The IT Leader’s Hero Quest

Think you could be CIO? Jim Barton is a savvy manager but an IT newbie when he's promoted into the hot seat as chief information officer in The Adventures of an IT Leader, a novel by HBS professors Robert D. Austin and Richard L. Nolan and coauthor Shannon O'Donnell. Can Barton navigate his strange new world quickly enough? Q&A with the authors, and book excerpt. Key concepts include:
  • The role of CIO is one of the most volatile, high-turnover jobs in business. Why? The driving cause is more than rapid change in IT. Rather, IT is at the crossroads of major organizational change.
  • Barton soon realizes that IT-specific knowledge is not a key to success. Instead, he must take care to collaborate equally with the senior management team and his own staff.
  • Like Barton, today's senior executives are continuously confronted with situations with multiple uncertainties, needing collaboration and input from experts who may know more than they do about the specifics.
by Martha Lagace

Rising star Jim Barton has decidedly mixed feelings after being selected as the new chief information officer at the fictional IVK Corporation. On the one hand, he lacks an IT background; on the other, he's ambitious and up for a challenge. And a challenge it is: When Barton takes over as CIO, his company badly needs a jolt of energy and expertise to grow and to resuscitate its declining stock price. The chief executive who promoted Barton is hopeful but hard-nosed; and Barton's IT group—while talented and tech-savvy—is impatient, even borderline dysfunctional. So begins Barton's wild ride and ultimately an excellent journey to learning effective leadership skills in The Adventures of an IT Leader (Harvard Business Press).

According to the novel's creators, a fictional approach allowed them to blend real-life incidents they had encountered as managers, consultants, and educators working with a diverse set of companies.

"In this way, we could pool all this knowledge and distill it down to the essential principles that CIOs can generally apply, regardless of industry or size of firm, while describing 'realistic' and recognizable situations."

Co-writers Robert D. Austin and Richard L. Nolan are professors at Harvard Business School while Shannon O'Donnell is a consultant with Cutter Consortium's Innovation Practice and a PhD fellow at Copenhagen Business School. The three teamed up via email for the following Q&A. An excerpt from The Adventures of an IT Leader appears afterward.

Martha Lagace: It's a clever idea to tell your story through the fictional character of Jim Barton, a fledgling CIO. Why describe CIO challenges through fiction?

Rob Austin, Dick Nolan, and Shannon O'Donnell: Our decision to use fiction opened up a host of opportunities for inviting reader engagement. For the professionals, our story of Jim Barton often mirrors their own life experience, and has prompted many real CIOs to say to us "this is my life," "this book is about me," even (from one) "how did you find out about this?" The story also provides a context apart from the complexity and sensitivity of their own company; this allows executives to engage in important discussions about, for example, risk trade-offs and relationships with peers, subjects that might be too sensitive in their own company contexts.

For the student who nowadays has a host of dynamic multimedia material competing for his or her attention, we wanted to create a high-quality, engaging classroom experience. Both plot and character development in the book are inspired by a popular storytelling structure called "the hero's journey" that is used widely in the writing of popular film scripts like The Matrix or Star Wars. Character behaviors, actions, and motivations hook the interest of readers at all levels, regardless of their professional experience with IT, while the plot sets up a series of expectations that keep the reader curious and invested in the story. We've had students at undergraduate, graduate, and executive levels telling us that they couldn't stop reading because they were eager to know what would happen next.

In addition, chapters of the book are designed like teaching cases, built around key decisions the CIO must make. Students are invited to walk in the shoes of the CIO and become active participants in making these decisions and creating new knowledge about IT leadership through classroom discussion and debate.

We want to send the signal that this is a different kind of reading and learning experience. Our publishing team at Harvard Business Press, led by the talented Kathleen Carr, had been generating a host of innovative ideas that naturally aligned with this book's innovative format—the use of artistic illustrations was their suggestion, and we were thrilled to make them a part of the book, in line with our strategy to engage a broad audience through telling an interesting and important story being played out in twenty-first-century organizations.

Q: What makes a CIO job the most volatile, high-turnover job in business? How important is CIO leadership for the future success of companies?

