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New at the top: Bob Irwin

By — Interview with Vanessa Small,

In college, I drove a laundry delivery truck in the morning, went to school in the afternoon and drove a pizza delivery truck in the evening. I changed majors six times. I lived with my three best friends in a one-bedroom apartment and wanted nothing to change.

To be honest, I had zero aspirations to do anything.

All of this changed when I got an internship at IBM. I remember the day it all clicked.

I was leading a new business seminar at the Holiday Inn in Chillicothe, Ohio, teaching people how to automate their business through a data-processor system.

There was a lady there who owned several floral shops. She told me that this system would change her life — not just her business, but her life. That gave me vigor to do well at my internship and school so I could get hired at IBM.

And I did.

I started out in sales and did well. I learned two important lessons early on. The first was the importance of establishing a trusted relationship with your manager. I still talk to my manager today and make no large business decisions without first consulting him. I think all managers can be this if you let them.

The second was the value of a technical partner. I wasn’t that technical, but I had a partner, Sam, who was technical. What we brought together was far greater than what we could’ve done individually. Winning sales rep of the year wasn’t because I was smarter or had better customers. I leveraged that expertise.

I’ve applied that on all kinds of jobs. I’ll pair a product developer and product manager or a customer-support person and a technician.

Also I can outwork anybody. Sometimes success is a function of willing to work hard — not long, but hard.

In those days at IBM, people would learn how to be a manager and then become one. Well, I skipped a step. I went straight from sales rep to second-line manager.

It was an enormous accomplishment. It was also an incredible mistake. I had no idea how to be a sales manager. I had a team whose average tenure was 28 years with IBM, and I wasn’t even 28 years old.

I learned basic lessons like listening to people before you start telling them what to do and actually knowing what you’re talking about before you pretend like you do.

Eventually I was recruited by Sterling Commerce to run sales only to find out that the chief executive just so happened to be Sam. It was great to starting working with him again. We were so much more skilled 20 years later. We had some great successes with the solutions we provided. The customers loved it.

Unfortunately in December 2002, Sam suddenly passed away.

Everyone was frozen.

People in the company were scared. It was painfully obvious how much comfort, security and reassurance they needed.

The role of a leader is to make sure that people actually understand the game plan, objectives, outcomes and key things to get done. It’s interesting how little time chief executives and other leaders spend on that. As I became chief executive the next day, that was a revelation to me.

MaxID appealed to all the things I find interesting. The whole idea of security and making sure that the people in a place actually belong in that place — whether a port, an oil rig or a voting booth — it is of increasing concern. I was looking for an industry that had great growth potential and I know that is this one.

— Interview with Vanessa Small

Bob Irwin Position: Chief executive of MaxID, a mobile identity management company based in Reston Career highlights: Chief executive, Sterling Commerce; senior vice president of sales, Sterling Commerce; chief information officer, asset management, Bank One (now Chase); sales manager, IBM Age: 50 Education: BS, business administration, Ohio State University Personal: Lives with his wife, Mary Beth. They have two grown children, Elle and Eliza.

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