These Executives Are Nerds!

Chase Bank of Texas's NERD program makes sure executives don't just talk about information technology - they use it.

Does this scenario sound familiar? The senior executives of a big company deliver speeches about the power of computers, announce big investments in cutting-edge hardware and software - and then never use the technology themselves. It's a classic episode in the mismanagement miniseries called "Do as I say, not as I do."

That show is over at Chase Bank of Texas, the giant Houston-based subsidiary of Chase Manhattan Corp. Over the last four years, Chase Bank of Texas, formerly known as Texas Commerce Bank, has implemented a sweeping change program. In 1996, the company unveiled a new technology infrastructure. It created a state-of-the-art PC desktop for employees that features 13 different software applications.

"We gave people access to the Internet, we built an intranet, we created Lotus Notes databases - you name it," says Anita Ward, senior vice president and technology partner at the bank. "We did everything that every IT pro dreams about."

Ward and her colleagues also did something that most IT pros forget about. They sensed that the bank's top leadership would be slow to adopt the new systems. So they created a program called NERD: Necessary Executive Reshaping Degree. The bank's most senior executives - from the chairman and vice chairman to executive vice presidents and the CFO - had three months to learn all the new applications: everything from tools like PowerPoint to proprietary customer-relationship software.

"It was like introducing a steel ax to a stone-tool society," jokes Ward, an anthropologist by training. "But if top executives don't embrace technology, how can they expect other people to embrace it?"

Today every one of the bank's top executives is a certified NERD. The story of how they achieved that lofty status offers helpful lessons for other companies where leaders don't walk the technology talk.

One important principle behind NERD training, Ward says, was that it should be intensely personal. Each executive was assigned a personal trainer. The trainers were all company insiders - mid-level employees who had mastered the new systems and weren't intimidated by the suits in the corner office.

Formal NERD training ran for 13 weeks, lasted one hour each week, and covered the system's 13 applications. The trainers introduced the executives to each application, answered their questions, and assigned homework through email. The training didn't focus on the technical aspects of the applications. Instead it dealt with behavior - how the tools could improve the executives' lives. Trainers used what Ward calls the "day-in-the-life method" to demonstrate how the software could make executives more productive as individuals and also generate efficiencies for the bank as a whole.

Tom Geggatt, a Chase Bank of Texas senior vice president, was the trainer for then-Chairman Marc Shapiro (who is now a vice chairman at Chase Manhattan headquarters in New York City). "For every application, I explained how it would benefit him, and why he needed to know it," Geggatt says.

A second important principle behind the NERD program was that it should have lots of carrots and sticks to persuade reluctant executives to participate. Robert Hunter, a vice chairman at the bank, and a strong NERD advocate, announced that executives who failed the course would be required to donate a portion of their annual bonus to charity. "It was an attention-getter," says Hunter, "a way to let people know that I was serious." Hunter himself is a case study in why NERD training was necessary. "I didn't even have a PC four years ago," he says. "Learning a new technology is like learning a new language. There's a psychological hump you have to get over."

The carrots, designed to tap into the competitive spirit, were just as creative. Ward set up a secure site on TexWeb, the company's intranet, where participants could monitor one another's progress by pulling up work-in-progress portraits of their colleagues. Every time an executive mastered a new application, another part of his or her face would be filled in. "There was a lot of internal competition," Ward says. "The executives would tease each other. You'd hear people say things like 'Oh my God, Beverly almost has her head done, and I just got my glasses.'"

In the end, the program was so successful that Chase Bank of Texas decided to roll it out to the bank's next level of management - creating about 200 more NERDs in the process. And it's influencing the bank's overall approach to training: Recently, when sales-automation software was installed on 850 desktops, trainers used day-in-the-life techniques like those pioneered by the NERD program. Geggatt says that the acceptance rate for this software has been double that of other applications.

"It really is a behavioral and cultural thing we're talking about, not just something mechanical," adds Hunter. "It's also leadership by example: If we have to learn this, why don't the people who report to us have to learn it? And the answer," he says with a mischievous laugh, "is that they do have to. They're afraid not to."

Eric Ransdell ransdell@well.com is a Fast Company contributing editor.

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