His Best Practice: Put People First
Nextel Partners CEO got ahead by always getting along
John Chapple, President and CEO of Nextel Partners video

Some people succeed in business because they're good with numbers or project management, or they're a whiz with systems. And then there are people like John Chapple, chairman and CEO of Nextel Partners, whose most marketable skill is a way with people.

In an interview for "Information Technology Leaders," Chapple charts how this talent developed, starting with his nomadic childhood and a mid-college stint hitchhiking across the United States that reinforced his ease with new people. Early in his career, he won over colleagues by being congenial and hardworking. Later, as a manager, he became the guy sent to check on regional offices--finding success in what might have been an unpopular role through his ability to listen and offer strategic direction.

Not surprisingly, a credo Chapple lives by is: never burn a bridge. "I've run into so many of the same people over the years," he explains, "and if you do a disservice to someone, there might be a pretty good chance that it will come back to haunt you."

"Information Technology Leaders," produced by the University of Washington’s School of Business, presents multi-faceted portraits of the people filling the top IT positions at major corporations such as Microsoft, Boeing, and AT&T Wireless Services. The revealing interviews show that personal characteristics often play an important role in the unpredictable career trajectories of this industry.

Chapple studied political science at Syracuse University during the turbulent 1970s and narrowly missed having to fight in Vietnam as a draftee. Though he thought he'd be a lawyer, he started working right out of college to pay off student loans, eventually landing in a job related to his degree: city government. Working with the City of Syracuse led to an interesting opportunity in the booming cable-television industry.

Syracuse was installing a sophisticated cable system that would connect low-income housing with the fire department to speed up reaction time in the event of a fire. "It was an excellent blend of the public sector and the private sector," Chapple recalls. Even more gratifying was the ability to save lives. He stayed with the Canadian-based cable company in Syracuse and found himself a general manager at the age of 27. His youth wasn't a problem--learning finance on the fly was the real challenge.

Next Chapple relocated to Boston to join American Cablesystems. The early 1980s saw the debut of CNN, MTV, and HBO, and cable markets across the United States were heating up. Chapple's job took him up and down the east coast. When he became senior vice president, he managed teams in multiple states and learned the trick of being an effective leader even when he was a step removed.

In 1984, Chapple's path crossed providentially with Craig McCaw, then in the cable industry. McCaw tried to lure Chapple to his team, but Chapple demurred out of obligation to his contract with American Cablesystems. McCaw predicted they'd meet again. They did--in 1987, when Chapple left American Cablesystems ahead of a merger and moved to the Seattle area to join McCaw Cellular.

As executive vice president of operations, he again found himself managing at a distance, overseeing regional presidents. "I'm from corporate, I'm here to help," Chapple chuckles, recalling the less-than-welcoming reception his visits elicited. But he created a productive environment by being in "receive mode rather than transmit mode."

Chapple expanded his interpersonal abilities while studying for an MBA at Harvard, courtesy of McCaw. The three-month crash-course brought him into contact with professionals from other countries, expanding his cross-cultural interaction.

When AT&T acquired McCaw Cellular in 1995, Chapple bowed out, resisting the changes brought by a large company and interested in doing something new. He moved to Vancouver to oversee two sports teams, the Canucks (NHL) and the Grizzlies (NBA). At first, Chapple says, the job was "a real kick." But soon the economic realities of working in Canada proved difficult, and he found himself spending more and more time interacting with sports agents, "which is about as fun as nailing Jell-o to the wall," he says. After three years he'd had enough.

Just about then, Craig McCaw asked Chapple to set up funding and services in midsize U.S. cities for Nextel Communications, the company he had rescued. Chapple did so, tapping some former McCaw colleagues to create Nextel Partners. In 2000, they took the company public.

Chapple admits that the tough part of starting a company from scratch is the initial lack of cash--he got his first paycheck 16 months into operation--but it's also a great opportunity to create a corporate culture that people would want to join. He and his partners chose a nonhierarchical management structure and incorporated community responsibility through service projects with school districts and Habitat for Humanity. The proof of their success: Nextel Partners was named best company to work for by "Washington CEO" magazine in 2001 and 2002.

The company also enjoys financial success, boasting a low churn rate and revenue among the highest in the industry. "We're recognized as this kind of up-start who has these industry-leading metrics, which is kind of cool," Chapple says.

He explains that Nextel Partners has an edge in the direct-connect feature that promises to be a powerful business tool. In this business environment, that makes the difference between sinking and swimming. "We're weathering the telecom downturn right now, but we're very well poised for a very successful future," he says.

But it's not technology or even company profits that will keep Chapple's career on the rise. His ability to influence people as a leader and a peer--to focus on results rather than politics and posturing--is his best advantage, perfected over a lifetime.

Produced By: Christopher Redner