Carly Fiorina Addresses Plumb Club Forum

Carly Fiorina, former chief executive of Hewlett-Packard, was the closing keynote speaker for the Plumb Club  Forum @FIT, held March 2-3 at the Fashion Institute of Technology. The theme of the forum was “The Future of Our Industry,” acknowledging that the jewelry industry is on the cusp of not one, but many paradigm shifts.

Fiorina’s talk was titled “Managing Change in the Age of Technology.” In her remarks, she drew some parallels between the jewelry industry and the computer industry. Some significant similarities include the rising cost of raw materials, a move from being supply-driven to demand-driven, and significant shifts in who the end customer is.

“Two great driving forces of the 21st Century are globalization, and the technology revolution,” she said.

These forces didn’t fully exist until recently, she added. “We’ve only been living in a truly global economy for about 15 years. It’s still new to us.”

She also pointed out that despite some politicians’ proclamations that they’re going to “roll back globalization,” it’s not only impossible to roll it back, it can’t even be slowed down. Change—including globalization—is going to happen whether we like it or not.

“Darwin actually didn’t say it was the strongest or most intelligent of a species that will survive. Rather, it’s the one that’s most adaptable to change.”

The other driving force of current change is technology, which is transforming every aspect of every industry, as well as society in general, she said. She cited an example from her Hewlett-Packard days: in 1999 and 2000, the firm invested heavily in a fledgling industry called digital photography. At the time, she said, [Eastman] Kodak was the proverbial mountain when it came to photography—but its leaders didn’t think digital photography was going to pose a significant threat to traditional photography. By 2004, Kodak realized it had grossly miscalculated and did a strategic U-turn. By 2006, digital photography had all but swept the industry—but Kodak, coming late to the game, missed its opportunity. A hundred years of domination of the industry were gone in six years—and while it’s still a valuable brand, it’s no longer “king of the hill,” she said.

“You must adapt to change and embrace change, or change will swallow you,” she said. “Whether you’re prepared or not, change will happen.”

Fiorina also discussed the difference between leadership and management. “Management is the production of acceptable results in known conditions. Leadership is creating new conditions.” Only leaders, she said, can present change in a positive way. The traditional method of driving change has been to create the “burning platform,” i.e. drive change through fear. That works in the short term, but not in the long term.

“Leadership has to paint a positive vision of what will be,” she said. “People are afraid of change, and people who have been successful in the current environment have a vested interest in the status quo and keeping what they have—power, position, and influence. Leaders have to have the courage to say, ‘we’re going there. There is where the future lies.’ Leaders have to have the discipline to put more energy into the change than into the status quo.”

At the same time, she said, change has to have a healthy balance of optimism and realism. The change goals to set have to be high enough to make it worth the energy of making the change, but being realistic, driving change is tough.

Still, it’s not like we have a choice. Fiorina put it bluntly: “Change, or die.”