You went where? School rivalry bleeds into boardroom

A project lead puts in the work, does the research, and makes the case before the board, but the ultimate decision comes down to a surprising detail

You went where? School rivalry bleeds into boardroom
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The best and the brightest, experience trumps all, the brain trust -- when you're new to the job, you think corporate decisions are made with the utmost rigor and consideration. But as I learned, pure logic doesn't always prevail, even for critical projects.

After graduating from college, I had worked my way up from a junior programmer to project leader. I was assigned my first major project, and it was a doozy: Redesign and build all new financial systems for my employer, which was the largest division in the company. I was excited at the opportunity.

The project required a lot of research, and I struggled to figure out how to organize and assimilate all of the data that we needed to collect. I then remembered that while working on my MBA at “University A,” I had seen a tool developed there that was exactly what I needed. I also remembered that the university had recently spun off a company to further develop and market the software.

The reconnaissance phase

I contacted the CEO of the new spin-off and met with him. It turned out that a slew of Fortune 500 companies were using this software with terrific results, and I was able to attend an upcoming conference to hear papers presented and to talk with users for firsthand testimonials.

After the conference, I talked with my boss, put together the business case, and organized my presentation with slides, quotes from the papers that were presented, and a list of prestigious companies that were current users of the software.

But I also braced for pushback because a few other major projects were underway at our company, and they didn’t do anything like this. There were also people at the top who really didn’t like people to rock the boat or approve anything they didn’t understand.

I tried to be prepared and cover every base from all angles as best as I could. I then began the dog and pony show that was necessary to get the funding approved.

The vetting process

Over a month-long period, I gave eight presentations to different management groups in the company. There were many questions, many pessimists, and lots of people wondering why we needed to spend so much money. After each presentation I was told to add in more slides, to do more research, to be better prepared for additional questions, and so on.

I was getting so sick and tired of these presentations that I was worried that I sounded bored. But each level of management came at me from a different perspective. I also think that each audience was trying to figure out how their boss would view things (they were all very political).

Our CIO was basically a finance guy, and he reported to the divisional CFO. Overall he supported my work, but he didn’t really delve into understanding the guts of what I wanted, and he primarily relied on those around him.

Day of reckoning

Finally, I got through enough hurdles that I was to present to the CFO. He was a sharp guy, but obviously had an eye on the bottom line. I had no idea what I would run into and was rather nervous, but I had given this presentation eight other times, so I felt polished and ready when the day came. 

I presented to the senior IT executives (who had already seen the pitch) and the CFO. Then it was time for the questions. I was especially worried that they’d ask a question I hadn’t anticipated. I was also nervous that one of the IT execs who had already heard this pitch would try to look good in front of the CFO by suddenly bringing up something new.

The first question was luckily an easy one. But before I could answer, the CIO, who was a graduate of my alma mater’s rival, “University B,” cut off the inquiries.

Note: Like many venerable foes, our respective universities love to claim bragging rights in almost any way they can, both academically and athletically. You could write a book about our colleges' intertwined battles, and nearly every student can recall going nuts over a matchup fought tooth and claw during their time in school. But he put aside our universities' past clashes and said this: “Any time you have a University B grad like myself supporting something that came out of University A, you have to believe it is the right thing to do.” 

The whole room laughed, the CFO said, “You have a good point,” and that was the end of the meeting. Funding approved.

I walked out of the room in a daze. It was my first lesson in how decisions get made at the executive level.