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From liberal arts to business: Fiorina shares life lessons

Logo for Madison Vision Series Contemporary issues in an engaged society

Powerhouse businesswoman Carly Fiorina became the first woman to lead a Fortune 20 company as CEO of Hewlett-Packard Co. She’s been a candidate for the U.S. Senate. She is the founder of the One Woman Initiative and now serves as a Global Ambassador for Opportunity International. She is chairman of Good360, the world’s largest product philanthropy organization. And, she is a member of the James Madison University Board of Visitors.

Given Fiorina’s long list of accomplishments, it is easy to assume that she’s always been successful and always had a plan. But, in an April 9 presentation at JMU, Fiorina debunked that myth by saying, “No success story is without its setbacks. No one who has experienced triumphs has done so without tragedies.”

Fiorina spoke to a packed Wilson Hall Auditorium about the “Foundations of Ethical Reasoning,” a presentation of the Madison Vision Series: Contemporary Issues in an Engaged Society.

Fiorina explained that while she was an undergraduate student at Stanford, she had to work to help pay for her education. So, she took a typing job at an office to help pay the bills. Meanwhile, she decided to take a course in medieval philosophy with an excellent professor. “I was fascinated by seeing the human race learn generation by generation,” she said. “None of this was going to help me get a job, but I wasn’t thinking about that.” Instead, she was drawn to observing how from one generation to the next, millenniums could build upon each other. But, as she pointed out, people could also forget.

She ended up earning a bachelor of arts degree in philosophy and medieval history – a liberal arts education that she said has been incredibly useful in her career. But, she graduated from Stanford in the middle of a recession, and described that at that point she was “dressed up with nowhere to go.”

She went to law school and hated it. It was a difficult decision for her, because she knew she wasn’t a quitter. But she also knew that a different path, whatever it might be, was what she needed to find.

Fiorina used the typing skills she’d practiced in her previous job to earn her a position as a secretary. She filed, she typed and she answered the phones – but she didn’t believe those tasks were beneath her. “I thought about doing the best that I could do,” she said. “People notice when you work hard and are a valuable employee, no matter the position.” It was at this job that two men noticed her potential and introduced her to the world of business.

“I learned that I liked challenge,” Fiorina said. “I learned that if someone said ‘You can’t do that,’ it interested me. I also learned that I could tackle challenges because there were always people I could collaborate with to help me.”

As a leader, Fiorina explained that a fundamental idea has stayed with her over the years. “Everybody has potential, and everybody should be able to fulfill that potential,” she said. “There is not another nation in the world that was founded on that idea.”

At the heart of her presentation, Fiorina described that every complicated thing she has encountered in her life has required the same fundamentals of ethics:

Respect. “Solving our problems and capturing opportunities requires profound respect for the capabilities of others,” she said. “There’s no accomplishment possible that’s a solo story.”

Real collaboration. “It is worth your time to understand the people you work with. Be prepared but open-minded. Ask questions.”

Diversity. “If you go into a setting and everybody thinks alike, it’s easy. But you will probably get the wrong answer,” she warned. “By collaborating, you will get to a better place.”

Judgment. “Knowing the difference between what’s important and what’s not,” Fiorina urged. “Any challenge is never clear cut, never easy.”

And, finally, perspective. Fiorina encouraged audiences to remember the difference between right and wrong, and cling to it in all aspects of their life.

Reflecting on leadership, Carly Fiorina emphasized the difference between being a manager and being a leader. The reason that most people don’t fulfill their full potential, she said, is due to a lack of leadership. “[It] has nothing to do with a title and position,” she said. “It’s about unlocking potential in others and seizing opportunities. Fundamentally, leadership is about making a positive difference. Leadership changes the world.”

Fiorina left her audience with eight pieces of advice:

  • “Everyone has gifts and potential. Find your gifts. It may cause you to take a different path, but find your gifts. And have the courage to use your potential.”
  • “Don’t let others define you. Define yourself.”
  • “It’s important to get a degree, but it’s far more important to get an education.”
  • “Don’t wait for the perfect job. Every job has possibilities.”
  • “Everyone is afraid of something. What will you do with that fear?”
  • “The tough times will come. And when they come, remember that in those times are the greatest blessings.”
  • “We control nothing but our own choices.”
  • “If we control nothing but our choices, choose to lead. Unlock potential in others.”

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April 11, 2014

By Rosemary Girard ('15)