John Golden

An IT executive learns life lessons of perseverance and strength as he overcomes injury to scale some of the world's highest mountains.

John Golden has climbed some of the world's most difficult peaks, including Mount Everest. Yet this IT executive's climbing achievements are only part of his story. Until just a few years ago, Golden suffered constant pain in his knees. He had undergone 23 operations without much relief, and he had trouble climbing stairs and even walking. But in 2005, Golden received a double cartilage transplant on his left knee that gave him the physical ability to literally scale new heights.

Golden, 43, former CIO and executive vice president at insurance giant CNA Financial Corp., says his experience taught him important lessons about life, business and even information technology. He's now working with the LiveActive Foundation, a

nonprofit he created in March 2008 to raise awareness of and money for orthopedic research, and he's helping to launch a commercial venture associated with the foundation.

Your fund's Web site listed its first fundraiser as the "Golden Everest Expedition." What was it like climbing Mount Everest? It was a pretty epic experience. The journey is more than you can imagine, although we didn't make the summit. We got up to Camp 4, which is just over 26,000 feet up. But weather forced us down. Coming down we got hit by a blizzard -- a blizzard like you wouldn't believe, with extreme temperatures, 20, 30 below. I have a transplanted left knee, and it dislocated, so it was difficult to walk on. We did a transverse on some ice, and the ice broke out from under my feet, and I fell. I was roped to the mountain, and it was almost vertical, so I swung into the mountain with the left side of my body. I cracked three ribs and I broke my hand. My whole climb was filmed by [Tigress Productions for] the Discovery Channel, so there will be a show on me.

Are you going to climb Everest again to make the summit? It's not a burning desire in me to do it. But if [my life] allows it, I might try it. It's such a big sacrifice for my family -- you're gone 70 days. The Discovery Channel keeps hoping I'll come back.

Your climbs take you to some pretty remote locales. Do you take along a BlackBerry or laptop? The No. 1 question I get asked by business leaders, IT leaders, is "How do you get all that time off from work?" CNA was very understanding. I'm grateful they gave me that time. With that said, I pretty much worked every day I was there. Even though I was in some of the most remote parts of the world, I was connected.

I did a shorter trip to Nepal [before Everest], and one of the things I learned was cellular technology doesn't work out there. What I bring is satellite. I had both a PC -- an HP Elite book -- and I had an Apple MacBook Air. I had a portable satellite dish; it weighs just a pound and a half. And I had 40 watts of solar panels, because you have no electricity. The hardest thing is making sure you keep everything charged. I was able to blog every day. We sent photos. I was able to do conference calls at work. I have two young kids -- a daughter who is 8, and a son who is 6 -- and I would call back and Skype with them twice a week.

How did you get into mountain climbing? It all started with a college injury. My legs were deteriorating quickly every day, and when regular medicine ran out, we did this experimental surgery in 2005. It was almost a two-year rehab process, and going through the rehab, I went to the doctor and said I have to have a goal at the end of rehab. My first goal was being able to play with my kids, my second was to lose weight -- I went from 250 to 180 pounds. So then I needed another goal. My doctor said no running, jumping or ballistic moves. So I said, "How about climbing mountains?" and he said, "Yeah, sure." He thought I meant a bluff in Wisconsin. This would have been June of 2007, so I went to [premier high-altitude mountaineer] Ed Viesturs. I had him come speak with us at CNA, and I told him I wanted to climb mountains. So he hooked me up with some guys to climb Mount Rainier, which I climbed in late September 2007. It was just an unbelievable experience. I was grateful to everyone who helped me, so I wanted to find a way to give back. That's when I created the LiveActive Foundation. Then I came up with my plan for climbing Mount Everest.

What did this teach you about yourself, your career and leading IT teams? It reminded me to be vulnerable. People don't like to be vulnerable because they think about it as a sign of weakness. Many times as executives we're afraid to say we don't know or understand, and we don't open up ourselves to as many ideas as we should.

And the other thing it [taught me is] that you don't build a team of people who are like you -- you build a team of people who can complement you, who fill in for your weaknesses. And one of the things it reinforced was to keep going. So many times you make a decision, you run with it, you get into a rut, and then you wait, wait, wait, and then something happens and you go again. But it reminded me that I have to take control, that I have to keep going.

What do you see as the biggest challenges facing IT right now? I think we're at a point of inflection for IT -- that is, "How do we become the business, not [just] be welcomed by the business?" Nothing drives me more crazy than when I hear IT people say, "We talk to the business." You don't hear marketing folks or accounting say that. The inflection point is, how do we become the business? We need to own that attitude as IT leaders.

How do you handle setbacks? I have had plenty of them. I don't judge myself as "Oh, I let people down." I look at it as a bend in the road, not the end of the road. I think, "OK, I went down this path, I didn't get as far as I wanted, but let's move on, let's learn from it."

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

Bing’s AI chatbot came to work for me. I had to fire it.
Shop Tech Products at Amazon