After serving as the IT leader of The Arc Greater Twin Cities organization for nearly two decades, Paul Harder decided to write the next chapter of his career and life. Harder is now CEO of his own consulting firm, KBP Strategies, which focuses on training sales professionals. (He also served as an official with the USA Track & Field organization for many years, and was a longtime member of the Midsize Enterprise Strategies advisory board.) We caught up with Harder to ask him about his career, request advice for fellow CIOs, and discuss how he coped with change.
MES: You were an IT leader for many years, what was the best advice you ever received?
Paul Harder: Early in my career, I was told to be an informed risk taker, by a mentor who was an icon in the industry. I learned from that to step out and take risks, once I did my homework.
MES: OK, that was great advice. What is your guidance and wisdom for the next-gen of CIOs and IT leaders?
Harder: Be a business leader that is able to take risks. Today, we should be an innovative member of the business team wherever we work. You can't do that without being an informed risk taker.
MES: What was the biggest change you saw in your career?
Harder: I could answer this in so many ways, technology changes, the alignment with business, and, as a CIO, the shift from IT background to business background. But the biggest change, in my opinion, has to do with the younger user base. Digital natives have an entirely different set of expectations relative to the use of equipment and applications than the digital immigrants. BYOD, BYOA, and bring your own anything, as well as how the equipment is used, and where it's used, have created a new landscape of support and security, one that has just emerged over the last few years. Innovation at the CIO level is required in this world of rapid change.
MES: How did you handle that transition and transformation?
Harder: Not always well, in my early career. But I have always loved a challenge, and recognize that change is the only constant in technology, and transformation is always around the corner. And I grew to look into the foggy crystal ball and try to meet the challenge of transformation, early on in the curve. I'm a very competitive person and have looked at successful transitions as a competition with change, so it became fun for me.
MES: What are you most proud of, in terms of your impact on The Arc’s business and technology strategy?
Harder: I was the first professional technology hire at The Arc. My job was to roll out the first technology strategic plan in the organization’s history. That meant putting together a team, designing and deploying a data center, and bringing The Arc into the 21st century. I had to do it with a nonprofit financial capability. During that time, I used MES as a way to educate myself and find nuggets of gold that I could bring back to The Arc. But the one thing that I am most proud of is connecting Brazil IT with The Arc, in order to develop two online tools that revolutionized the way The Arc works with its clients. To my knowledge, no one else in the U.S. has these tools.
MES: You had a special focus and interest in IT security — what drove that?
Harder: The Arc works with vulnerable people and their entire ecosystems. Some of the data The Arc are entrusted with are extremely sensitive and regulated. I was always confident in my teams, but I took the competition with cyber bad guys personally. I told my teams and my peers in the organization that we would do whatever was necessary to protect that data, and we did. I am proud of developing a holistic approach to security. When the entire staff of an organization owns the security of that organization, it makes it [the organization] extremely difficult to breach.
MES: You just decided to retire from your position and start a new chapter — can you talk about your decision?
Harder: Sure. There were two reasons I chose to retire from The Arc and start KBP Strategies. The biggest reason is that I saw a lot of small (and smaller midsized) organizations that do not have the internal skills to be truly innovative. We wanted to be a source of those skills. Having experience insourcing skills in my own organization, I felt it was time to be a connector. It just feels right to me and with that starts my new chapter.
MES: You have been an evangelist for the midmarket for many years. One of your big stances was that IT suppliers need to develop relationships with midmarket CIOs. Why is that so important?
Harder: It's all about trust. No buyer will buy without trusting the supplier and that is all about relationships. I am a very loyal buyer and I want a supplier to know my business, know me, and know my issues. Once a supplier and I have reached that point of mutual trust, we become business partners on the strength of that relationship. No CIO has the time to answer the phone all day and talk to salespeople that are making cold calls. But if I know who is calling, and I have a relationship with that person, I will always take the call. That's what relationship-building does for both sides of the equation.
MES: Did the vendors listen?
Harder: Some did, yes, but not all, and I don't do business with those that don't listen.
MES: Any regrets?
Harder: Of course, I wouldn't be human if I didn't have regrets. I regret not taking some technology risks that, at the time, I felt that would have been a good addition to The Arc infrastructure.