reinventing: culture and managing change part two

After reading the 10 most-hated companies in America in MarketWatch a couple days ago another company totally entrenched in culture stood out – that being HP.

Way back in the olden days, I worked in the marketing department of an HP competitor. At the time, Tektronix was the largest employer in the state of Oregon. Like HP, Tek had a story of a couple founders, of which legend – and cultural identity – was formed. The company grew and eventually moved to a beautiful campus on 313 acres, a stone’s throw from what is now the Nike World Headquarters.

Tek had a very strong and friendly culture (the company of first names) that moved in a methodical, deliberate fashion. As I was frequently told, ‘that’s the way we do things here.’ My boss told me that we didn’t rush projects through – they had to go into the ‘queue’ first. It seemed contrary to what marketing should be.

I was young then, saw areas I wanted to improve upon, and wanted to make everything happen – fast. I learned quickly how a strong culture defined process. And that it could effectively stifle improvements – no matter how small they may be.

But at that time, profits were great, Tek was global, and who needed change? But technology was evolving quickly. Driven by the desire for growth, they started acquiring companies that appeared promising, but in hind-sight, were at the end of their lifecycle. It seemed to me that once they made an acquisition, something more revolutionary replaced it – immediately.

Sound familiar?

Perhaps they forgot who they were (unglamorous, but excellent products) and were fighting to stay relevant. But buying safety seemed…well, safe. And maybe, culturally, they weren’t up to cutting-edge technology. The ‘Silicon Forest’ is full of successful companies spun from ex-Tek employee’s talents.

Tek eventually got out of those businesses and went back to their core – test and measurement equipment. Tek was acquired by another company in 2007. Makes me sad because they made the Northwest a tech haven.

One area where Tek was light-years ahead was benefits – for women. Imagine that. In the ‘70’s they offered paid maternity benefits – plus held the employee’s position open. We had our babies, had excellent health plans, got paid during maternity leave, and got our jobs back. Methodical company, and they took care of their employees. Forty years later and we’re still fighting for this as a norm? Oy.

HP and Invent.
HP is big on re-Invent-ion. They’ve made some huge misguided acquisitions. They buy ready-to-wear and hope it makes them the hit of the prom. One has to wonder if it’s culture that keeps them looking outward for innovation. Because certainly, they cannot change from within.

I’ll bet that if they asked their thousands of engineers, there would be an ocean of ideas. The talent pool in HP could rival PARC (gasp or maybe Apple?). It’s hard to innovate when you’ve been culturally driven to comply.

The founding families have a lot to say about all things HP, and just don’t seem to get leading edge technology…That is the problem. Culturally, leading edge is scary. But they want it.

So, to get cool stuff, they hire someone, from outside the company (telling isn’t it?) and send them out to innovate – grow the business – because they are always on the Most Hated List.

New CEOs trying to be innovative, stay in the safe-zone and instead buy stuff that has out-lived its lifecycle, but may still have a little profit left, and then pay top dollar. Or are duped into buying truly worthless crap. And then take and $8.8 billion hit. Who makes that kind of mistake? If their books are showing a remarkable profit, then it must be safe – right?

HP’s Invent campaign was powerful – they hired a woman (gasp) CEO – and put her in front of the garage in an ad. A new company, a new way, a new bunch of crap. Just because you say it doesn’t make it so. Ask your culturally entrenched board.

At the end of the day, the CEO, Carly Fiorina, was fired (another hired/fired/so on) and they went about business the way the culturally stagnant board dictated. The old way. The HP way.

It’s just plain sad. Because this involves people’s livelihoods. Stockholders don’t live on their dividends (if there are any), if your stock goes down, or you are the Most Hated, they sell. But your employees do depend on you and are relying on your execs to make good decisions.

I have worked in several large corporations. Just a worker who actually cared about her job and the company she worked for.

I have had the privilege to have colleagues who soldered circuit boards, cleaned new cars at the end of the assembly line, and spent hours sending ads out via FedEx – and they loved their jobs. They had pride in their work and shook their heads daily when they heard about the latest hair-brained things the C-suite was doing.

It isn’t what I believe to be true, but the Absolute Truth when I tell you to, ‘ask the people doing the work.’ They will tell you exactly what needs to be done to make your company better. And much more profitably - they know your product really, really well.

And don’t give me any of that crap about your awesome culture. It’s killing innovation.