Carly Fiorina Believes Curiosity About People is Key to Challenging the Status Quo

Carly Fiorina went from a secretary at a small real-estate business to the first woman ever to lead a Fortune 50 company. For the February installment of the John Maxwell Company Executive Circle series, Carly described how to find the hidden leaders that surround us and the qualities that make them —qualities she discovered during her journey to become the first female officer at AT&T, lead the transformation of a failing Hewlett-Packard to the 11th largest U.S. Company, and ultimately, to become a U.S. Presidential Candidate.

Leaders hiding in plain sight

Carly highlighted the “hidden leaders” everywhere, people who we've never heard of and who don't have any title or power. But, they are leading every day because they are unlocking potential in others. She believes that leadership is always the catalyst to problem solving and that a leader understands that their highest calling is to serve and unlock potential in others.

“When I accepted my first full-time job, which was to be a secretary at a nine-person real estate firm, I didn't think that job was beneath me,” she said. “(After some time) two men who worked there came up to my desk and said, ‘Gee we think you could do more. We would like to show you what business is all about.’ And so those two gentlemen really introduced me to business. They saw possibilities in me. And so, I saw possibilities in myself. They were, of course, the first people who taught me that the true purpose of leadership is to unlock potential in others because they did that for me.”

Carly went on to outline some of the leadership qualities that she feels are most important. She explained that leaders challenge the status quo not for the sake of change itself, but because that is the only way you can solve a problem. To do that, leaders must have the courage to withstand inevitable criticism. Carly feels that criticism is the price of leadership and problem solving is its payoff. Instead of limitations, leaders see possibilities.

Asking questions is key to driving organizational transformation

Carly explained that when she first joined AT&T, she found herself in an environment of low expectations.  “One of the things that I learned early on is that there were festering problems all around me,” she said. “There were customer relationship problems that had never been solved. There were problems my colleagues had been complaining about for years that had never been solved. There were all these problems lying around, but nobody really did much about them.  And so, I focused on solving problems and producing results, but this doesn’t mean I had all the answers —not at all.”

Carly stated that she moved forward on these issues by asking questions, a skill that she refined while travelling extensively during her youth. “I found that other people fascinated me and I would always spend time getting to know the people I met along the way,” she said. “And I did that by asking questions. I've learned that asking questions of other people is the best way to learn, instead of telling other people what you already know. I would say a leader has to be curious about people, and the problems and circumstances around them. I draw a lot of energy from other people and a lot of inspiration from learning about them. I learned that skill early on and I'm grateful for that.”

Carly related that in many cases, people with the answers to some of the challenges facing AT&T were already there --it’s just a case that no one had ever asked them the right questions. Carly was able to translate this inquisitiveness into solutions for long-standing problems at the company. She summed up the value of this approach with the following: “Almost no matter what the expectations are, when you produce results and solve problems, people pay attention and opportunity knocks.”

Next month Executive Circle members will enjoy another exclusive call with Ralph de la Vega and John Maxwell. Stay tuned!

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