big positions. We assume a leader may be famous. I used to assume that. I started out in business as a secretary, and I thought, as a young secretary, that the leader was whoever the guy was who had the biggest office, or the biggest parking place, or the biggest set of perks. As I got on in life, I realized there were lots of people with position and title and power to go along with it – and sometimes ego to go along with all that – who weren’t leading. So sometimes leaders have title in position, but it is not what makes them a leader. A leader changes the order of things for the better. A leader confronts problems and helps solve them. A leader unlocks potential in others. A leader makes things better.
The other reason that I wrote this book is it’s not just that we’re confused about what leadership is. We hold up this isolated star; we hold up the controversial character; we hold up the person with a big title, and meanwhile, we have leaders right in front of us who are changing the order of things for the better every day. But the other thing I’ve learned is that all of us actually are capable of leadership, and if we don’t get clear about what leadership really is, then so often, we don’t realize that we too can lead from right where we are by tackling the problems that are right in front of us.
Denver: So, you don’t believe that leaders are necessarily born, but they can be made.
Carly: I do not. I think leaders are made, not born. I think leaders are made when each of us realizes that we have untapped potential for problem-solving. When someone sees potential in us and takes a chance on us – and all of us need somebody to take a chance on us, no matter what our circumstances are– and when we actually confront something difficult, maybe even scary, and make real progress on it; that’s when people get that light in their eyes that for me is fuel and say to themselves, “Wait. I can do more. I can have a bigger impact. I can make a difference.”
Denver: What’s the essential difference between a leader and a manager?
Carly: Managers aren’t bad people. Let’s just start with that. There are a lot of managers. But managers are people who accept things the way they are. They don’t try and change things; they try and do the best they can with however things are. Managers are people who are likely to say, “It’s already been tried,” or “It’s not my job,” or “I’m going to stick to my knitting,” or “I’m just going to do the best I can. I know it’s not great, but I’m going to do the best I can.”
Leaders are altogether different. Leaders challenge the way things are because it’s only if you challenge the way things are that you actually solve the problems that have been festering for a long time. People know what the problems are. We always know what they are. It’s not that we’re ignorant, it’s just we don’t deal with them. So, leaders say, “No, I’m going to challenge the way things are.” Leaders see possibilities. They can see beyond the constraints and say, “But we could do things differently.”
Denver: It’s amazing how comfortable we are with the status quo, even if the status quo is dysfunctional.
Carly: And sometimes especially. I tell this story in my book of one of the purest examples of leadership I’ve ever seen. This occurred in the slums of New Delhi, India.
Denver: On the rooftop.
Carly: Yes, a very grim place. A woman who lived in abysmal poverty had a chance to be given a very small microfinance loan and learn how to become an entrepreneur, and her family, her culture, everything about her status quo told her: Women don’t do this. You endure. You manage. You do the best you can with these terrible circumstances. That’s all. And finally, she gathered her courage, and she took the loan, and she took the training. I asked her, “Well, what does your family think now?” And she said, “They’re all very happy. They all work for me.”
And so, while it seems so obvious that someone should rise above all the pressure to just do it the way it’s always been done, the truth is that most people, regardless of their circumstances, most people are afraid or reluctant at the least to challenge the way things are. They’re unhappy with the status quo perhaps, but that doesn’t mean they’re going to do anything to change it. That’s the difference between a manager and a leader. A leader says, “I’m going to do something to change it.”
Denver: I think the worst thing that you find in people sometimes is inertia. They just accept it. A lot of people I know have wanted to leave jobs, but I asked them “Why not?” and it’s just like – it’s inertia. It’s just the energy to do something; they just pass on it.
Carly: In any organization – it doesn’t matter whether it’s a business or a government agency or a nonprofit – in any organization, people actually know what all the problems are. They talk about them. They complain about them. They gossip about them. They know. And yet the reality is most problems that are right in front of us have festered for a long time, and there’s a reason for that. It’s because maybe they’re tough to solve, but it’s also because of inertia. It’s because of management, not leadership. It’s because of the fear of criticism – If I actually step out and try something new and risk, maybe I’m going to make a mistake. All of that is real, which is why I spend so much time trying to encourage people, equip people, empower people, teach people how to lead so that they are not afraid to step out; they’re prepared to step out.
