What If You Were CEO?

What would you do at the helm of your company?

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After Hewlett-packard decided it had had enough of Carly Fiorina, many people in our industry began offering opinions of what they would have done with HP during the five years she ran the joint.

Wouldn't have pushed for the merger with Compaq, some say. Wouldn't have shoved a guy out the boardroom door whose last name is immortalized on every product the company sells, others note. Wouldn't have missed those quarters, wouldn't have been so brash, wouldn't have shot so many lieutenants in public, and would have looked seriously at breaking up the company for parts--all good answers.

Who knew so many people could run HP, which, just for the record, generates nearly $80 billion in annual revenue, employs 150,000 people and does business in 170 countries? That's a lot of sales quotas, currency translations, foreign labor laws, product ship dates and manufacturing plants to keep track of. Are you up for it?

Rather than run HP, why not try your hand at your present employer. Imagine yourself as CEO. After you call your spouse and tell him or her that you got the job, what would you do first? Would you shoot your current boss (figuratively, I mean)? Or would you make his or her life as stinkin' miserable as yours was made, just for spite? You could, you know; you're running the show now.

Would you have the presence of mind to talk to key customers, or are you the kind who would first check to make sure the lumbar support on the chair in your new suite is sufficient? (Maybe you're the type who goes ahead and tells purchasing to order a new Herman Miller Mirra chair, the one with the new TriFlex back support, just to be sure.)

How about suppliers? You're gonna need them. Give them a ring, or let them figure out for themselves that for you to live up to your new mandate, they are going to have to give you a 5 percent break on everything. Oh, and another 15 more days to pay until you get a handle on your cash flow.

Wow. These are tough decisions, and you haven't really addressed staffing, yet. You want to assure outsiders that the company you've just taken over isn't going to hell in a handbasket, so you might want to keep some of the men and women who were running the company before you around for a while. Then again, you're not exactly sure you can trust these people, so maybe it's better to surround yourself with your team of handpicked professionals.

Of course, you may now begin to suspect that these people may not actually like you as much as you think. Sure, they listen tentatively enough and laugh at all your jokes. But as CEO, you're now wise enough to appreciate that these people have always worked for and not really with you. You may begin to wonder if you've misread their easygoing natures and unending ability to enjoy stories from your vacations as loyalty; now when you need them, you worry that they may be unable to tell you that your ideas are nuts and your strategy insipid because you yourself recall hanging with the new CEO was the key to a Mirra chair of one's own.

Best to save key staffing ideas until after lunch, when you've had a chance to chat with the press about your new assignment. You have decided to take press calls from guys like me, haven't you? Tell me you're not one of those dolts who listened to someone in PR, who advised you to "tell the media you need 60 days at the helm before you feel comfortable talking about running the place." Here's a flash: You are running the place, and you're going to need answers to everything from approving mergers and acquisitions to vacation requests. At least make sure you have your bases covered. If you don't know the answers to the following five questions, you'll be "pursuing personal interests" before you can say, "Did I really approve new art for the lobby?"

  1. Are you currently understaffed or overstaffed?
  2. What is your immediate plan to simultaneously cut costs, improve customer satisfaction and increase sales without harming your bottom line?
  3. How are you planning to achieve share gains against your chief rival, which has not endured management turnover?
  4. What is your long-term strategic vision for the company?
  5. And, how will you respond six months from now to the following question: "What is the smartest thing you have done in the past six months?"

Actually, the last question is a trick one because the correct answer is, "Turned down the top spot at HP." Why? Because it's clear that your work as CEO there, wherever there may be, isn't quite done. How's that back support feel now?

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