Agile Businesses: Jim Harold Of Identity Automation On How Businesses Pivot and Stay Relevant In The Face Of Disruptive Technologies
An Interview With Fotis Georgiadis
Listen to clients, employees, the market and competitors — then triangulate. I hinted at that earlier, and here’s an example. During Identity Automation’s pivot to EdTech, our team had to work extra hard, but our time-off policy was outdated. People felt like they had to sacrifice paid time off just to take their kid to the dentist. We introduced unlimited PTO, and of course, people were afraid to use it. I tried to model the idea that you really can take time whenever you need it, and our culture eventually shifted. Listening to the team’s needs put us in a much better position to deal with disruption.
As part of my series about the “How Businesses Pivot and Stay Relevant In The Face of Disruptive Technologies”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Jim Harold.
Jim is the CEO of Identity Automation, a digital identity platform for K-12 and higher education that aims to make learning more secure and productive. Prior to joining Identity Automation in 2020, Jim spent over twenty years in the software industry, with stints at Accenture, Teradata, Sybase (SAP), PeopleSoft (Oracle), Acxiom, Quantifind, and Neustar most recently. As an entrepreneur, he co-founded the pricing optimization organization Spotlight Solutions, which was acquired by Oracle.
Jim has appeared on CNBC and speaks frequently at events such as Forrester Summit and the Customer Relationship Management Conference. He is a former member of the Executive Board of Directors for the Sam M. Walton College of Business Center for Retailing Excellence at the University of Arkansas.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
The ‘backstory’ begins at the University of Dayton in Ohio, where I was studying for a mechanical engineering degree. I got involved with a technical project that was way out of my league, but I found a way to be useful. Our team needed someone with business acumen to do $1,000 of free work for us; I found that person and convinced them to do the work. The team was happy because no one else wanted to dial up random people and ask them for a favor. It turned out that I was a better people person than engineer, so I went with it. I rose up the ranks in sales and eventually became CEO here at Identity Automation.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
In my first job out of college, I was a software consultant with Accenture, and my team did a factory tour with a packaged goods company. I was oohing and ahhing at everything, like a 12-year-old. Afterwards, my boss pulled me aside and said, “You do realize we’re billing you out at $200 per hour to work on something you’ve clearly never seen in your life?” I learned a valuable lesson about being prepared.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
I’m particularly grateful towards Rob Daly, a pillar of Cincinnati’s business and civic community. Back in 1999 when I was getting to know Rob, I was CEO of a tech company that had to sell to a competitor. Although we’d nailed marketing and sales, our product wasn’t good enough. After the sale, I was in a rut and moaning about how the investors didn’t see things my way, and how we would have succeeded if they had. Rob wasn’t having it. He said, “you’ve got to decide when it’s time to flip over the table,” meaning you must stand up for your principles assertively — or be willing to walk away — if you want to get things done with strong-willed people.
I was done complaining after that and moved on. Rob has been my mentor ever since.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. When your company started, what was its vision, what was its purpose?
Our purpose at Identity Automation has always been to make industries more secure and productive. Today, we’re fortunate to align that goal with the mission of educators. Most players in the cybersecurity space don’t have the tenacity and patience to work with school districts and universities. Because of the many things we can accomplish for educators, students and communities, we believe the obstacles are worth it.
Thank you for all that. Let’s now turn to the main focus of our discussion. Can you tell our readers a bit about what your business does? How do you help people?
Identity Automation aims to ensure that digital learning environments are secure, available and free from technical obstacles. This job has become especially important since the beginning of COVID-19. Eighteen months ago, it wasn’t obvious that educators would need dozens of learning applications to teach students during a pandemic — and that those apps would need to be part of one, cohesive system. We make sure they talk to each other and protect people’s identities and private data.
Which technological innovation has encroached or disrupted your industry? Can you explain why this has been disruptive?
Due to COVID-19, the immediate need to educate students online was a massive technological disruption. Suddenly, learning apps needed to be available 24/7. So, money flooded into the EdTech market, which kept schools running but also caused chaos.
To put this in perspective, everyone who has worked remotely during the pandemic has had issues with their “working environment.” For example, they’ve all had video conferences that started 10 minutes late due to technical issues. Now, imagine losing those 10 minutes in the beginning of every 50-minute math class. That would have a serious impact on learning outcomes. And that’s just one of many ways a digital learning environment could fail. It took more effort than expected to maintain EdTech systems, add new users and protect everyone against cyber threats.
What did you do to pivot as a result of this disruption?
Although we worked with a handful of industries including education, the digital learning disruption led us to go all-in on K-12 and higher ed. They were so underserved. Too few providers were able to keep kids safe as they learn online and meet the unique wants and needs of the education sector. We pivoted to being a pure EdTech company.
Was there a specific “Aha moment” that gave you the idea to start this new path? If yes, we’d love to hear the story.
The “aha moment” happened in March 2020 during a conversation with a large public school. They were sharing how digital learning had enhanced equity and inclusion across the community.
Initially, digital learning was a big problem because devices and Wi-Fi weren’t equally available to all socioeconomic and demographic groups. COVID-19 changed that. They cited the example of “Johnny,” a high schooler, who needed to go home midday to take care of his second-grade sister, so he would miss every calculus class. Now, he goes home to watch his sister, logs into calculus class remotely and has a fair opportunity to learn.