Denver: In your book, you also discussed choosing the path over the plan. What is the difference? Why is the path the better way to go?
Carly: The plan. We live in a culture, in a society where we’re encouraged to have it all planned out. We’re encouraged to… when we’re in 9th grade, we’re encouraged to know what college we’re going to go to. When we’re in college, we’re encouraged to know what job we’re going to go to.
Denver: You’re so right.
Carly: We feel as though we have to have a plan. What I’ve seen is a lot of people get so fixated on their plan – I want to be at this level in this kind of job by this age – that they miss all these opportunities that are all around them that might actually give them more fulfillment and more of a chance at impact.
I learned that the hard way because I was one of those plan people. I had to have a plan. I was a goody-two-shoes. I was a parent pleaser. I always did everything right.
Denver: Middle child.
Carly: Middle child, straight-A student. So, I was going to follow in my father’s footsteps and go get a law degree, and then the plan blew up in my face because I hated law school. I hated it. I couldn’t stand it for another minute, and so I quit after the first exam. And now, there is no plan. And so, I had to go make a living; so I went to work as a receptionist for a nine-person real estate firm. When I finally landed in corporate America, I had no plan. I didn’t think I’d make it for two days.
So, what I ended up doing was focusing on all the problems I saw around me and working with the people who actually knew something about them. What I’ve learned over and over again is if you will quit worrying about 5 years, 10 years, 15 years out, and focus on what’s right in front of you and the people who are all around you, wonderful things can happen. Opportunity will knock, and you will also make a difference.
Denver: I think you’re really speaking to the importance of being fully present in the moment, which very often, we’re not. We’re thinking ahead; we’re looking here. But if you are fully present there, you see things around you. You also listen much more deeply by doing that than you otherwise might.
Carly: You’re so right. I actually think technology has made this so much worse because we’re distracted all the time by our technology. It’s not just that we’re distracted by the e-mails and the texts and all the rest, but we’re also distracted by this requirement to curate our image. So, my goodness, all the time that people spend curating their photos, and what does my Instagram feed—
Denver: My brand.
Carly: Yes! And so, meanwhile, they’re not present in what’s going on right around them. Sometimes a picture’s worth a thousand words. I so often am struck when I see people in some iconic spot, fixated on their selfie, and while they are expending enormous energy on getting that photo exactly right…oh my gosh, all the stuff they are missing. And I think it’s sort of this analogy for how too often we live our lives: We’re missing everything and everyone that’s going on.
Denver: I think we have both seen these incredible events that you would just die to be at, and you’re looking at the participants, the people who are there, and every single one of them is filming it on their phones. They’re seeing it the way I’m seeing it on TV because they have to have their record. And you’re saying, “What are they doing?” There isn’t one person there who doesn’t have their phone up doing a video of this activity. It’s crazy.
Carly: I also think technology has made us focus on reacting as opposed to acting. One of the things we spend a lot of time on with our participants in the Leadership Lab is: activity and reaction is not the same as impact. Impact requires not just being fully present; it requires that. Impact requires leadership, not management. But impact also requires the discipline to sometimes stop, look, listen. Stop, look, listen. We used to learn that crossing the street, but it’s really good advice for leaders as well. You need to stop and look around you and listen to the people around you so that you know how to act and what will make the most impact next.
Denver: Carly, say a little bit more about the path because we’ve talked about some of the shortcomings of the plan. Talk about the path, and your path, and how you follow that path.
Carly: So for me the path is all about solving the problems that are yours to solve. So that sounds maybe too Zen-like, and I had to learn this the hard way. I landed in corporate America…I was a law school dropout, a medieval history and philosophy major. I was a woman in a man’s world. Nobody expected anything of me, and neither did I.
Denver: Well, that’s not the resume that would set you up to become the future CEO of HP, that’s for sure.
Carly: No. Not at all. And so, faced with that, there was no plan for me. I didn’t think, “I’m going to set my sights on this job and get promoted.” No.
Denver: You were trying to keep your job is what you were thinking.
Carly: Yes. I was trying to keep my job. But what I figured out – I started looking around and listening, and what I figured out is there were all these problems all around me, and there were people who understood those problems. They actually knew what it would take to make them better, but nobody had ever given them a chance. They didn’t think it was their job. No one had ever listened to them.
