Hewlett-Packard Co. has come a long way since Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard began tinkering with a used Sears Roebuck drill press in a garage in Palo Alto, Calif. The company they founded Jan. 1, 1939—deciding the order of the names on a coin toss—would eventually grow to be the largest technology marketer in the world, outstripping even IBM Corp. in annual revenue. ¶ HP rose to No. 1 in 2007, two years after Mark V. Hurd was hired as CEO. The NCR Corp. veteran was brought in to put an end to the tumult of the Carly Fiorina years at HP—an era notable for the controversial acquisition of Compaq Computer Corp. and the slashing of thousands of jobs in its wake. And put an end to it Hurd did, in a buttoned-down manner that contrasted sharply with Fiorina's flash and brought him praise well beyond the confines of Silicon Valley.
Not long after taking over as CEO, Hurd deftly handled the controversy surrounding the disclosure of an effort allegedly orchestrated by then-HP Chairwoman Patricia Dunn to spy on reporters. As part of its response to that blot on its image, HP put together a document titled “Our Standards of Business Conduct,” page 7 of which presents “The Headline Test”:
“The Headline Test is a simple but powerful tool designed to make sure we appropriately consider the soundness and impact of our business decisions. It is named after one of the tools most commonly used by executives: "Before I make a decision, I consider how it would look in a news story.' We should each ask ourselves what the impact would be if the conduct or actions became public, or were reviewed by colleagues we respect. If you are uncomfortable with the answer, don't do it!”
By now we know how this cautionary tale ends. Hurd entered into a personal relationship with a marketing contractor that failed this test, costing him his job. It was that simple.
Hurd is not the first to learn this lesson. He won't be the last. But we can all still hope that top executives will always keep in mind that in this age of celebrity CEOs, they are the brand. And when they fail the headline test, the brand pays the price.
Another trait of this age of celebrity is that those whose personal brands plummet often find a way to rebound. With his record of business success, that will likely be the case with Hurd. After all, he only need look to the example of his predecessor, Fiorina, who may very well ride her refurbished brand all the way to the U.S. Senate. M