By Louis Lavelle Dear Carly,
You blew it. That may seem harsh, but let's face it: The last five years haven't exactly been cause for rejoicing at Hewlett-Packard (HPQ). Sure, your board, world-class enabler that it is, deserves a big chunk of the blame. But the disastrous Compaq merger, the bottom-up reorganization that drove a stake through the heart of HP's storied culture, and a refusal to delegate that borders on megalomania -- these were all your ideas, not theirs.
The good news is you're in excellent company. Indeed, the history books are filled with talented executives who have gone down in flames, the victims of strategic blunders, nonexistent management skills, and just plain old bad luck. So don't beat yourself up over it.
A FORGIVING INDUSTRY. The bad news is that clawing your way back up the corporate ladder isn't going to be easy. Most failed CEOs never get there. Just ask Jill Barad. My trusty Bloomberg terminal still lists her as the former CEO of Mattel (MAT), where she flamed out five years ago following a disastrous merger (sound familiar?) at the tender age of 48. Apparently she's still living off her $50 million golden parachute because she hasn't surfaced at another company.
But more than a few CEOs in your position have managed to land halfway decent jobs. Although finding a business as big as HP that's willing to take a flyer on you may be asking a lot, it may be possible to run another company. After all, you're in the right industry. Tech seems far more forgiving than most in terms of leadership debacles. Steve Jobs at Apple (AAPL), Eric Schmidt at Google (GOOG), and David Dorman at AT&T (T) have all survived early bouts of ineptitude and gone on to other things.
Even the food industry is capable of the occasional blind spot. Dale Morrison is now running Canada's privately held McCain Foods, a $5.8 billion concern that claims to be the world's biggest producer of frozen french fries. That's hardly small potatoes considering he was all but run out of Campbell Soup (CPB) on a rail five years ago after failing to deliver the sales growth he had promised.
REFLECT AND REPENT. No, messing up on a gargantuan scale really isn't a career-ender any more, or at least it doesn't have to be. And you should take some comfort in that. In fact, if anyone can make a go of it after the HP disaster, it's you. You're young -- O.K., youngish -- and no one is brainier or more possessed of the gift of gab than you. And that might be your biggest strength.
Stephen P. Mader, vice-chairman of Christian & Timbers, the search firm that recruited you to HP, thinks it is. "She's so bright," Mader says. "If she decides she wants to go back, it's done. She'll make it."
But before you carpet bomb Silicon Valley with your résumé, a few words of advice. First, take some time off. You deserve it, but more important, you need to get some distance from HP to figure out exactly what your role in this train wreck has been.
USE THE MEDIA. Getting a clean slate is more important than you know. If you don't fess up to your failures, you could end up unemployable, and you really don't strike me as one of the ladies who lunch. Ken Siegel, a Beverly Hills executive coach, told me that no board in its right mind would hire an unrepentant failure. "Carly's no innocent," he said. "If she's dancing around her own culpability, she ought to be dancing out of that boardroom."
Next up: Hire a spin doctor. You've taken a serious licking in the press, and if you want to come out of this still ticking, you'll have to get your side of this story out. Howard Rubenstein, who has had plenty of experience representing embattled clients (think Leona Helmsley, Rupert Murdoch, New York Yankees), says bringing you back into the world's good graces starts with something you're already pretty good at: networking. You'll need to reach out to everyone you know and get out a new message to counter the negative one in the press: "I still have the guts and knowhow to help a business."
Eventually, you'll want to do a sit-down with one major media outlet to talk about your past, present, and future -- and accept some responsibility for HP's failure. Soon enough, the phone should start ringing again. Says Rubenstein: "She did nothing that was unethical or improper. She just didn't meet expectations. That doesn't mean she doesn't have the quality or strength to make a comeback."
SMALL IS GOOD. Finally, when it comes to taking those baby steps back into the limelight, choose carefully. Your next job has to be one that plays to your strengths -- embrace the inner salesperson -- and where success is a slam dunk. So, no turnaround situations, no big mergers, and no reorganizations. Small is good, at least for now.
Oh, and one last thing: Don't blow it. F. Scott Fitzgerald was wrong when he wrote that there are no second acts in American lives -- there are, and you'll get yours soon enough. But a third act would be pushing your luck.
Louis Lavelle Lavelle is Management editor for BusinessWeek in New York