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November 1999

Harry’s Way: equal parts respect and profit

NewsWire Editorial

Harry Sterling knew what the HP 3000 needed better than anybody four years ago: respect. It would lead to being included, as respect often does. Being a part of a community, organization or strategy offers the chance for relationships, collaboration and synergy. These were things the HP 3000 needed from HP in the fall of 1995, things it required an advocate to get.

As it turned out, Harry knew a lot about advocacy inside HP. A person’s lifestyle preferences shouldn’t be reason to exclude them from the life of their company. But that’s where HP’s Way was stuck, perhaps through oversight, as gays and lesbians found their partners excluded from HP’s corporate benefits. Harry stood up as the highest ranking gay member of a group that helped change domestic partner policies in 1996, making a move that some might say was career limiting. Those limits never materialized for him; less than six months before he announced his retirement this fall, Harry got another promotion.

Harry considers his advocacy one of his most significant accomplishments during his 24 years in Hewlett-Packard. He said it spoke to the values of the HP Way, a code of business ethics put in place by HP’s founders. The code sets out values that are supposed to drive HP’s business decisions. High on the list is the value people provide to the company. Harry knew that people who are respected and included provide more value. That value leads to more profit.

It’s a straightforward formula. You give a big chunk of your life away to a big company. You have someone in your family you love, a partner for life. You want to believe that your work benefits both you and your partner. When you can see that respect, you’re motivated to do your best, better than you imagined you could.

To be that advocate, Harry had to be authentic, be known for his difference. The courage to be authentic in our society is under-appreciated and often ill-rewarded. Being known can be the scariest thing you’ll do.

This is what made Harry the best man for the job of HP 3000 leader. He was a different man, in some people’s eyes. He was getting the helm of a corporate division that was home to a different computer. Not a PC, not Unix. But unique and valuable in ways that HP had missed, perhaps through some more oversight.

Being angry at a lack of respect is the natural first reaction. I remember how the walls of a Boston auditorium shook with the anger of HP 3000 customers in 1990, when it became plain HP thought the system a lesser product to its Unix juggernaut. We heard echoes of that anger for years afterward at other user meetings. People despaired of getting the respect the platform deserved. After all, the 3000 had put HP on the business computing map. It felt unfair to see a newer choice favored, while the 3000 was excluded.

Harry just rolled up his sleeves and went to work on repairing the relationship between the 3000 and HP. He did it with his secret ally, the one that HP had lost sight of: customers.

That’s the other thing that Harry has been proudest of in his time at HP. In the early 90s they called it Customer First, a strategy where the quality of the relationship with your current customers provided the road map for what to do next. And in the period Harry took his GM job, it was still pretty radical thinking for HP.

It began, like so many great things in HP have, in the labs. The R&D group in the 3000 division got closer to the customers than any part of HP had. Real relationships, with a lot of listening by engineers, many of whom had never been at a customer site. People in the lab became valued for the quality of their relationships with customers.

It was radical because at the time HP was reveling in the glories of the mass market for the first time. Until the LaserJet, lots of people only knew HP for its measurement gear or calculators. Millions of LaserJets later, HP was becoming known as a computer company, using the mass market style to sell Unix, a product which HP had when everybody wanted it.

Staying close enough to customers to hear them be truthful and authentic was Harry’s breakthrough for HP. The achievement is one which, he will quickly point out, was made a success through the work of everyone in his division. That is Harry’s way of showing respect: honoring the work, the unique contributions, that his staff and colleagues make.

Harry knew that respect leads to an understanding of your value — and that value leads to effort and initiative, the doing of what seems unlikely. Like saving a computer that your boss tells you is really going away in four years. Harry did this for HP, and made those echoes of anger recede. We know many 3000 managers have done the same thing, by helping their companies respect what they do, using the wonderful information tool at their sides.

The other thing that Harry knows is that the extra effort leads to extra profits, or in some cases, profit where there might be a loss. Seeing the connection between respect and profits was Harry’s value, delivered into the HP Way.

Profits get a bad rap in our society, sometimes. People equate them with excess, instead of success. In particular they get knocked when people want equality above all, without regard for initiative. Profit is a good measure of respect, and respect is a value we all require. One of the central human needs, if I recall — the recognition of others.

Harry’s Way for the 3000 never mortgaged the computer’s profitability to buy what wasn’t absolutely essential. HP runs far bigger computer operations than the HP 3000. Almost all have higher revenues. Few have the 3000’s bedrock of profit. It’s what Harry could take to the trenches when some wanted to turn off the 3000 business. It was profitable, a value we all secretly admire.

We hope that the customers and partners in the 3000 community remember this respect-equals-profit philosophy in Harry’s Way. Back in our final Q&A with him, he says it plainly. It’s the same kind of plain speaking he’s become known for, the kind he must have used in that courageous presentation for partner benefits. Harry seems to know the power of partners.

“If we can have partners working with us to provide more functionality, and we can share in the wealth of doing that together, then the bottom line is that it gives our customers more than they would have got,” he explains. “Frankly, I have turned a deaf ear in some of these situations with customers, because frankly, they want something for nothing.”

That free feature or free software is never really free. Asking for it is commonplace, but getting it steals from you. It robs you of a chance to pay respect, to have a relationship.

And in the end, that is what Harry will miss the most: the people, the relationships. And what we all will miss the most as he departs. He leaves behind his Way, however, and a hand-picked successor to advocate it just as he did. The 3000 community is known for its advocacy by now. At his heart, Harry knew the healthiest value for HP to advocate was respect.

— Ron Seybold 


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