Pat Russo’s not so startling fall at Alcatel-Lucent

July 29, 2008, 8:50 PM UTC

Pat Russo’s planned resignation as CEO of telecom-equipment giant Alcatel-Lucent isn’t so surprising given her unending tide of challenges: intense industry competition, out-of-control costs, cultural clashes following the 2006 merger of the American and French companies. This simply wasn’t manageable for a chief who, despite her impressive record as a turnaround champ at IBM and then AT&T , didn’t satisfy investors on either side of the Atlantic.

Some might even say that it’s amazing Russo, who ranked No. 4 on Fortune’s international Most Powerful Women list, has hung on so long. I recall being in a small conversation six years ago with Jack Welch, General Electric’s former chief, and some top execs at a Fortune Leadership Forum in Chicago. Welch was riffing about the toughest jobs in America, and how quite a few of them were in the hands of women. He mentioned Russo, Xerox CEO Anne Mulcahy, and Carly Fiorina, then Hewlett-Packard’s chief and No. 1 on Fortune’s U.S. Most Powerful Women list. In Welch’s view, all three women were tempting fate as they strived to complete incredibly difficult financial and cultural turnarounds.

Now, of course, two of these women bosses, Russo and Fiorina, have fallen while the other, Mulcahy, has brought Xerox back from the brink of bankruptcy. (For a terrific take on Mulcahy and Ursula Burns, her president and heir apparent, read my colleague Betsy Morris’ Most Powerful Women cover story last year, “Xerox’s Dynamic Duo.”) All in all, 2008 has been a bummer year for women on the pedestal. Besides Russo, Morgan Stanley co-president Zoe Cruz, Lehman Brothers CFO Erin Callan, VMware CEO Diane Greene, PepsiCola North America chief Dawn Hudson all fell. And let’s not forget Hillary Clinton.

The pattern makes the survivors all the more impressive. Amidst the bad news the past couple of days, you might have missed some news about MPWomen who have scored: Kraft CEO Irene Rosenfeld beat quarterly profit expectations and raised Kraft’s forecast–and the stock popped. Pearson CEO Marjorie Scardino, No. 3 on Fortune’s international MPWomen list, also pleased the street. And as retailers across America struggle and plunge into Chapter 11 (Mervyn’s is the latest likely casualty), one MPWoman retailer is quietly sailing along: Carol Meyrowitz, the CEO of TJX , which owns TJ Maxx and Marshalls. TJX shares are up 23% in the past year.