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Dynamic Women in Business 2001 A Short-Term Look at the Long-Term Business

Business watching has become an insidious form of entertainment, noted Deborah C. Hopkins, executive vice president and chief financial officer of Lucent Technologies. And in her opinion, the effects on industry are not good. Hopkins — the second most powerful woman in business, according to Fortune Magazine — also shared her thoughts on leadership and the importance of teamwork.

Deborah C. Hopkins
Deborah C. Hopkins

Business news has descended into the realm of spectator sport, according to Deborah C. Hopkins, the executive vice president and chief financial officer of struggling Lucent Technologies and a keynote speaker at the conference.

Speaking via satellite four days prior to Lucent's official announcement of a $2-billion cost-cutting plan, which would reportedly involve layoffs of up to 10,000 people, Hopkins —considered "the second most powerful woman in business" by Fortune Magazine — criticized the transformation of business news into what she called a high-stakes game. She had made a personal decision some time ago, she told the audience at HBS, to avoid reading news commentary about her company, and about her own performance.

The high-stakes game, she said, "is played out daily by people who watch corporate box scores scroll across their PCs and television sets." People place instant bets online that are based on such news, she stated, and they study intensely the body language of CEOs on Squawk Box.

"If there's nothing sensational in the public record, the private record is now fair game," charged Hopkins. "We've seen it in politics for years, and now we're seeing it in business."

The glaring media spotlight has, in her opinion, exacerbated an already intolerable industry trend: developing strategies that exist only to produce positive results from quarter to quarter, without heeding a long-term strategic plan.

"Instead of winning in the long term, the market is such that it is who is winning this quarter, who's winning today, and more often than not, who's winning this second," she said.

If you lose the game, you can expect 12 weeks of intense media coverage about what went wrong — and who's to blame.
Deborah Hopkins

(On January 21, one day after her talk, the New York Times published a profile of Lucent's financial woes, titled "The Genesis of a Giant's Stumble: How Missteps and Overreaching Dimmed Lucent's Promise." Focusing on the company's fall from grace in the eyes of Wall Street and individual investors, the story preceded the company's disappointing quarterly results announcement later that week and subsequent restructuring news.)

Perhaps in anticipation of such coverage, Hopkins told conference participants, "If you lose the game, you can expect 12 weeks of intense media scrutiny about what went wrong — and who's to blame. And that's when the media puts its phasers on ‘stun.'

"This is the world that awaits many of you when the commencement speeches are over," Hopkins said.

A two-edged sword, 24/7
The majority of her talk for the audience at HBS, however, focused on what she called "my past and your future." Hopkins spoke of her challenges to balance work, home, and family; to be a mentor and coach to newcomers; and to inspire leadership.

Formerly a top executive at Unisys, Boeing, and General Motors Europe, Hopkins came to Lucent in April 2000 with an aim to impart stability, fiscal discipline, and investor respect.

"The world you're about to enter is far different than the one I faced after my graduation," she told the HBS group. "I'm not going to tell you the year; I surely never intended to be this old," she joked.

Hopkins spoke at length of the monumental changes in communications technology that have transformed the world. Indeed, the development of the Internet and fiber-optic technology enabling transfer of digitized multimedia in scant seconds has created new environments for business, professional, and personal relationships, she said.

However, Hopkins also suggested that new technology can be a two-edged sword: with the potential to create heat as well as shed light. Communications technology is redefining what is considered acceptable behavior, in a time frame limited only by the speed of electrons through a copper wire, or light waves through fiber-optic cable.

"Business now moves at lightning speed as a result of Internet news sites such as TheStreet.com, and investor chat rooms, and nonstop, 24/7 business coverage on cable news channels such as CNBC and CNN/fn," she said.

Teamwork, at work and at home
As future leaders, Hopkins told the audience, their first priority must be to build a strong team.

"Find the right people, and give them the right jobs and the resources to do them," she said. The ability to build a strong team cannot be underestimated, in her view, especially in times of crisis. "The right people are the first to pitch in when things go wrong," she pointed out.

As a mentor, Hopkins added, the most exciting event in her career has been to take a hand in the professional development of colleagues. And she counts her husband as one of her own personal mentors. A former marketing executive at General Motors and Unisys, David Hopkins encouraged her to leave Boeing and Seattle for the New York suburb of Murray Hill, NJ, where Lucent Technologies is headquartered. It meant quitting his own job, but for a move as dramatic as accepting the CFO position at Lucent, Deborah Hopkins said, "It took two people to hit it off.

"It takes someone to help keep you on track, and my husband fills the role for me," she said.

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