I started listening to them, and together, we started solving problems. And guess what? In any part of life, if you solve a problem and produce a result, people will pay attention. It’s called impact. And so, I learned: ask questions; figure out what the problem is; figure out who knows best how to solve the problem, and usually, it’s the person impacted by the problem; and then collaborate together and make something better.
That became my path. I am going to solve problems, the ones that are right in front of me, and I’m going to do it with the people around me who also are impacted by those problems. What I learned was every single time I did that, another door opened; another opportunity presented itself. In this way, we think that problems are bad things, and they are; but they’re also opportunities.
Denver: No doubt about it.
Carly: They’re opportunities to learn what you’re made of. They’re opportunities to help others discover their own potential. They’re opportunities to make an impact.
Let’s face it: There will always be problems. They never go away. And so, we can bitch about them; we can worry about them, or we can get about the business of solving them. That, to me, is the path.
Denver: That’s what leadership is all about: solving those problems.
Carly: Yes. Solving those problems. And to do that – to lead, to solve the problems – you have to behave in a certain way on the path, which is what the book is about also. You need to have the courage to challenge the way things are. You have to have the character to keep going when the going gets tough, because guess what? The going always gets tough.
Denver: And some of these problems are going to be outside of your lane, and there are going to be some turf issues about: that’s not your job; stick to your knitting; what are you doing over here?
Carly: That’s exactly right, so it takes courage and character. You have to be – and you alluded to this – you have to be humble enough to ask the question instead of broadcasting the answer every time. I don’t know it all. I can’t do it all by myself. You have to be empathetic enough to listen, to see. And as we also have just talked about, you have to see the possibility that something can be better and that someone – maybe someone right next to you – can actually do more than perhaps they think they can.
Denver: That’s what really gives you your fuel, isn’t it? When you see that happen…
Carly: Yes. There’s a look that people get when they realize they can do more. We know that look in our kids, but it’s the same look the world over.
Denver: It’s the same look. You’re right.
Carly: It’s the same look. People light up from inside; and for me, that look is fuel. When I see that look, it’s like “I want more of that look.”
Denver: That’s what keeps you going.
I love what you say about the fact that the people who are closest to the problem are also closest to the solution. We seem to be in this sector a little late at the game of getting beneficiary feedback. I have worked in so many nonprofit organizations where you ask the board, and you ask the donors and you ask the expert, and it’s taken us a long time to ask the people who were being served: Is this working for you? What could be going a little bit better? And that’s where the answer really rests.
Carly: Yes. Exactly. And it’s always true that people who are impacted by a problem have an idea about how to make the problem better. And so, you’re so right. One of the things that we do when we go into communities and we work with nonprofits, whether it’s around an issue like homelessness or health outcomes, or whether it’s with disabled children and adults, is: ask your clients what works for them, what doesn’t work for them, because they will help you solve what has become a pressing problem.
Denver: I had a nonprofit tech incubator on the show called Fast Forward. They said that of the 84% of those entrepreneurs that they funded, each of them had dealt with the problem. They had experienced the problem. And they did that not only because of the understanding that they brought to the issue, but also because they weren’t going to jump to another job. This was somehow in their DNA; it was in their marrow…that they were not going to go for $10,000 more. This they experienced as a child, and they didn’t want other children to experience, or whatever the case might be.
Carly: Yes. I think that’s so often the case. And by the way, it’s true in the corporate space as well. If people are listening and thinking “Well, this is only true in the nonprofit space” – no. It’s true in every space. Some of my most notable accomplishments in the corporate world came because I asked the question. Jim, the engineer, I asked him—
Denver: Tell us about Jim. That’s a great story.
Carly: I was managing engineers for the first time, and I didn’t know anything about it. Sometimes ignorance really is an opportunity to learn something new –
Denver: If you make it a blessing, it is.
Carly: — which is why humility is important. And so I said, “Well, Jim, tell me about a problem you see.” And he said, “Well, the work that I do isn’t reflected in the bills that we get for the services that I’ve asked for.” I said, “Well, what do you think we ought to do?” “Well, I think we ought to check the bills, but it’s not my job. It’s accounting’s job, but they don’t know what I’m asking for.” So I said, “Okay. Let’s check the bills,” and I gave him the resources. Well, at first, just he and I were checking the bills literally. Eventually, in a year, that idea of Jim’s saved the company $300 million.