A: Early in our careers at the Harvard Business School, we discovered that the turnover of CIOs ran at around 30 to 40 percent per year. As a result of our research, we described the driving cause as the rapid change of IT through the operation of Moore's Law (IT cost halving every 18 months or so), which we thought would be short-lived. But when we looked at the turnover rates again a few years later, we discovered the rate was about the same, but the driving cause was more than just the rapid change in IT: It was also because IT was the nexus of major organizational change, the key enabler of business process redesign.

Over the years, the CIO job has remained a hot seat in business and has, in turn, become a key management position in executing a company's competitive cost structure and strategy. It has become a key senior management position that can enable companies to transform their twentieth-century industrial organization structures to twenty-first-century information-based organization structures.

Q: In your novel, though Barton had been willing to critique his predecessor for constantly fighting fires, he found himself facing the same dilemmas. Did it actually help him as CIO to know relatively little about IT?

A: Among a few key differences between the management styles of Jim Barton (trained as a general manager) and his predecessor Bill Davies (trained as an IT specialist), the most important is arguably in their approach to managing relationships. Davies focused where he was strongest—on his relationship to the IT department—and tended to retreat into the IT "basement" in times of conflict with business units and senior management. Barton paid attention to his staff, while at the same time more effectively managing communication with his peers and the CEO, making more explicit business arguments for IT in the context of senior leadership meetings, and inviting the CEO and partners into important, risk trade-off decisions. An important lesson Barton learns over the course of the novel, after rashly seizing control of IT project prioritization, is the importance of including business-side managers in certain key decisions so that all are invested in a successful outcome.

In other words: Successful IT strategy and management is now extremely dependent on collaboration with the senior management team and the IT team. In the twenty-first century, IT has become a "participative sport" for the senior management team, rather than a "spectator sport." Barton was persistent in making the senior management play IT as a participative sport. Davies wasn't.

In the structure of the hero's journey, Davies is someone Barton must come to understand in order to surpass. In the course of the story, Barton first rejects Davies' management approach, then in a more mature fashion, finds ways to "get into the skin" of his opponent, incorporate the useful perspectives he has to offer, and find ways to make new choices based on an understanding of why Davies failed.

Q: The crisis section we are excerpting at the end of this interview is about coping with a sudden denial of service attack. It's also about Barton navigating around conflicting advice while preparing for a meeting with Wall Street analysts in which he must put his best face forward. Barton's CEO is particularly tough. How common is it for a CIO to be caught in the middle, and have you any general guidelines for navigating similar circumstances?

A: We think this situation facing Jim Barton represents the essence of a difference between successful twentieth-century senior executives and twenty-first-century senior executives. Much more frequently, today's senior executives are confronted with situations with multiple uncertainties, requiring collaboration and judgment from experts who know more than they do about many aspects of the situation. Much more frequently also, there is less time for making important decisions—not infrequently, they have to act in real time. With modern IT (with real time, Internet search, and social networks), few decisions can be made in secret, and even fewer can be kept secret. While the CEO is on the ultimate "hot seat," the pressure to provide the analysis and judgment spills over to the senior executive team members, and, in this case, the CIO.

Our advice to CIOs and other senior executives is to build a foundation of trust with a well-rounded management team ensuring that strong management capabilities reside in the team, and that great technical expertise is accessible to the team. Be prepared, and not surprised, by this kind of decision-making. In addition, ensure that all decisions are executed in the context of a deep ethical code reflecting sound values.

Without giving away an important twist in the plot concerning Barton's decision and advice to the CEO, later in the book we have a reflective discussion between the CEO and Barton about the motivations of the CEO as he took some controversial actions of which Barton disapproved. This late chapter provides further insight into the character of the CEO and allows Barton to "walk in the shoes" of the CEO to see from his perspective why he didn't follow Barton's recommendation.

Q: Barton seems to accept and perhaps appreciate the different personalities and work styles in his group. How much of effective CIO leadership has to do with the people side of managing?

A: We think there are work styles unique to certain tasks in IT organizations. Chapter 3 explores one difference: the need to sometimes include input from specialists when making key management decisions, given that managers often can't keep up with the high-speed technological advances their employees master, and that so much of the work is difficult to observe.

“IT has become a 'participative sport' for the senior management team, rather than a 'spectator sport.'”

