SPENCER MICHELS: As the most visible and powerful woman in American business, Carly Fiorina, the CEO, president and chair of Hewlett-Packard, was a Silicon Valley superstar whose luster carried all the way to Wall Street, and some people thought perhaps even beyond.
PETER BURROWS: There were a lot of people who thought this woman could be president of the United States.
SPENCER MICHELS: At BusinessWeek Magazine, computer editor Peter Burrows followed her career and wrote a book about her. He says at first her prospects were unlimited.
PETER BURROWS: Seriously, you know, and I've heard -- I've talked to people in the PR, public relations community, who say they were told "come to HP, you'll end up in Washington."
SPENCER MICHELS: Those prospects dimmed considerably when the HP board ousted her yesterday after nearly six years on the job, citing strategic differences. A graduate of Stanford in medieval studies, with additional degrees elsewhere in business, Fiorina rose through the ranks at AT&T and then Lucent Technology before being hired six years ago as HP's chief executive and later chair.
The high-tech company she joined is one of the oldest and biggest in Silicon Valley, the 11th largest American corporation with revenue last year of $80 billion. It was founded in 1939, in a garage by William Hewlett and David Packard. It makes computers, printers and an assortment of other high tech equipment. Burrows said she excelled at selling products and ideas.
PETER BURROWS: A fabulous salesperson and marketing person. I think she is a very polarizing figure. Initially people almost always, you know, sort of think the world of her and are sort swept away with her charisma and her good ideas and her passion. But I think that over time, a lot of people at HP particularly I know, lost faith when it became clear that her ideas just weren't working.
CARLY FIONA: This is a massive integration effort.
SPENCER MICHELS: One idea that didn't work was her push for a merger with Texas computer maker COMPAQ. In a contested and controversial deal in 2002, HP acquired COMPAQ for more than $20 billion.
Subsequently, HP's market share of printers, personal computers and servers failed to grow.
PETER BURROWS: Fundamentally, HP was a great printer company and a very average to poor computer company. She went out and did a merger that doubled the size of the poor business, and now they're stuck in a lousy -- a very challenging PC industry.
She got that deal done against all odds, and sort of against the market's wisdom. Investors hated the deal. They took 17 percent out of the stock immediately when it was announced.
SPENCER MICHELS: That deal, plus a move to diversify HP's products and offer business services instead of concentrating on a few profitable lines, may have sealed Fiorina's fate.
At HP Headquarters in Palo Alto, near Stanford University, the official word was simply that Fiorina had stepped down and departed. Neither staff nor board of directors would talk about it. Unofficially, there was plenty of chatter on employee message boards, most of it not sorry that she was leaving.
The company released a statement from Fiorina saying: "While I regret the board and I have differences on how to execute HP's strategy, I respect their decision…"At the Haas Business School at the University of California at Berkeley, where Fiorina had appeared several times, graduate students were not expecting her firing.
MALE STUDENT: I was pretty surprised about it, but then as I read more information about the reasons for it, it seemed to make sense. Apparently they hadn't been able to get many synergies out of this merger with COMPAQ.
FEMALE STUDENT: As a woman at Haas, you know, she's a great figure and a great leader. So it'll be interesting to see what plays out and where she goes from here.
MALE STUDENT: I don't think it was a male-female thing necessarily, but you never know. I mean, it's all about leadership.
SPENCER MICHELS: At Haas and elsewhere, the word was that Fiorina didn't respect the employee-first culture of HP. Many workers lost their jobs in the merger. David Levine teaches corporate culture at Haas.
DAVID LEVINE: I grew up in what's now called Silicon Valley, and before there was Apple and before there was Intel, Hewlett Packard was already a great company; that its founders were famous people, at least locally, because their dedication was not to build just great products, but truly a great company based on respect for the people at the company. You don't build a great culture by laying off 10 percent of the people who hold it.
SPENCER MICHELS: Peter Burrows says HP was a paragon of corporate integrity, and never had a layoff in the 50 years before Fiorina arrived.
PETER BURROWS: It introduced a lot of the perks that we all now enjoy: The cubicle, which maybe is a mixed bag -- but flex time, profit sharing, these were all developed by this company that was based on the belief that, you know, your people are your greatest asset.
And here comes Carly Fiorina, who is a salesperson. It's about the results, a culture of money. There was something special about the relationship between management and employees. It's called the HP way. And, you know, that's pretty much gone now.
SPENCER MICHELS: Also gone, or at least buried for now, Burrows believes, is HP's historic and relentless push for invention. He cites the recent decision by HP to distribute an Apple Ipod music player with an HP label.
PETER BURROWS: So they basically are reselling Apple's Ipod. Now this made old HPers just, you know, hit their... they couldn't believe what they were hearing. One analyst I talked to said, "The logo doesn't say distribute. It says invent." I think the lesson is that it's really about innovation.
SPENCER MICHELS: Still, even some critics, including Berkeley's Levine, saw Fiorina as effective some of the time.
DAVID LEVINE: As I was growing up, the female world leaders were Golda Mier, Indira Gandhi in India, Margaret Thatcher. These women all lead their countries into wars and won them.
There's not a sense in which succeeding in rules that are rigged in favor of men is going to mean the women who succeed are particularly feminine and gentile. Carly didn't win any wars, but she was one tough cookie and was perfectly willing to fight under men's rules and almost always win.
SPENCER MICHELS: But in the end, Fiorina didn't win. During her tenure, HP stock fell more than 50 percent. Nevertheless, on her dismissal, the 50-year-old CEO walked away from HP with an estimated $21 million in exit pay, stock and pension benefits. The company itself has launched a search for a successor.