Before this discussion, we were concerned that digital learning would be a temporary thing and dissipate after COVID-19. That presentation gave us the conviction to press on.
So, how are things going with this new direction?
It’s going extremely well. School districts quickly recognized the need to invest in security, so we saw 50% growth in our business in 2021. We’ve had a strong track record of securing identities, which is critical in this environment. When we surveyed K-12 technology leaders early in 2021, 92% said they had suffered a cyberattack since the beginning of COVID-19. The education sector has never seen anything like it before. Ransomware attacks are surging and have become extraordinarily costly for school districts without proper security, so we’re doing our best to help mitigate these risks.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during a disruptive period?
During disruption, the challenge is to avoid being reactive. Too often, the first point of view, the most expedient option or the loudest voice in the room can rush a flawed decision. The most critical role for a leader is to step back, take a breath and have a moment of Zen. Then, listen to different points of view and triangulate those perspectives until they are aligned. The more you can listen to different stakeholders like clients, employees and partners, the more likely you are to find common ground — and see opportunities unique to the disruption.
When the future seems so uncertain, what is the best way to boost morale? What can a leader do to inspire, motivate and engage their team?
Stand in the shoes of your teammates. When you’re a leader distanced from the frontline, it’s easy to give directions but hard to know if you’re aiming people in the right direction. You need to show teammates that you’re in the foxhole with them and can empathize with their position. That comes from conversation — you must speak openly with people who are struggling with uncertainty. Sit down, understand their day to day and show interest in seeing the situation from their point of view. Inspiration, motivation and engagement follow from empathy.
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
The best principle for turbulent times is the car metaphor. Your steering wheel is empathy, the engine drives everything forward. Without a steering wheel, you go in random directions, which wastes fuel and can cause accidents. Without the engine though, you’ll point somewhere but get nowhere. There needs to be urgency and action behind the steering. The steering wheel (empathy) and engine (drive) are equal partners in navigating turbulent times.
Can you share 3 or 4 of the most common mistakes you have seen other businesses make when faced with a disruptive technology? What should one keep in mind to avoid that?
The first common mistake I see is denial. Most businesses don’t want to believe that their model is at risk of becoming irrelevant, regardless of what customers say. The second and closely related mistake is arrogance. When a business acts as if things always worked a certain way, and therefore always will work that way, they dismiss upstart competitors and refuse to adapt. Third, when reality finally pierces the denial and arrogance, you see a knee-jerk reaction from the business. The loudest, most aggressive voice decides what to do next, and it rarely goes well.
To avoid all that, be humble. Trust that your stakeholders understand their own needs and have insight into where your market is going.
Ok. Thank you. Here is the primary question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things a business leader should do to pivot and stay relevant in the face of disruptive technologies? Please share a story or an example for each.
First, listen to clients, employees, the market and competitors — then triangulate. I hinted at that earlier, and here’s an example. During Identity Automation’s pivot to EdTech, our team had to work extra hard, but our time-off policy was outdated. People felt like they had to sacrifice paid time off just to take their kid to the dentist. We introduced unlimited PTO, and of course, people were afraid to use it. I tried to model the idea that you really can take time whenever you need it, and our culture eventually shifted. Listening to the team’s needs put us in a much better position to deal with disruption.
Second, try stuff. In fact, think about disrupting your own job or role. People who are happy with their career — and perform at the highest level — rarely take a predictable, linear path to get there. They embrace change and experimentation, get in a lot of repetitions, grow through first-hand experience and redefine their job role over and over. Disrupting your own role is one of the surest ways to help an organization stay relevant. If people’s jobs aren’t transforming, neither is the company.
Third, bias towards action. Not long ago, Identity Automation was debating whether to roll out a tool that would enable small districts to customize usernames. This was standard for major districts, but our basic offerings limited some options to reduce complexity and costs. For three days, we debated whether this was worth introducing. Meanwhile, Ramon, one of our teammates, built the feature and ended the debate. Had we all been biased towards action, we would have saved valuable time.
Fourth, work most closely with those who love change, who live for it. This year, Identity Automation partnered with Clever, who we long considered a competitor. To clients though, we were like chocolate and peanut butter. We were tastier together. So, we put aside our differences and aimed to serve clients together. That took a brave appetite for change among Clever’s leaders. The partnership is working out great, and we’re so glad to be working with them.
Fifth, trust in real-life experience. I used to try to figure everything out before taking action. Disruption gives you time to listen and think, but not that much time. As an analogy, if you want to run a marathon, don’t read about marathons. Put your shoes on and run a mile, or whatever you can manage. I recommend the same for disruptions. Listen, but don’t get paralyzed. Do something.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
In an interview for Inside the Actors Studio, James Lipton asked director Steve Spielberg, “If Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates?”
“Thanks for listening,” answered Spielberg.
It showed humility. Spielberg never pretended like he possessed all the inspiration and genius we see in his films. Rather, he became an iconic director by getting outside his own head and listening for direction, everywhere and in everything.
How can our readers further follow your work?
Thank you so much for sharing these important insights. We wish you continued success and good health!
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