Power Point: Women rise to the top

August 1, 2008, 8:49 PM UTC

“Anytime you have a fiercely competitive, change-oriented growth business where results count and merit matters, women will rise to the top.”

– Carly Fiorina said this 10 years ago this week, when I interviewed her for the very first Fortune Most Powerful Women in Businesss issue. Then a senior exec at Lucent, Fiorina was virtually unknown outside the telecom industry. In fact, she had had only one profile written about her, in Investor’s Business Daily.

When I went to Lucent’s New Jersey headquarters to sit down with Fiorina on that summer 1998 day, I knew little about her. I was instantly impressed. Not only because Fiorina, then 44, had risen from AT&T sales rep to president of Lucent’s core division. She had also managed the Lucent’s $3 billion IPO–the largest U.S. IPO in history until then. She struck me as gutsy, self-possessed, and super-smart. And since telecom was red-hot, we put this little-known exec on our premiere MPWomen cover, as Fortune’s No. 1 most powerful woman in business. (Click here for that first MPWomen story about Fiorina and here for the 1998 MPWomen list.)

Fiorina, of course, went on to bigger things. The next summer, she was recruited to be CEO of Hewlett-Packard , then dramatically expanded HP by acquiring Compaq in a battle that was like a brutal political race. We witnessed Carly the campaigner, at her best. Ultimately, her management style and execution problems at Hewlett-Packard brought her down.

When she was fired in early 2005, who could foresee her reincarnation as John McCain’s financial surrogate in the current Presidential race? Some people who know Fiorina well predict that if McCain loses (precluding a post such as U.S. ambassador to the UN), she’ll reincarnate again as a California Gubernatorial candidate.

Fiorina writes in her memoir, Tough Choices, that when she and I first met a decade ago, she told me that the MPWomen list was “a bad idea…There is no 50 Most Powerful Men in Business list.” I can tell you that she’s come around to see some value in the list–for the way it casts a spotlight on the world’s best business women, provides a recruitment guide to diversity-minded CEOs and corporate directors, and shows young women that it’s rarely a straight line to the top. You win, you lose, and you readjust.

P.S. Who did Carly outrank that first year of our MPWomen list? Oprah Winfrey was No. 2. Heidi Miller, then CEO of Travelers Group and now one of Jamie Dimon’s top managers at JPMorgan Chase (JPM), was third. Shelly Lazarus, who just announced she’ll be retiring as CEO of WPP Group’s Ogilvy & Mather, was fourth. No. 5 was Sherry Lansing, then boss at Viacom’s Paramount Pictures. Pat Russo, whom I also met for the first time that day at Lucent, was No. 12 on our 1998 list. She went on to become CEO of Lucent and then the merged Alcatel Lucent . This week came the news that Russo will resign under pressure from investors.

Click here to find out how Fortune selects and ranks women on the MPWomen list.