Chapter 15 of the book deals specifically with considerations necessary for managing highly talented employees, who produce great value for the organization but may go about it in ways that test normal work-day structures or departmental rules and cause internal conflict. With insight offered from professional jazz musician Carl Størmer, we developed a scene in the story in which one of Barton's talented security specialists performs with his jazz ensemble. This leads to a discussion about how to manage real-time collaboration between highly skilled people, and gives readers the chance to consider new ways to think about how to manage IT innovation.

Work has fundamentally changed in a number of important ways from twentieth-century organizations to twenty-first-century organizations. "Place" and "time" of work are two of the most important changes, and we have incorporated these changes throughout the book. The "time" of work is no longer a specific time such as 9-to-5. As much of the factory work has been automated along with customer service, work is carried out throughout the day and night. And, of course, "place" of work has changed too—it has become less located in a specific physical place and is more often done in virtually connected spaces—often spaces that span the globe. In these conditions, the resulting impact has been that people are able to and need to draw on a richer set of experiences and bring them to bear on their work.

The example in Chapter 15 relates the work of John Cho, a highly talented systems architect, to the approaches that have been developed to achieve great levels of creativity by accomplished jazz musicians. It is not uncommon to find outstanding professionals engaging in outside activities that are complementary, that enable them to perform in their chosen professions better.

Q: What are you working on next?

A: Given the success we've had with the structure of this novel in classrooms and with readers so far, with the support of our talented Harvard Business Press team, we're extending the hybrid case-novel form to the journey of another hero: the twenty-first-century CEO. We pick up our hero, Jim Barton, at a latter point in his career, as he's offered the opportunity to lead the transformation of a struggling medium-sized military aircraft company into a successful twenty-first-century commercial airplane company. We are filling our hero's next journey with even more challenges, crises, seductions, dangers, and betrayals, and we're introducing a new kind of technological application that goes beyond Jim Barton's "white board" to help him navigate this strange new world, as he takes up his ultimate challenge: becoming a successful twenty-first-century CEO.

Excerpt from The Adventures of an IT Leader, by Robert D. Austin, Richard L. Nolan, and Shannon O'Donnell:


Thursday, June 28, 9:24 a.m. …

Barton was enjoying an unusually slow morning, finishing an elegant breakfast at a Hilton in midtown Manhattan, when the first call indicating trouble came in.

He had come to New York for an early afternoon meeting with Wall Street analysts. That [CEO Carl] Williams had chosen him for the meeting was a sign of just how well things had been going lately for IVK—and for Jim Barton, CIO. In the past three weeks, IVK's stock price had begun to rise, lifting spirits throughout the company. Optimism percolated through the offices and hallways. At the same time, Barton had been scoring victory after victory. A recent all-hands IT department meeting had gone extremely well; he'd fielded a few tough questions, but people seemed pleased with his answers and the department's overall direction. Even John Cho had nodded in response to some of Barton's remarks. His resolute actions had also gained him the confidence of the company's senior leadership. In meetings of that group, Barton's views now swayed Williams more readily than anyone else's. And why not? This was a guy who knew the IVK business inside and out and had apparently mastered the mysterious world of IT in just three months.

Sending Barton—former Loan Ops VP, now chief IT guy—to New York on the crest of a wave of recovery, Williams had explained, sent exactly the right message. Under a new CEO, IVK had woken up to a realization of its current size and the consequent need for a new style of management. The company would mature into a grownup financial services firm. What had been a freewheeling, improvisational approach to management would become more professional. Without sacrificing organizational agility, the company would institute more formal systems and controls. IT was, of course, key to achieving this. An expression Williams and Barton had begun to use in conversation to describe where they were headed captured their joint vision of the future: "a lean service factory." It was only natural that Barton would explain all this to Wall Street.

He'd been sipping coffee, going over his notes, making some last-minute adjustments to the presentation for the afternoon meeting, when his cell phone rang. The phone display told him it was Bernie Ruben. Barton guessed that the call might be last-minute advice about how to tweak the analyst presentation.

He was wrong.

"Hi Bernie, what's up?"

"Hi Jim. I'm afraid we've got a problem, and we felt we should get to you with an update."

"My laptop is upstairs. Is it something I need to change in the presentation?"

"Nothing like that. We're experiencing an outage this morning, for about the last forty minutes. Customer Service is down. None of the call center systems are working, and the Web site is locked up."

"Oh. Damn. I assume we're executing recovery procedures?"

"Such as they are."