So, when people think that I have a title, I have a position, therefore I know…when people from way far away think they’re going to figure out how to solve a problem, they’re not going to be able to. And it’s why I say: Solve the problem right in front of you because that’s the problem you understand best, and it’s your problem to solve.
Denver: A few years ago, you founded the Unlocking Potential Foundation. What is its mission? What are the objectives of the organization?
Carly: Unlocking Potential is focused on the nonprofit community. Our goal is to unlock the potential of every leader that we come across. I started the foundation first because I have great admiration for the nonprofit sector and the people in that sector because in my experience they are dealing with very difficult, very complex, very festering problems. In my estimation, they have extraordinary… not just compassion and caring for these problems, but discipline around solving them. However, I also know, having led several nonprofits myself, that frequently in the nonprofit sector, we don’t always invest in the human capital. Donors say, “Well, no. I want my money to go to the client.” or “I don’t want to have too much overhead,” and boards are always looking at those metrics of overhead. But in truth, we have to invest in the people who are trying to solve these problems.
And so, the Unlocking Potential Foundation has a curriculum, a set of facilitators, a set of coaches. We have Leadership Labs that I personally lead. But what we’re doing is working with nonprofits all across this country to help them hone their problem-solving and leadership skills. It is deeply fulfilling work, and I think these are people close to the problems that plague our communities and our families, and we need to lift them up and give them the skills and the tools that they need so that those problems become better.
Denver: We need more problem solvers, that is for sure.
Carly: We need more problem solvers in the world, and that’s what the Unlocking Potential Foundation is focused on.
Denver: Who are some of the nonprofit organizations that you work with?
Carly: We have several models of the work that we do. First, we work with a particular organization like the Wounded Warrior Project, like Easterseals. That’s one model.
The second model is: we gather a group of nonprofits who are working on a similar issue. So we may gather nonprofits in the city of Washington DC around the homelessness issue, for example.
The third model is where we have a corporate partner, and that corporate partner brings us into a community and asks us to work with nonprofits that they are working with.
Carly: So American Express is a corporate partner that has brought us into the community of Salt Lake City. MassMutual is a corporate partner who has brought us into the community of Springfield and that particular region in Massachusetts.
And so, given those three models, we’ve worked with many nonprofit organizations. Some of them bigger and more well-known like Wounded Warrior Project, and some of them quite small and focused in a specific community.
Denver: Well, we all need help, no matter what your size is.
So, after you do this Leadership Lab, do you continue to work with these individuals who are part of it? And if so, how?
Carly: Yes. The Leadership Lab is our most intensive problem-solving and leadership experience. It is a two-day intensive course. I lead much of that course personally. We also have trained facilitators, people who understand our curriculum and our methodology very well– a curriculum and methodology that I’ve learned over decades– who work with the participants in a set of facilitated breakout groups. At the end of that two-day session – and by the way, let me just pause and say we don’t tell people at the outset of this lab what problems they should be focused on; we ask them to bring to the lab the problems they think are of most importance –
Denver: Very smart.
Carly: — so that they can actually work on those problems during the lab. But we know that two days is great, but it’s never enough because you’re having to learn new disciplines and tools. We have some very specific problem-solving tools. And so, we follow that with six months of coaching where we assign a trained coach to each nonprofit participant so that they have someone with whom they can practice and discuss and commiserate, if necessary.
Denver: And not forget everything they learned in those two days.
Carly: That’s right. And at the end of the six months, we come all the way back around and say, “Okay. What is the progress you have made on using the tools, on solving the problems you started with, and on mastering the disciplines of leadership?”
Denver: Have you changed the program? You’ve looked at the impact. Are you always refining it and tweaking it?
Carly: Of course. We’re always refining it. We very much believe in metrics, that metrics are very important, and so we’re very focused on measuring the impact. So, yes. We tweak, always. However, the two main problem-solving tools we use have stayed the same because I know they work after many decades. The disciplines that we focus people on – courage, character, humility, empathy, collaboration, and seeing possibilities – those disciplines have stayed the same. The essence is the same, but we always tweak it to make sure it gets better.
Denver: All those things you mentioned are part of the path.
Denver: You like problems; in fact, you run to problems. So, what do you think some of the biggest problems are in the nonprofit sector right now in terms of the way it operates?
