Editor's note: A hybrid of a novel and a guidebook, Harder Than I Thought: Adventures of a Twenty-First Century Leader invites readers to critique the journey of Jim Barton, the new CEO of a west coast aerospace firm. Written by business scholars Robert Austin, Richard Nolan, and Shannon O'Donnell, the book is a sequel to their 2009 work The Adventures of an IT Leader
"We hope that this book inspires reflection and makes a contribution to developing our knowledge about CEO leadership in ways that can help us meet the needs of the twenty-first century collaboratively, responsibly, and with increasing wisdom," the authors write in the introduction to Harder Than I Thought.
In this excerpt from chapter one, our hero encounters trouble before he even begins his first day on the job.
Monday, October 26, 8:01 A.m. …
From Harder Than I Thought: Adventures of a Twenty-First Century Leader
Jim Barton barely reacted when the doorbell rang. Immersed in content streaming to a tablet propped up behind his cereal bowl, he waved an empty spoon past one ear, as if pushing away a buzzing insect, then gulped down an abrasive clump of wet high-fiber grain. Sipping coffee to clear his throat, he adjusted the reading glasses he'd begun using last week and couldn't quite get used to, without shifting attention from the editorial he'd just come across in the business section of the So-Cal Times. He couldn't quite believe what it said:
Let's face it. Santa Monica Aerospace had to really be scraping the bottom of the barrel to choose Jim Barton as their new CEO. I wish it weren't true. I have friends who work for that formerly great company-friends whom I'd like to see employed and thriving. But you've got to figure a lot of people turned down this job before they found someone dumb enough take it. The fact that the guy agreed to do it speaks unflattering volumes about his judgment.
Yes, I realize Barton is an SMA board member. That he "knows the company"-at least as much as a bean counter can ever know a company that really makes things. And I've heard all that schlock about how Lou Gerstner was a food company CEO when he took over and saved IBM.
But I don't buy it. That was a different company, in a different situation, in a different time. IBM was in the process, then, of becoming a consulting services company, an entity perfectly suited to Gerstner's Harvard-McKinsey pedigree. That's not the case here. SMA is, still, a company of engineers, building and delivering things that have to work.
And, if the rumors about what they're paying him are true, that makes this recent development even more galling. I know, I know: East Coast finance industry pay scales, you have to pay what the market will bear if you want the talent-yada, yada, blah, blah, yada, yada, blah, blah.Yeah, I get all that. But here's what I'm wondering (and I bet I'm not alone): All that money for the wrong guy? A financial services executive running an aerospace company? I've got just one thing to say to the members of the board: "Come on, guys and gals! What were you thinking?"
Barton removed the glasses and polished them with his napkin. He rubbed his eyes and shook his head, as if to clear it. But when he once again peered through the glasses at the tablet's display, the disagreeable words remained there.
"You'd think," he said, to no one in particular, "someone might give a guy break. This being his first day and all…"
Shoving aside the cereal bowl, sloshing milk onto the table, Barton snapped up the tablet and flicked his finger along the edge of the screen, scanning for a byline. He quickly spotted one: Veronica Perez.
"Ms. Perez," said Barton to himself, "Who are you?"
Swirling and tapping thumb and forefinger across the tablet's display, he generated a list, refining his search with filters for journalism, business, and the name of the newspaper. Within seconds, he located three bios for Perez, information about her work with the UC Irvine alumni club, the citation for an "up-and-coming journalist" award she'd won, links to her personal pages on several social networking sites, and her "@VIPERez" Twitter ID. Seconds later, he knew that Perez had taken a master's degree in journalism about ten years earlier and had since risen rapidly to positions of journalistic prominence, first with a Northern California paper and then with her current employer.
She's practically a kid! Barton thought. Who does she think she is?
Three days before, someone from the So-Cal Times-Perez, Barton now realized, or one of her flunkies-had called his East Coast office at Erlington Financial Group for a quote he'd been only too happy to provide. Anticipating a hopeful story about a new beginning for SMA, he'd made extensive use of airplane metaphors ("soaring," "flying high") and spoken of a "new era for a great company." None of that made it into print. He'd been naive to assume the local paper would be friendly.
That's not a mistake I would have made on the East Coast, Barton thought.
In his EFG role, he'd have worked carefully with his public relations guy. He'd have known exactly who was calling and how well he could trust that person. If they'd been unsure about the caller, they might have released similar information to a more trusted outlet at the same time, perhaps offering an extra exclusive tidbit to the trusted outlet. They'd have worked on the quotes to make them seem spontaneous rather than contrived. The SMA communications office had recommended working with them in very much this same manner if Barton had occasion to interact with members of the West Coast press prior to his arrival. He'd disregarded the advice, partly because he didn't yet know his new team.
But that was not, he realized, the only reason.
Barton now recognized—with an unsettling jolt—a second reason he'd failed to take his new PR staff's excellent advice: sentimentality. Taking the SMA job meant coming home, to the place where Barton had grown up. Somehow he'd expected, without thinking it through, a warm homecoming. A rookie mistake, he thought. I can't afford many of those.
He knew the SMA PR staff would also consider this a pretty basic mistake, and that they'd probably read into it many deeply ominous implications.
Barton was about to open Perez's vlog site to get a visual fix on his new press adversary when the doorbell chimed again. This time he heard it and stood, looking for the source of the sound in the unfamiliar company-owned apartment. Closing the tablet and stashing it in his briefcase, Barton made a mental note to check with his new PR staff sooner rather than later about this "Veronica Perez" person.
Thus began Jim Barton's first day as the new CEO of Santa Monica Aerospace.