A simple twist of fate
- By Michael Hardy
- Apr 21, 2003
You might call Roland Harris III the accidental salesman. Harris started working at IBM Corp. more than two decades ago after planning to use a job interview just as a test run. Since then, though, he's built a reputation for being a man to turn to when the company tackles new challenges.
Harris, newly appointed to head the Global Public Sector of IBM Business Consulting Services, said the federal government is his next mountain to climb.
"I think it's pretty exciting. It's a perfect time," he said. "You've come off the dot-com flash [and] the movement that was a result of Y2K, when people started focusing on their applications and trying to resurrect them. All of that brought a new kind of energy to government. I don't think that passion has really worn off."
The new consulting organization is the result of IBM's 2002 acquisition of PwC Consulting. Harris' task is to build it into a seamless blend of technology and insight.
It's not a bad place for a former disillusioned defense attorney. Twenty-five years ago, Harris said, he was unhappy with the number of guilty clients he was successfully defending in his native Hartford, Conn. He planned to take a position with a New York law firm in a more commercial practice area. He'd heard IBM had a rigorous interview process and thought it would be good practice for New York.
"I was sold by a better salesman than myself on the benefits of IBM," he said. "He convinced me it was a high-integrity company."
That better salesman was the late L.R. "Whitey" Oberg, the IBM branch manager who first hired Harris. Oberg asked a series of perceptive questions about Harris' criminal law misgivings and then told him that IBM would never ask him to do anything that lacked integrity or was damaging to a customer.
"I literally felt a chill," Harris said. "I wandered out on the street. It was snowing that day. I called my father, who from the time I was 3 or 4 years old told me, 'Roland, you're a lawyer.' There wasn't a moment I wasn't on the way to becoming a lawyer in my mother or father's mind."
Harris made the call expecting disappointment on the other end of the line. He was contemplating walking away from the ambition his parents had held on his behalf for as long as he could remember. His father's reaction stunned him.
"He said, 'Rollie, that would be fantastic.' I thought, 'Well, he doesn't understand,'" Harris said. "I said, 'A marketing rep is like a salesman.' He said, 'That's a great company. That would be fantastic.' So after that, I walked back in and I took the job."
Harris started as a marketing representative and worked his way up through sales into higher positions with the company. "At some point, IBM realized I was pretty good at fixing broken projects and I was pretty entrepreneurial, so they started to ask me to do more difficult client situations," he said. He became general manager of the public sector for IBM Global Services in 1999 and took his current position late last year.
He credits Oberg and a long succession of other IBM colleagues with teaching him to care about customers and understand their needs. He recalled a role-playing exercise in which trainees were taught to say certain things at certain points during a brief 20-minute meeting. Managers would pretend to be skeptical potential customers.
Harris did the exercise, with Oberg playing the customer role. At minute 12, as he'd been trained, Harris walked over to Oberg's desk and tried to show him the key points of the solution he was selling. Oberg met Harris' gaze and told him, "'Roland, you don't know what I need yet. You haven't earned the right to come to the other side of my desk,'" Harris said. "I'll never forget that."
It's an attitude he's tried to stay true to and instill in others, he said.
"If you were to pull one of my people out at random and talk to them, you would find that they love what they're doing. They love the work that they're doing for government and the fact that that helps people," he said. "My energy is wrapped around an organization that already was passionate. They want to do it for the right reasons, not just to sell something."
Harris is innovative in structuring contracts, said Kenny Klepper, senior vice president for systems, technology and infrastructure at Empire Blue Cross and Blue Shield in New York and one of Harris' longtime customers.
"He's certainly one to take personal risks," Klepper said. "I trust him. And when you get into corporate contracts, there's not a lot of trust that flies around."