This confused Barton. He'd heard, time and time again, about the call lists and emergency procedures that assured business continuity in a crisis. "What do you mean, 'Such as they are'?"

"Sorry. That's my cynicism coming through. The fact is, those procedures are pretty badly out of date. I don't think we realized quite how out of date until thirty minutes ago."

This made Barton angry. "Wish you'd flashed that cynicism a little sooner. I've been taking everyone's word on this. I thought we were prepared for an outage."

Ruben, hearing the tone of Barton's voice, pulled back. "We're not completely unprepared, just not as prepared as we'd like to be. We've got great people on it. But the truth is that outages don't usually happen in a predictable way. Inevitably, we have to wing it a bit."

"And why are you calling to tell me?" Ruben's area had no operational responsibilities, thus would be involved in an outage only peripherally. Barton imagined his team voting on who the bearer of bad news would be.

"Because everybody else is kind of busy, frankly," Ruben answered. "Fenton and Cho are right in the middle of this. Ripley is at the data center, rebooting things. Juvvani and his team are trying to figure out what's wrong with the Customer Service systems."

"Cho? Do we think this might be some kind of security event?"

"I was coming to that." Ruben paused, as if to steel himself, before continuing. It was very unlike Bernie, that pause, and it communicated the gravity of the circumstances more than the words that followed it. A bolt of panic stirred the eggs Benedict digesting in Barton's stomach.

"We're receiving a continuous flow of e-mails at our Customer Service address," continued Ruben, "about three per second, each with no text in the body of the message and a one word subject line that says, 'Gotcha.'"


"Yes. It's like 'Gotcha, gotcha, gotcha, gotcha.'"

"What the hell does that mean?" Barton channeled his frustration into an exasperated hand movement, which promptly toppled his coffee cup. Hot liquid flowed from the table onto his lap.

"We don't know," said Ruben. "It could be a coincidence that Customer Service systems are down at the same time that we are receiving these e-mails, but …"

"But it doesn't sound coincidental, does it?" Barton stood, motioning to a waiter to indicate the spill and request his check.

"No," conceded Ruben. "That is the concern."

"Bernie, I need more information," Barton said. "I don't want to take people off their urgent duties, but at some point in the next hour or so I need a full update. Williams will get wind of this soon …"

"He has already …"

"… and I need to know what to tell him."

"I'll pull a group together, and we'll call you. How about 10:30?" Barton looked at his watch. It was 9:37 a.m. "Make it 10:15. There's no telling when Williams will call me. I'll hold off calling him until I hear more."

"I'm on it," said Ruben.

Barton hung up the phone. The waiter, rushing over to control the spill, also perceived the urgency of the call. He hurried the check to Barton, who quickly signed it and dashed out of the restaurant.

As Barton awaited the elevator that would take him to his floor, another call came in, this one from Graham Wells, IVK's VP of Legal Affairs and General Counsel.

"This is Jim Barton."

"Jim, we've got to reduce our legal exposure here." Wells's voice was an octave higher than usual.

"What do you mean, Graham?"

"We have to take dramatic action, signal that we've done everything we can."

"We are doing everything we can, Graham." […]

"Can we shut off power to the computer systems? Or cut the wires that go to the Internet?"

"We could, Graham, but I doubt that would be smart."

"Smart doesn't matter. What matters is what we can say in a deposition."

The elevator arrived, but Barton moved away from it to sit in a nearby chair.

"A deposition? What the hell are you talking about, Graham?"

"If it is security incident," he continued, "we may be looking at the legal implications. Customer lawsuits, shareholder lawsuits, government penalties, you name it."

"Because our Web site is down?" Barton said. But even as he said this, he knew it was more than that. His remaining optimism drained away, consumed in the heat of Wells's fear.

"If this is hackers—if hackers are stealing customer data—this is going to be bad."

"We don't know that yet, Graham."

"That's why we need to take drastic action. Listen, I just got off the phone with Carl. That last words he said to me were, "Call Barton, make sure he understands the legal ramifications.' That's what I'm trying to do. And my official legal opinion is that we should shut down every computer in the place until we know what's happening. Can we turn off power to the entire company? I will now call Carl back and let him know that you and I have spoken."

Barton was shaken. "Thanks, Graham," was all he could manage. An elevator arrived and Barton dashed across the lobby to catch it.

About the Author

Martha Lagace is senior editor of Working Knowledge.