Carly Fiorina, Spongebob and AT&T

What do Carly Fiorina, Spongebob and AT&T have in common? Each in different ways has been caught up in the midst of the roiling waters of cultural change and its backwash.

Ms.
Fiorina was brought to HP to consolidate divisions that were spinning in
independent orbits. She was the change agent in a company known for visionary
culture but having fallen behind the
times.

Spongebob has become the
central character in a cultural debate about inclusiveness and lifestyle values
in a polarized society. The cartoon character symbolizes cultural change to
some and resistance to change among
others.

AT&T, once an icon of
universal service, was unable to adapt to the competitive environment in which
it found itself after deregulation and has fallen from a bedrock corporate
institution to a mere takeover target prized for its customer base. The
corporation, unable to adapt to a new competitive reality became an irrelevant
hollow shell.

No doubt books and
articles will dissect all three as we try to understand what is happening to us
in this time of escalating change and mounting
resistance.

Post-mortems on her
tenure are already citing Ms. Fiorina’s leadership style as an issue.
Undoubtedly this is a signficant factor, but so too, is the capacity of the
corporate culture to resist change. My guess is that this is at least as
powerful a reason for her exit as her leadership style. Organizational culture
as strong as HP’s does not change rapidly. George Ander’s book Perfect
Enough: Carly Fiorina and the Reinvention of Hewlett Packard
cites
her entry into HP and early attempts to change the culture that resulted in a
lawsuit with one of the offspring of the founding family, primarily over
cultural change.

The merger with
Compaq was an attempt to secure a dominant position in the marketplace but it
only added to the enormity of the challange. Now the task was not only to
continue changing HP but also to accommodate to the culture of Compaq and,
somehow, pull the two together and move them forward. All of this in a
competitive market that is undergoing fundamental
change.

The flap over a television
program hosted by Spongebob Squarepants and featuring a visit to a family with
two mothers, symbolizes, at least for me, the conflict of cultural values and
ideologies. Genuine commitment to deeply felt values is important. But equally
important is an attitude of openness to opinions that are different from one’s
own and the ability to engage in dialogue about these
differences.

I once witnessed an
organization slide into irrelevance when it became so bound to its own culture
and language that it lost the ability to communicate with the world beyond its
doors. It’s this use of language that strikes me about the Spongebob flap. The
word “inclusive” has become a code word, according to one pastor, for the
promotion of homosexuality. I am surprised at this interpretation.

When we start using language in
this way, it’s the beginning of a process that closes off communication. If we
attach negative values to words such as “inclusive” and “pluralistic” when they
have served us so well, we entrap ourselves in an ideology that shuts down
communication. I really hope we can keep dialogue going without characterizing
others by using language that divides
us.

The third interesting connection
is the inability of AT&T to compete in the marketplace with the Baby Bells.
Ironically, AT&T became a bedrock cultural icon through public relations
efforts started in 1908 to re-cast the company and eliminate its competition.
Roland Marchand provides an interesting historical overview in Colossus: How the
Corporation Changed America
(edited by Jack
Beatty).

Beatty makes the case that
big business is the lever of change in American life. Under the slogan “One
policy, one sytem, universal service,” AT&T created a favorable public
identity, eliminated its competition and became a private monopoly. When there
were no other options for telephone service, it worked. But as new options
developed the company found it impossible to compete. Its product mix and
culture proved inadequate to the challenge.

Whatever we mean when we use the
word culture–values, lifestyles, attitudes, language, images, sounds–it is
powerful. It not only brings forth change, it can kill change. Organizations
will hold onto corporate idealogy even as they face their own demise. We
underestimate the power of culture at our own peril.

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