Carly: Several. First, I think, is one that we just talked about. I think the nonprofit sector has understandably been very focused on ensuring that the maximum dollar goes to those they serve, and the motivation for that is always right. But if you do not invest in the capability of the people doing the work, if you do not invest in the functionality of the team, if you do not invest in the skill of the board, the impact will not be as much.
And so what we need is nonprofits to realize what for-profit companies realized a long time ago, which is: I actually have to invest a certain amount of time and money in my human capital, in my team effectiveness, in whether or not I am a functional organization at all levels, from the board all the way down. So I think that’s one major problem.
Denver: Right. And along those lines, you never walked into an HP board meeting and somebody said, “How much money did you spend on training this month?”
Carly: Well, yes, sometimes we did. But generally, you knew…in a business setting, people knew you had to invest.
Denver: That you had to invest. Right.
Carly: I think another problem that nonprofits face is a lot of people who decide they want to get involved with nonprofits – maybe on the board, maybe as a donor – they think of it a little bit as a hobby, as a nice to-do and, of course, that’s foolish because these problems are so complex.
If you’ll bear with me here, I was recently at a round table of corporate executives who were engaged in foundation and philanthropic work. The conversation around the table was basically that these corporations, “We’re going to have to start taking over these problems because we have most of the talent, and these nonprofits really don’t have the talent pool.” And I said, “You’re so wrong. There is enormous talent in the nonprofit sector. Enormous talent and enormous dedication.” So, I do think there is, in some cases, sort of a writing off; it’s a hobby. If someone decides to join a board of a non-profit, they should take that board experience with every ounce of seriousness that they would take a corporate board experience, and I’m not sure they always do.
Denver: And I’ll tell you the truth, I’m not so sure that the organizations ask them to because they’re also looking for a “yes” and they don’t lay out the criteria.
Carly: Well, that may be as well. And they’re looking for donations.
Denver: They’re looking for donations, and they try to make it easy to get them on the board. And then a year later, when they haven’t done the things that they had hoped they would do – well, they were never told to do them.
Well, talk a little bit about boards because that’s such an interesting subject. There are so many dysfunctional boards, and you know boards like nobody knows boards. You’ve worked with them. You’ve been on them. You’ve led them. You’ve done it in the profit sector and the nonprofit sector. What makes for a high-performing board? Why are so many so dysfunctional?
Carly: So, let’s just punctuate what you just said – So. Many. Are. Dysfunctional. It’s really shocking.
Denver: It is.
Carly: And many of the most storied corporations in America have had dysfunctional boards. GE – my goodness. Look at what’s happened to GE. Sometimes dysfunction means “We just don’t do anything to right the ship or steady the course.”
What makes a board dysfunctional first, I think, is so often, board members show up with the assumption that they are not part of a team; they are an individual contributor.
Denver: You’re so right.
Carly: So, a board member will show up and say “I am here as an individual to contribute my expertise, my point of view, perhaps my money, but I am not here to be a member of a functioning team.” So often, perhaps the chairman or the CEO doesn’t actually want a functioning team for a board. They actually want a bunch of “yes” people to tell them they’re perfect.
So, step one: You have to decide that a board must function as a team. And it’s true. If you’re going to provide effective governance and oversight, you must have an effective team.
Number two: Management of the nonprofit or the company has to realize that while it is not the board’s job to manage the company, it is the board’s job to oversee and govern the organization, the team, the company. Management also has to understand it’s not the board’s job to be a cheerleader. It is the board’s job to ask questions that won’t get asked by anyone else, and it is the board’s job also frequently to provide the support that no one else can provide.
And so, I think, let’s just start with a board needs to be a team, and so often boards won’t spend the time that it takes to become a functioning team. And then they need to get clear on: What are we here to do?
Denver: I have worked with a lot of boards, and what you say rings so true. They’re individuals – many are individuals with pretty good-sized egos, too.
Denver: How do you get them to function as a team? Have you done that kind of work? What do you do?
Carly: Yes, I’ve done a lot of that. By the way, let me just say one other thing. The other thing that happens on a board – of nonprofit board, of for-profit board – is it’s not a team, but it is a social group. There are breakfasts. There are dinners. There are events. There are galas. There are all these things, and what happens is people want to, in a social setting, people want to fit in. They want to get along. And so, sometimes that desire to fit in and get along makes it very difficult for people to ask the tough questions and do the heavy lifting that’s required.
