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Fiorina As CEO: 'Colossal Failure' Or 'The Right Leader'?

Republican presidential candidate, businesswoman Carly Fiorina speaks during the CNN Republican presidential debate at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum on Sept. 16, 2015.

A strong showing during the Sept. 16 debate has put Carly Fiorina at the top of a crowded field of Republican presidential candidates. But in the corporate world, another debate remains: Fiorina's business record.

Donald Trump says as a businesswoman, Fiorina would be unqualified to lead one of his companies.

"The head of the Yale business school, Jeffrey Sonnenfeld, wrote a paper recently (calling it), 'one of the worst tenures for CEOs that he has ever seen,'" Trump says.

Sonnenfeld's actual title is senior associate dean, but he says the rest is true: "Her business record is a colossal failure."

Fiorina, the daughter of a law professor-turned-judge, rose quickly at AT&T, becoming its first female senior vice president, then later president of its spinoff, Lucent. Lucent was a business supernova; it burned bright, then faded soon after she left. Part of its downfall lay in questionable-but-legal accounting that boosted revenues by loaning money to its customers.

Still, Sonnenfeld, along with many others, say Fiorina's biggest misstep was the expensive and unprofitable merger with Compaq. He says the highly controversial, strategically misguided deal she muscled through dragged the company and its stock down.

"Stapling together the carcasses of failing businesses is not a successful track record," Sonnenfeld says.

Still, Sonnenfeld says, executives often fail.

"Leaders go through adversity and we benefit from their failures because they come back from it and tell us how to get through it. But she doesn't, because she doesn't acknowledge it," Sonnenfeld says.

He believes that instead of accepting criticism, she shoots the messenger. It's a failure of character and leadership, he says.

"I get shot at as a result," Sonnenfeld says.

Former Compaq-turned HP senior vice president Bill Mutell bucks the critics.

"She was the right leader at the right time," he says.

Mutell, who has not contributed to her campaign, calls Fiorina a leader with character, courage and conviction. He argues the merger was a success that shored up both companies.

"Had that merger not occurred, I'm almost certain that [neither] company wouldn't be here today," Mutell says.

Much of the debate over her corporate performance boils down to two disparate views of HP's woes. Her critics attribute them to her decisions and leadership; her supporters — and Fiorina herself — blame the times.

"I led Hewlett-Packard through a very difficult time, the worst technology recession in 25 years," Fiorina says.

Tom Perkins is a Silicon Valley venture capitalist and former HP board member who, at the time, voted to fire Fiorina. But in a full-page ad in the New York Times paid for by a PAC supporting Fiorina, he defended her record and leadership.

Much of the political criticism of Fiorina's career stems from the 30,000 layoffs soon after the Compaq merger.

Her eventual successor at HP, Meg Whitman — who, like Fiorina, has run for office in California — has defended that decision.

"When Carly made those reductions it was probably — I wasn't here, but I suspect she was trying to do in some ways what I have tried to do, which is to make this company more competitive," Whitman told CNN Money in June.

She says the price of inaction would've been far greater.

Is Fiorina facing more flack as a female running for office? Yale professor Jeffrey Sonnenfeld points to other strong female contemporaries, saying gender was not Fiorina's issue. She was fired by HP chairwoman Patricia Dunn. Sonnenfeld argues her contemporaries — now IBM CEO Ginni Rometty and former Xerox CEO Anne Mulcahy — have better records.

"I do think that there are some added challenges that women CEOs have had, but it doesn't seem to be relevant in the particular case of Carly Fiorina," Sonnenfeld says.

But that, like everything else, is likely still up for debate.

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