Kicking Through the Glass Ceiling (Fool On the Hill) September 3, 1999

An Investment Opinion

Kicking Through the Glass Ceiling

By Bill Mann (TMF Otter)
September 3, 1999

Last week I listened to an amazing interview on the radio. John Thompson, the former head basketball coach at Georgetown University, was speaking with fellow Hall of Famer Don Haskins, who just stepped down after 38 years as the basketball coach of the University of Texas-El Paso (UTEP).

For those of you who do not follow college basketball, a brief history lesson. In 1966, Haskins won the National Championship at UTEP (then called Texas Western) with an all-black starting five. The team he beat was Adolph Rupp's Kentucky Wildcats, the winningest program in history, and at that time a bastion of segregation. UTEP's victory in that game accelerated the end of segregation in college sports. Within five years, every major program included at least one black player, and within 10 years, African-American players had fully asserted their dominance of the sport. Haskins, in a sense, held open the door for talented African-American men like John Thompson to be evaluated on the basis of their skill sets, not the color of their skin.

The thing that struck me about this interview was Haskins' humility about his role. When Thompson asked him about his decision that night to start an all-black squad, Haskins replied, "I didn't consider it. My only interest was to put my best five players on the floor." A sign of true greatness. One of the most important statements in the history of college sports was, at the time, not even an afterthought to the man who made it.

Right about now, you're checking the heading to make sure you haven't accidentally clicked over to a sports website. Rest assured, dear Fool, you are now reading the segue to the main point. Subtle, huh?

In July of this year, Hewlett Packard (NYSE: HWP) announced that it had hired Carly Fiorina -- the then-president of Global Services at Lucent Technologies (NYSE: LU) -- to be its new CEO. In doing so, Hewlett-Packard became the first Dow company to have a woman at the helm. This is certainly a watershed, and it is a victory for women everywhere. But it is also a victory for the concept of merit. As Fiorina herself said at the time of the Hewlett-Packard announcement, "My gender is interesting, but really not the subject of the story here."

That is exactly right. That she is a woman is noteworthy, it is wonderful, but it is also not the point.

Ms. Fiorina's rise to prominence may not have been possible were it not for the enlightened attitude of Rich McGinn, the CEO of Lucent, in regard to his employees. Three years ago, he had the rare opportunity to hand-pick a management team for a major corporation, as Lucent was going through its spin-off from AT&T (NYSE: T). Mr. McGinn chose several women for key roles, including Ms. Fiorina to direct the overall strategy of the company, and Pat Russo to serve as an executive vice president.

The great thing about this is that gender played no role whatsoever in Mr. McGinn's decision-making process. He chose based on ability, vision, and potential for greatness. Period.

A quote from Mr. McGinn on the subject led me to equate Mr. McGinn's philosophy with that of Coach Haskins. When asked about his decision to put a female in such a key role, he said, in effect, that the only time he thinks about it is when he walks into the boardrooms of other companies and finds himself surrounded by white guys.

In other words, he didn't even think about the fact that Carly Fiorina is a woman, nor did he think about the fact that other people he chose for other roles are not. He elected to put excellence in leadership positions. Nothing else mattered.

Now, am I arguing that we need to see more women, more African-Americans, more equality in the bastions of American business? You bet I am. But I am NOT saying that there needs to be a greater emphasis upon quotas or other artificial ways of inflating the roll counts of those long left under the glass ceiling.

In other words, I celebrate greatness. I celebrate the type of person depicted by Dagny Taggart. If you recall, she is the woman who ran a railroad in Ayn Rand's magnum opus, Atlas Shrugged. For those of you who have not read this book (as well as the millions of you who started the book but abandoned it after 50 pages), Ms. Taggart is an object lesson of what is possible for a woman who believes in herself and her own ability.

This topic came up for me when my aunt asked me if I could help her and her investment club find companies with women executives. My research into this subject showed me how far women had come, and how much farther the male-dominated corporate boardrooms have left to go. Public companies in such diverse industries as toys (Mattel), finance (Citigroup), e-commerce (eBay), and power generation (Enron) have promoted women to the highest levels.

It would probably be a tossup as to which notion these women would find more wrong-minded: that they rose through the ranks because they are women, or that they did so in spite of their gender. I think they would all agree that each one of them is individually excellent at what they do, and that they would want to have been evaluated on that fact, and that fact alone.

Still, this exercise underlined the existence, some 30 years after the sexual revolution, of the stark reality that white males still dominate our nation's boardrooms. I can think of a million reasons why this is, but relative merit is not one of them.

Again, I do not believe a quota system would rectify a historical wrong. As Yi-Hsin Chang pointed out in her brilliant analysis of Fortune's diversity rankings last year, "complexion engineering" does nothing but replace one flawed system with another. When America's corporations become true meritocracies, we, the shareholders of those corporations, are certain to benefit. So in closing I'd like to commend Don Haskins and Rich McGinn for their innate tendencies to reward excellence and ignore the more superficial attributes of those who worked with them.

And I'd like to congratulate, belatedly, the players from the 1966 Texas Western basketball team, Carly Fiorina, and everyone else who has leveraged their own talents into success at the highest level of their professions. The doors you kicked open cannot be closed again.