So, what do I do when I start out with a board that has asked for help? The first thing is to ask a question: What are you here for? What is your purpose? And that question reveals some really interesting answers, particularly on a non-profit board. Sometimes people say, “Well, I’m here to give money.” They actually don’t think they have a purpose in governing. So, what are we here for? Let’s have enough of a discussion to come to a conclusion about what our purpose is. Our purpose is governance and oversight. Yes, our purpose also may be financial support, but first and foremost, a board’s job is governance and oversight.
The next question is: What do you think your current state is as a board and as an organization? These are tools we use with our nonprofits as well. Describe to me the current state of play. And what usually happens is everyone has a different opinion about: Where are we? What are we doing? What are the problems we’re trying to solve? Everyone has a different point of view.
Denver: Nobody on the same page.
Carly: No one’s on the same page. So then you have to get on the same page about: Where are we actually?
And then, of course, the really interesting conversation has to occur, which is: Where are we trying to go? What is our future state? What are we trying to accomplish? What are our goals? What are our objectives? And once again, what you’ll find is: frequently people are all over the place. They’ve been in the same meeting room for sometimes years together, and yet they have totally different views of what they’re trying to accomplish.
And so, there has to be alignment around purpose. There has to be alignment around: Where are we actually? And there then has to be alignment and agreement on: Where are we trying to go? And if you can get alignment – you can; it just takes work, and there’s very specific techniques we use to do that. But if you can get alignment on those three things, then you start the very important work of: Are our committees structured in the right way? Do we have the right roles for each of our committees? Do we have the right people on each of our committees? Are we missing people on our board because we lack certain expertise? All of those things have to happen. And then finally, a board and a management team has to have a conversation around mutual expectations and accountabilities of one another.
Denver: So simply and wonderfully said. And it’s the magic of open-ended questions, that you just start with those open-ended questions, so basic, but so telling. And, as you say, once you get that alignment, then everything else either makes sense or doesn’t make sense. But you can begin to look at it from a framework, which is, “Well, that’s not serving this purpose that we just decided on. We need to change this. We need to change the composition. We need to do this or that differently.”
Carly: And I mentioned this pressure to go along, to get along, which we all feel and that exists in a boardroom as well. I don’t care how famous the board members are. If you’ll remember Enron – it’s just a cautionary tale. Enron was a company whose board was filled with famous, accomplished people, and yet that board of famous, accomplished people waived their code of ethics unanimously over and over and over.
So, if there are listeners out there who would say, “That would never happen on our board,” people are capable of amazing things when they get all lined up to not ask the tough questions. And on a board, on a highly functioning board, you have to have people who are willing to raise their hand and ask the hard questions.
Denver: You really like what you do. I can tell that. Why is teaching leadership so important to you personally?
Carly: I love what I do.
Denver: I can tell. It’s contagious.
Carly: Well, in a way, I’ve done the same thing all my life. I run to problems, and I hope I help people who understand those problems get lifted up and equipped enough that they can help solve them. And it’s, honestly for me, I go all the way back to that look. First of all, I know problems are daunting, but problems, challenges can bring out the best in all of us. It gets our motors running. We’re using all of our skills and our capabilities, and I like performing at my best. I don’t like being mediocre, and most people don’t either.
So, part of it is I like how challenged I feel, but the bigger part is that “look” – when people see they’re making progress, when people know they’re having an impact, when people say, “Oh my gosh. I didn’t know I could do this. I didn’t know I had collaborators I could count on. I didn’t know that together we could make this very desperate situation better,” it’s just fuel for me. It’s joy for me.
Denver: Well, you believe in people, and I think what the coach in your organization does, and as you do, you know the answers are inside that person. You’re not there to give them the solution. What you’re there to do is maybe take out some of those mental blocks that they may have, their limitations, but you know they are the expert on their own lives and their own capabilities; and if you can help them get out of their own way, it can flourish.
Carly: It’s so true. One of the things I say all the time because I have learned it over and over and over: Everyone has more potential than they realize. Everyone. People so often are overlooked because of their circumstances, their appearance, a whole set of things, and yet, people have enormous reserves of potential. And so, if you can create the circumstance, the situation, provide the tools to unlock that latent potential, incredible things can happen. It brings me joy.
