A few years ago, as Joe Held was cruising home from a social event on his Ducati motorcycle, two young men buzzed him. That is, each one passed about an inch from either side of his handlebars at a high speed. Only an avid motorcyclist would understand that buzzing someone is akin to slapping that person in the face with a glove and challenging him to a duel.
Not one to let the competition get ahead, Held raced them. In short order, he and his two opponents were moving at roughly 130 to 140 miles an hour, zipping in and out of traffic. They even tore past Held’s wife who had left the same event by car about an hour before.
This was the moment where Held realized he still had it in him. Thirty-five years ago he was Superbike racing at a competitive club level. An accident caused him to stop for a while. Then he got married and started a family so he had to put racing aside indefinitely. But on that weekend afternoon, on Route 9 in Connecticut, there was no way he was going to let those two riders beat him.
Held won the race, and attributes his victory to his having the best bike. The two young men probably didn’t know they were up against a “transformative CIO,” brought in to big companies to make big changes. Global CIO of Reader’s Digest Association, Held’s mission is to keep the company ahead of the market. He fulfills this mission the same way he beat those two racers—by having the right technology.
When Held got home that day, his wife suggested that 140 miles an hour might be a little fast, and that he should think about what he was doing. She had a point, but that experience led him to the decision to get back into Superbike racing.
“This year, I’m having a new bike assembled and I’ll be out on the track practicing again soon,” says Held. “I’m expecting to get fast enough to race again.
“For me it’s the most relaxing sport. You’re going at massive speeds and you’re streaming decisions in real-time. It’s like a tune-up for your mind and how you perceive space around you. You learn a lot about how to deal with racing and business strategy, rapid and unintended consequences, and making the adjustments required to win.
“After a couple of days track riding, and trying to get my times down, dueling with some of the guys out there, I find I’m very relaxed. It’s almost like having a couple of weeks of vacation.”
While Superbike racing is a break from work, it’s also a way of practicing skills that are very much in line with Held’s professional life.
The Changing Role of Technologists
It happened first in Silicon Valley and now the same buzz is taking hold everywhere. Companies want a new wave of technology leaders: people who can come into the corporate environment and lead change.