Avoid the deadly sins, and keep your job

It happens more often than you think. While we were screening candidates for high-level corporate IT positions, we ran across an eminently qualified individual who tells us he was asked to resign six months after being hired as a senior IT executive. The individual--and the employer--are back to Square 1, bruised and bitter. And it could have been avoided.


In this article:
The deadly sins
During the course of more than 21 years in the executive search business, I've interviewed too many people who have told of failing to develop strong relationships with past employers. Some of these situations sound like a matter of bad chemistry. But in some cases, it's clear that executives have single-handedly brought about their own terminations, usually without realizing what they were doing.

I've concluded that by far the simplest and most common way to be asked to resign is to fail to live up to the high expectations you raise when you are interviewed by your employer. But if you're wondering whether that means you should study up on the latest technology, keep in mind that IT execs are rarely fired for lack of technical expertise. Instead, they're fired for committing one or both of the two deadly sins: failure to lead and political naiveté.

The deadly sins

The two deadly sins of failure to lead and political naiveté contain a few sub-sins that are deadly all by themselves. Avoid them and you'll be a lot more likely to keep your CEO happy.

Failure to lead includes:

Failure to be visible. Get out of the office and meet people face to face.
Failure to communicate well. Start by knowing what you want.
Failure to evangelize. Sell your ideas and generate enthusiasm.

Political naiveté includes:

Failure to promote yourself. Start a newsletter.
Failure to appear polished. Cultivate an appropriate demeanor.
Failure to attend to the perception of attitude. Make sure your voice and gestures tell others that you're a team player.

While these deadly sins sound pale in comparison with pride, lust, envy, or sloth, they're easily enough to get you moved out of your position as an IT executive.

The vision thing

Did you ever stop to wonder whether your "skillset" is complete? Most IT executives are technically knowledgeable, but often they lack crucial leadership skills necessary to navigate in today's corporate IT environment, where technology is increasingly critical to a company's bottom line.

The IT executive is a leader, and a leader must have a vision for how to grow the company as a whole. IT executives must be able to see the relationships between their projects and understand how each project affects the bottom line.

The CIO should have a seat at the management table--the CIO and the CEO should work together as partners to devise strategies for using technology to benefit the company. A technology executive who shares the vision becomes a potent force in strengthening the company's competitive position--and goes a long way toward staying employed.

Are you one of those genial, well-liked IT execs who are holding on to the past? As your company has grown, have you avoided taking a leadership role, remaining wrapped up in the technology? Lack of vision will ultimately be noticed.

Visibility is also key in leadership. You need what I call "in your face" time with staff, peers, and superiors. Getting anything done in a company requires a great deal of cooperation and teamwork. Your previous positions in IT might have entailed a lot of in-your-face time with computer screens, but in an upper-management position it's dangerous to hide in the office.

It's been said before, but it bears repeating: Lack of communication skills can damage an IT executive's ability to lead. Being clear--knowing what you want, when you want it, and what the parameters are--is an essential skill. If you don't communicate your vision clearly across all levels, from staff to superiors, you'll have trouble achieving follow-through.

Another critically important aspect of good leadership is the ability to evangelize a project or idea. Promoting a project to staff, peers, and superiors--and getting them excited about it--can be a key factor in the success of an IT executive. Being visible and having good communication skills aren't enough if you can't motivate people to accept and work on your ideas. A lack of follow-through, slow turnaround time, and nonperformance can be signs that the troops are not behind you.

Political instincts

It's an old adage: Keep your friends close and your enemies closer. Political savvy, a critically important component of success, is sometimes missing in an IT executive's skillset. Politics is relationships. It's knowing who in the company can get things done, and who can't. When you take a new job, learn who the power possessors are, who can get projects through, who will be friendly to your ideas, and who might have a pre-existing bias against you, perhaps because of having been turned down for your position.

Part of political awareness is self-promotion. Lack of self-promotion can damage a career. Generally, the higher an executive climbs, the fiercer the competition. It's just not enough to do a job well--even excellently. It's also crucial that the right people know about it. Don't go overboard, of course--self-aggrandizement can be a negative. But develop a way to ensure that your successes are made known. Generate a newsletter to the user community, for instance, and make sure it contains news of your accomplishments.

Another element of political savvy is polish. It's one thing to ignore personal presentation on lower levels of the corporate ladder, but at the top levels the IT executive is often expected to carry the image of the company out to the industry. The idea of polish in this case goes beyond a new Armani suit. It's a question of demeanor, of being able to function in varied social settings. At higher levels of corporate America, much business is done offsite, at conferences, conventions, and industry events.

Attitude, or the perception of attitude, can be another political pitfall. How you communicate, your tone of voice, your gestures, even your posture may project an attitude that appears distant, hostile, or "superior." Companies want team players, and new executives who demonstrate a "team" attitude will solidify their positions.

A few other deadly sins

Unless you continuously update and hone your skillset, avoiding complacency in your expertise, you run the risk of falling behind on the corporate curve. Management practices are continually changing. The "reporting" style of a fixed staff, for instance, is increasingly being replaced with "matrix" management, where floating groups are used on a per-project basis. Being fixed in one idea and being closed to new methods and techniques can quickly lead to the "dinosaur" syndrome, and you know what that means: extinction.

Our firm has been asked in several cases to find replacements for well-liked MIS executives whose growth didn't keep pace with their companies' and who could no longer meet the needs of new users. The companies knew that replacing these individuals, while a difficult task emotionally, was necessary in order to allow the companies to gain competitive advantages in the marketplace.

Realistic expectations are absolutely necessary. It's bad to be over budget and over deadline. Define the parameters of your vision and account for overruns, both time and cost, so as not to hurt yourself down the road.

Personal problems are always a danger zone. Occasional emergencies evoke sympathy, but too many personal issues can make you appear to be more trouble than your contribution is worth. The solution is not to ignore or repress your problems, but to seek assistance from outside resources, such as therapy.

Although it may not be possible to "fireproof" yourself, there are ways to safeguard a position, and grow with it. As a CIO, you should be a pivotal person who can partner with the CEO to lead an organization to a more dominant, successful position in the marketplace. As an IT executive, a combination of technical savvy and business savvy is the best way remain sure-footed.//

Judy Homer is principal of J.B. Homer Associates Inc. (http://www.jbhomer.com), a New York City-based executive search firm focusing on information technology at the executive level. She can be reached at jhomer@jbhomer.com.






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