Denver: Let me flip that a little bit because I was speaking with Josh Wright, who’s the CEO of ideas42 – They are a behavioral research firm, a nonprofit – and he says: whereas we might think that a lot of our behavior and decisions are dependent upon the characteristics of an individual, it’s actually only about 30%, and 70% is on the environment of which they’re in, which leads me to this question about corporate culture, the workplace culture, whether it’s at your foundation now, or whether it was at HP. As a leader, what have you done to shape and influence a healthy and positive workplace environment?
Carly: First, you are so right. He is so right. Culture – What’s it like to work around here? the environment whatever words we put on that – culture is so often in the corporate world called the “soft stuff.” I call it the software. Culture, the environment– What’s it like to work around here? is the software of a team, and nothing is going to work if the software doesn’t work. The soft stuff is the hardest stuff of all, and yet it is also true that culture, environment can be worked on with the same discipline and the same focus as everything else on a team. It’s one of the things we do in our Leadership Labs is we use something called the Leadership Framework. It is a way of looking at all aspects of a team, including culture, in a very systematic way.
One of the things that happens in organizations, which we have been talking about, is the pressure to conform, the pressure to stay in your lane, the pressure to keep your head down; all of those things are part of the environment. One of the things that drives environment is what you measure. What do you measure? What gets measured is what gets done. It’s just true. And so, we spend a lot of time, I have spent a lot of time as a chief executive or as a leader of any team, “Let’s look at what we’re measuring.”
I’ll give you a very small example. When I arrived at HP, we thought we were an innovative company. We spent a lot of money on innovation, hundreds of millions of dollars a year, and yet we were not in the top 25 innovators in the world. We just weren’t; we didn’t show up. And we got very small amounts of our revenue from new products, less than 5%. So, in fact, we were not innovative; it was a myth.
And so, the first question I asked was: How many patents do we produce? Patents are only one measure of innovation, but they are a measure.
Denver: It’s a good one.
Carly: Nobody knew the answer. Nobody knew. So, I said, “Well, let’s start finding out. Let’s start measuring it.” And we went from 3 patents a day to 5, to 7, to 9, to 11, to 15 patents a day. Why is what gets measured what gets done? Because people assume if you’re measuring it, you care about it. It’s valued. You can’t have 15 measurements in an organization because people can’t pay attention to 15 things at once.
So if you want an environment, for example, that rewards innovation, then you have to measure it in some way. If you want to reward risk-taking, which is what innovation is, after all, you better be prepared to tolerate mistake-making, and you have to signal that to an organization. So, whatever you say your culture is with the words on the wall, people don’t listen to the talk; they watch the walk. And what the walk is, is: Who gets promoted? Who gets rewarded? What gets measured?
So, if you want to… if you want more risk-taking, you have to tolerate more mistake-making; you better lift up and reward sometimes someone who’s made a mistake. If you want a culture that collaborates, you better promote the person who’s a great collaborator, not the “I’m the lone hero star who does it all by myself.” In other words, if you want to change the environment and the culture, you have to be very explicit about the behavior you’re trying to achieve, and then you have to measure that behavior, and you got to walk that walk.
Denver: It’s interesting about collaboration, I was down at Truth Initiative, which is trying to stop cigarette smoking among young people, and they have a bunch of scientists. They said in their hiring process if a scientist has never co-authored a paper, but has only done a solo, that raises a red flag. Are they willing to play in the sandbox? Are they willing to share their data? So, to your point, you really look for the kind of organization you want, and along the way, you look for things of that nature to try to get that kind of organization.
Carly: That’s right. And if you’re not systematically, systemically– with discipline and rigor– working on your culture and your environment, to make it what you want, to produce the outcomes, then guess what? Your culture and your environment is whatever it is to actually work around here.
Denver: That’s exactly right.
Carly: And so, if you want to know where to start, ask people the basic open-ended question: What’s it like to work around here? I’ve done it in organizations of 160,000 people. You can do it in a systematic way, but then you know where you are, so you’ll understand what it takes to change it.
Denver: As you say, you’re going to have a culture whether you like it or not.
Carly: That’s right. You have one. The question is: do you know what it is?
Denver: And are you going to shape it or not?
