Phone home, Webb McKinney

Peter Burrows

Among the many ironies of Carly Fiorina's ouster is that it was largely due to her refusal to hire a hands-on chief operating officer. Why ironic? Because until he resigned in December of 2003, Fiorina had the perfect COO right under her nose: Webb McKinney.

The 34-year HP exec had the perfect resume for the job. Most important, he was a top-notch operational executive. He led HP's rapid, then-controversial, entry into the home PC market in the mid-1990s, and quickly made the company the leader in that cut-throat market. And while Fiorina got much of the credit, it was McKinney and also-departed Jeff Clarke who had the biggest hands in actually integrating the HP and Compaq organizations, with far less turmoil than many expected. But that's not all.

McKinney was also a consummate practitioner of HP's egalitarian corporate culture, the HP Way--not the one that many blame for turning HP into an indecisive, slow-moving bureaucracy in the late 1990s, but the one that had made HP one of the world's most admired companies for the previous six decades. Despite the huge challenges he overcame, McKinney remained almost universally well-liked as a team-builder, strategic thinker, and all around good guy. If Fiorina was seen as a distant, imperious figure by many HPers, McKinney would have provided her reign with a calming, familiar day-to-day presence.

What's more, Fiorina would have had nothing to fear from McKinney. Clearly, she is a woman that deep beneath that confident exterior had some insecurities about possible challengers to the throne. In the early days of the Compaq negotiations, she hadn't wanted to make Compaq chief Mike Capellas president, sources say. That's one reason the talks briefly stalled back in 2001. And during her tenure, many other strong-minded executives ended up heading for the door. Indeed, the lack of a strong bench was one of the concerns that led to her ouster.

So should McKinney's name be added to the HP CEO sweepstakes? I say yes. He is a well-rounded general manager, who has the chops for everything from setting up intricate supply chains to dealing with the press. After Fiorina, his aw-shucks manner could help restore credibility with employees, customers and investors. The only thing he lacks is a bigger-than-life charisma--which we now know isn't what HP needed, anyway.

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