by Robert D. Austin, Richard L. Nolan and Shannon O'Donnell

Book Excerpt: The Adventures of an IT Leader, Part 1

Dec 23, 20086 mins

A first-time CIO must restore his CEO's confidence in IT while he learns on the job. Is it mission impossible? Read the first installment of our exclusive series.

Friday, March 23, 11:52 a.m….

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Book Excerpt: The Adventures of an IT Leader, Part 2

Book Excerpt: The Adventures of an IT Leader, Part 3

Book Excerpt: The Adventures of an IT Leader, Part 4

“Speechless” was not a word most people could imagine applying to Jim Barton, head of the IVK Loan Operations department. But the news [CEO Carl] Williams had conveyed moments before had left Barton dumbfounded.

“We’re not asking you to leave. But I had originally proposed a very different role for you than the one you’ve ended up in.”

An unusual assignment. I can live with that [thought Barton]. “I’m willing to do whatever will help,” he offered.

“Having discussed this with the board extensively, we’ve…” Here Williams drew in a deep breath, “Well, we’ve decided that you should be our new chief information officer.” This was the news that had knocked the air out of Barton. Finally, he managed to babble: “CIO? You want me to be the CIO?”

“Davies has been overwhelmed in that role. You’ve been one of his most outspoken critics.”

“I know, but…I’ve got no background in information technology.”

“And Davies has a lot. That clearly doesn’t work, so we’ve decided to try something else.”

“Carl,” said Barton, “I just don’t think I’m the right choice.”

“Give it time,” said Williams, “but not too much time. Let me know what you decide.”

Friday, March 23, 2:41 p.m….

All day, employees had been working on a big whiteboard in the back of a storage room to create a chart showing the new management team. Jim Barton remained the biggest puzzle. When inquisitiveness overwhelmed them, people gravitated to the corridor outside Barton’s office.

Barton was oblivious to their attention, lost in a think fog, oscillating between anger and excitement, as unsure as he had ever been about anything. At 1:35 p.m., he’d swiveled his chair around to the computer screen and had begun searching the Web. He had come across a PowerPoint presentation called “A Short History of the CIO Position.” Some of the content was cryptic, but the gist of it was clear.

As Barton thought back through the history of IVK, he realized that this [CIO history] fit IVK reasonably well. During the dotcom craze, IVK had been a startup. When the bottom had fallen out of the tech market, it was a very good thing that IVK had never quite gotten on board the Internet express. Throughout much of the crash-and-burn period for Internet startups, IVK had managed to grow.

The part about IT being a potential source of growth for a firm excited Barton. He remembered Davies arguing that superior technical features that could be demonstrated to clients could be a factor in closing deals. That’s why he’d wanted in on meetings with customers. The idea of Davies and his weird neckties sitting down with customers had obscured serious consideration of this argument.

He shut his browser and stood up. Looking toward the door, he noticed the people outside his office.

“What is it?” he asked them, as he emerged with coat on and briefcase in hand. He singled out someone who had worked for him in Loan Operations. “Jackie, what’s going on?”

“We’ve been trying to figure out where you fit in the new management team.”

He looked around, gathered his nerve and tried on a phrase that had never before passed his lips: “I’m the new CIO.”

Several people in the room gasped. Barton did not wait for further reactions. He headed for the elevator, leaving stunned silence in his wake.

Sunday, March 25, 8:15 a.m….

Barton sat on cold pavement, legs outstretched, prepping for a long run around the park. He’d spent Saturday night watching TV and listening to music, and then he’d gone to bed early.

The relatively mindless pursuits had left him with plenty of capacity to think about his first day as CIO on Monday. The obvious first thing to do would be a meeting of his direct reports. In the afternoon, he wanted to spend some time with Gary Geisler, the keeper of information that pertained to IT budgets and expenditures.

As Barton began to jog down a path, he had a disturbing thought. Sometimes Davies jogged here. A few minutes later he found himself running almost side-by-side with Davies, who didn’t seem to notice at first.

When Davies slowed down and stopped to rest and stretch, Barton did also.

“Hi, Bill,” said Barton.

“Hello, Jim,” responded Davies.

A pause grew uncomfortable. Barton broke it: “I guess you heard…”

“I did.” Barton waited to give Davies time to say more, but he didn’t. Barton opted for brevity to fill the new silence: “Ironic, huh?”

“I laughed for about half an hour when I heard.”

Barton looked closely, trying to discern whether the remark was a friendly joke or a hostile gesture. “Hey, I just want you to know—we had some disagreements.”

“We sure did.”

Barton continued: “I was out of line at times, and I feel bad about that.”

Davies began to laugh. “What you don’t realize, Jim, is that you’ll be gone soon too. That company is a madhouse. Nobody could succeed running IT in that place. You won’t last a year.”

Barton started to answer, but Davies wasn’t finished: “Don’t feel bad for me,” he added. “I start a new job on Monday. I even got a raise.”

Without waiting for a response from Barton, Davies sprinted away, making it clear that he didn’t want to be followed.

Next: Barton learns about I.T. value—and how to sell it.

Excerpted from The Adventures of an IT Leader by Robert D. Austin, Richard L. Nolan and Shannon O’Donnell, Harvard Business Press, April 2009. Austin is a professor at Copenhagen Business School and an associate professor (on leave) at Harvard Business School. Nolan is a professor at the Foster School of Business at the University of Washington, Seattle, and a professor emeritus at Harvard Business School. O’Donnell is a PhD fellow at Copenhagen Business School and a former director and dramaturg at People’s Light and Theatre in Philadelphia.