Director of technology offers executive leadership with friendly touch

Director of Technology Paul Harder's low-key approach and open-door policy are parts of his leadership style that makes him a SearchCIO-Midmarket.com IT Leadership Awards finalist.

Paul Harder, director of technology at The Arc Greater Twin Cities based in St. Paul, Minn., is a finalist in the 2012 SearchCIO-Midmarket IT Leadership Awards. The Arc is a nonprofit agency serving people with intellectual and developmental disabilities and their families. It includes a small chain of thrift stores that raise revenue for the agency. In this podcast, Harder discusses the technologies he's putting to work for the nonprofit organization, his leadership style and where he sees IT heading a decade -- or four -- in the future.

Paul Harder
Paul Harder

Is there a technology or technologies that are changing the way your business is run or how the business serves customers?

It's a grouping of technologies that falls under the idea of social media. Here at the agency, we use our Twitter accounts and Facebook and all sort of the normal things, but we really get a lot of bang for our buck with communities -- online communities where we connect people who have a person with disabilities in their family with other families that may be experiencing some of the same issues. That really has changed the dynamic of how we work. On our retail side, we send out all kinds of interesting opportunities either on the Facebook page or on Twitter. So it's really gotten to be a social media world for us here, as well as pretty much everywhere else, I think.

Can you give us an example of how a technology project created value for The Arc or its customers?

We're a SharePoint shop here -- and we do an awful lot of project management and just information sharing internally through SharePoint. Last year we started off a project called Arc University, which uses the SharePoint wiki to basically gather the combined knowledge and wisdom of this organization in one spot. Then we rolled it out for our "village" too -- Arc Value Village, our retail stores -- which we call Value Village University. We use it for training. We use it for business process. If somebody comes in off the street and takes a new job, all of the training materials and the business process mapping are there for what they need to do in their life. That has really given value to both the thrift businesses and here at the agency as it relates to getting people up and running -- very quickly -- in their job.

I see the concept of desktops and laptops basically going away. Computing is getting smaller and smaller and smaller.

One of the overarching themes of your nomination was your good relationship with the business. Can you tell us how you built and continue to foster this relationship?

Oh, absolutely. My door is always open, unless I'm in a meeting. My door is always open. I welcome people to come and stop by and ask me any questions -- and I get them. As long as I've been in technology, I've gotten further and further and further away from the trenches, but you'll still see me under a desk every now and then. 

I like to walk around within the context of our users. I'll wander around and just talk to our users, find out how things are going [and see] if there are any issues that we can potentially solve for them. I'll go out to the stores just randomly and talk to the users and the store staff and see what's shaking. Often we get into conversations that may not really pertain to technology. I think that builds relationships that are much more comfortable than just going to the director of technology and asking a question. They're just much more able to approach me on a more amiable basis.

On the management side of things, I'm part of the executive leadership team. We meet twice a month and talk about things too. Everybody here on the executive leadership team is very approachable. We all have our doors open. We can all go and talk to each other. I think that's it -- it's basically just building relationships and chemistry with everybody. We're not up in some ivory tower somewhere. We're just one of the staff.

I think that's a good lead-in to my next question: How would you describe your leadership style?

Pretty easy-going. I try to -- and this is kind of, I guess, maybe too simplistic -- but I try and empower my people. We meet daily; like I said, I'm kind of one of team rather than the team leader. I am the team leader. The buck does stop with me, but the way that we treat each other is much more of a team. So, I'll touch base with my guys on a daily basis.

I look at myself as trying to enable them to get their job done and then empower them to do it. Otherwise I pretty well leave hands-off. I make sure that from a 10,000-foot view that everything's getting done, but I'm not even going to come close to micromanaging them. So, it's a pretty comfortable relationship that I have with my team of people.

You've been in IT for 41 years, is that right?

Yes I have. It shows how old I am!

I'm wondering, where do you see IT innovation headed in the next 10 years and maybe the next 41 years?

Oh, wow. Moore's Law. Ten years from now -- I actually see the concept of desktops and laptops basically going away. Computing is getting smaller and smaller and smaller. We're packing much more into tablets and cell phones -- or I guess I should say, smartphones. It doesn't seem like that long ago when I was carrying around a bag phone. But you know, I think computing is getting smaller and smaller. I think we'll wear them as part of our clothing. It's not inconceivable that you may have a pair of sunglasses, or just regular glasses, that have computers built into them. I can see that in 10, 12 years.

Forty-one years from now? Wow. Nano computing should be very mature at that point in time, and so we may be part of the computer at that stage of the game. Sounds a little scary, but I think it's also really exciting, especially in the area of medical advancements -- people with neurological issues or other things that you could help to alleviate by the use of computers. I can see that happening very easily. 

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Paul Harder talks about his nonprofit's use of IT

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Let us know what you think about the story; email Karen Goulart, Features Writer.

This was first published in April 2012

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