You host a podcast called By Example. Tell us about it and who some of your guests have been, and who some of your guests will be.
Carly: Well, By Example is a podcast that lifts leaders up, not because they have position or title, not because they’re famous – a lot of them are people you’ve never heard of – but because they actually are leading by example. People can go on to carlyfiorina.com to find it. We concluded Season One this summer. We’ve had some awesome guests: a 5-year-old boy who said, “You know what? There are homeless people in my community. That’s my problem to solve.” And so, he started using his allowance to buy chicken sandwiches and give them a hug every day. It’s a small start, but now he has a $90,000 foundation focused on homelessness. And he’s five! He just started kindergarten in September.
Season Two is beginning October 22. Our first guest up will be Shane Battier, NBA player. I don’t use the word star because Shane Battier… for those who know him… was never the standout star, but the team was always better when he was on the court. He was a leader in the sense that he made everyone else better.
Denver: He was on a bunch of different teams, and every team he went to got better.
Carly: That’s right. Got better.
Denver: We need more people like that in society, too.
Carly: That’s right! We do.
Denver: Too many people, as you say, get celebrated for being the leader, but when you make everybody around you better the way he does, you’re really leading.
Carly: Yes. Then you’re really leading. And the truth is: every single one of our guests – and again go to carlyfiorina.com to find out where you can listen to the podcast By Example. You can download all of Season One and then move on to Season Two with us on October 22. But every single one of the guests that we’ve had, some of them are famous like Colin Powell; some of them are not. Every single one of the guests that we’ve had lead by their example, by their behavior, by their impact. They’re not on the show because they’re famous. They’re not on the show because they’ve achieved great titles. They’re on the show because they lead by example.
Denver: And I’ve got to tell you how important that is. When you see these famous people, they don’t really have that much of an impact on a lot of folks. But when you see someone just like me, and you see what they’ve done, it empowers me to say “I could actually be like this.” This person isn’t a superstar. They’re just an individual who made something happen, and I think that is so empowering. I like the way you have that blend working.
Carly: Yes. And by the way, we’re confused about leadership, but let’s just pause for a moment and think about how confused we are about fame. My goodness. People are famous now for eating a lot of food really fast on YouTube. Really? Okay. Maybe there’s an impact, but I think not the kind that your listeners are looking for.
Denver: I don’t think so. Let me close with this, Carly. What would be one lesson that nonprofit leaders would be well-served to take from the corporate sector? And conversely, what could corporate leaders learn from nonprofit leaders?
Carly: I think one lesson that nonprofit leaders can take from the corporate sector is that kindness and compassion, which are so incredibly important to a nonprofit mission, need to be balanced with discipline and rigor, metrics and accountability. Because without discipline, rigor, metrics, and accountability… kindness, compassion, and money get wasted, honestly. Impact is not measured and therefore, maximum impact is never achieved.
I think what corporations could bring from nonprofits is people, employees – whether they work in the for-profit sector or in the nonprofit sector – employees want to know that the work they’re doing makes a positive difference. It is a human need to feel as though we are more than a cog in a machine, that we are actually having an impact.
And so, if I can just give an example of this, MassMutual, who is one of our corporate partners, has asked some of their employees to be trained as our coaches to work with the nonprofits in the Springfield community.
Denver: That’s wonderful.
Carly: It’s a great example of a company understanding their employees’ hearts need to be in the work, too. They really do. Because when someone’s heart is engaged, as well as their intellect, then they’re going to bring everything they have to the table.
Denver: With that human connection as well.
Denver: Well, Carly Fiorina, the Founder of the Unlocking Potential Foundation, and Author of Find Your Way: Unleash Your Power and Highest Potential, I want to thank you so much for being here this evening. If a nonprofit organization is interested in working with you, what’s the best way for them to proceed?
Carly: Please come to carlyfiorina.com, get in contact with us. I promise you: we will get back in touch with you. In fact, that’s how we’ve gotten much of our…that’s how we built many of our relationships. People have just gone to carlyfiorina.com and guess what? We’ll answer you. We would love to work with you. Perhaps some of your listeners are also interested in being coaches or facilitators, and we’d love to be in touch with you about that as well.
Denver: Well, thanks, Carly. It was a real pleasure to have you on the show.
Carly: Thank you so much for having me.
Denver: I’ll be back with more of The Business of Giving right after this.