How to lose your job and alienate coworkers

A plunging stock market, crumbling budgets, layoffs and restructurings: So much of today’s news is bad, so much of it can adversely affect your career, and so much of it is maddeningly beyond your control.

But there are things you can control, starting with your own behaviour.

Now more than ever, it’s essential to ensure that idiosyncrasies and personal peccadillos don’t undermine your career.

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Here are five cautionary tales of real CIOs whose tragic flaws did them in.

The Toxic Temper

One CIO got everybody’s attention during a meeting with fellow executives.

When colleagues asked him about an attempted process improvement that didn’t meet their expectations, he threw an object across the conference table and stormed out.

Unfortunately for him, that was not an isolated incident. The CIO was also known to have fired workers on the spot when he was upset, says Bonni Carson DiMatteo, president of Atlantic Consultants Inc. in Wellesley, Mass., who recounted the tale.

Oddly enough, outside the workplace, the CIO had a reputation for good deeds and community service, and this saved his job for a while as colleagues tried to encourage him to show his good side at work.

The human resources department offered him coaching as well anger management to help him learn to cope better.

“There were meetings between him and the HR director, where it was made clear that these behaviors weren’t acceptable and that he needed to do something about it,” DiMatteo says.

It almost worked. The CIO would mend his ways and tone it down for two or three months, “and then there would be another explosion,” she says.

Finally, a peer criticized the CIO’s budget. He blew up, stormed out and didn’t come back to work for a few days. That’s when the ax fell.

Spotting Trouble

Everyone has flaws, but some are more problematic in the workplace than others. Unfortunately, most people have a hard time recognizing their own trouble spots.

Watch for these signs that could indicate that co-workers have a problem with you:

  • Meetings happen without you.
  • Your feedback and input are not sought or are ignored.
  • You’re not included in strategic planning.
  • Your department suffers from high turnover, and you have a particularly hard time keeping top-tier talent.
  • People work around you. Your business-side peers seek out others in IT to handle their problems, while your staffers seek out other IT leaders or even go over your head.
  • You don’t hear bad news directly from those who should be delivering it. (It could indicate that you’re not good at taking criticism or handling problems.)

Sources: Bonni Carson DiMatteo, president, Atlantic Consultants Inc.; Beth Armknecht Miller, executive coach, Executive Velocity Inc.; Eileen Strider, president, Strider & Cline Inc.

Hubris

A large Midwestern company was having trouble with an ERP implementation and brought in Eileen Strider, a former CIO who is now president of consulting firm Strider & Cline Inc. in Kansas City, Mo., to assess the situation.

It didn’t take her long to realize that the CIO overseeing the project was a big part of the problem.

“I kept hearing about the CIO — that he does whatever he wants,” she says.

But initially, this CIO had put up a good front. He had assembled a steering committee to gather input from others throughout the organization, Strider says. Those peers were eager to be heard, and at first they thought that was the plan.

However, as the project moved forward, they realized that the CIO was disregarding all ideas except his own.

“He was just very confident in his own decision-making, and it was too much trouble to work through it with people who had opinions that were different than his,” Strider says. “He was sure he was right.”

His actions had contributed to the problems surrounding the implementation, Strider says, and they resulted in a breakdown of trust between him and his peers.

When Strider presented her findings to the CIO and other executives, he was surprised. But apparently he was too proud to change. He announced his retirement the next day.

Inertia

Sometimes making the wrong decision doesn’t get you fired; it’s the inability to make any decision at all. So says John Stevenson, a former CIO who is now president of JG Stevenson Associates LLC in Plano, Texas.

He tells the story of two IT executives at different consumer products companies. One company had a shoestring IT budget; the other had plenty of cash. As a result, one exec didn’t have to make any big decisions because his was a keep-the-lights-on assignment. The other didn’t have many big decisions because his budget could support lots of different directions and projects.

But then the two companies merged and the IT leaders were both frozen in their past perspectives; neither could make decisions about what the merged IT operations should look like. “They couldn’t come to grips with the decisions that had to be made,” Stevenson says.

Frustration mounted among their colleagues, who were forced to make their own decisions about the company’s future without the support of a coherent IT infrastructure.

Leaders at the merged company initially intended to retain the pair as executives in the new company, but ultimately, they dismissed both because of their indecisiveness and hired Stevenson as CIO of the merged organization.

Complacency

It’s easy to get comfortable when everything is humming along, but complacency can torpedo a CIO’s career, says Dan Gingras, a partner in the IT leadership practice at Tatum LLC, an executive consulting and services firm in Atlanta.

He cites the case of one CIO who had worked for years at a large industrial manufacturing company that changed hands after more than 50 years under the same owner. The new owner replaced the CEO, the chief financial officer and the vice president of marketing and sales. The CIO was spared in part because he knew how to deal with all of the old systems.

Damage Control

Recognizing that you have a personality problem that could derail your career is the first step. Here’s what to do next:

  • Identify any triggers that draw out the worst of your personality, and do your best to avoid them.
  • Find an internal mentor or hire an external coach to help you change your behavior.
  • Communicate your plans with key colleagues so they know that you are trying to improve.
  • Ask key co-workers for feedback on your progress.
  • Use assessment tools such as 360-degree evaluations to identify remaining problem areas and measure successes.
  • Be patient. Changing your behavior takes time. Moreover, it takes even longer for others to accept that you really have changed.

Here “>are a list of things to do to in 2009 to stay ahead of the curve

Sources: Bonni Carson DiMatteo, president, Atlantic Consultants Inc.; Naomi Karten, principal, Karten Associates; Beth Armknecht Miller, executive coach, Executive Velocity Inc.; Eileen Strider, president, Strider & Cline Inc.

But instead of understanding that change was afoot, the CIO continued down the same old path, missing opportunities to get in step with the new management.

“He became, in effect, an outsider, and no one likes an outsider,” Gingras says.

Less than a year after the new ownership took over, the recalcitrant CIO lost his leadership post and moved into a customer service position.

Gingras points out that CIOs working with new management aren’t the only ones likely to fall victim to complacency. He has seen other CIOs who were content to keep things humming and not push forward get canned, too.

“You always have to look constructively at what you can improve,” Gingras says.

Verbosity

Although most CIOs aren’t known for having gregarious demeanors, Naomi Karten, principal at consulting firm Karten Associates in Randolph, Mass., remembers one who just couldn’t stop talking.

“This CIO was a raving talkaholic,” she says via e-mail.

The CIO was hired with the mandate to improve customer satisfaction, which had suffered in the past because of poor IT service, she explains. But while he was well-meaning and friendly — anyone could get him to open up and share details about himself and his family — his co-workers found his incessant chatter annoying.

“He talked. He didn’t listen. People would emerge from meetings with him pantomiming ears in pain,” Karten says.

His talkative nature also hurt his ability to give clear and concise directions, she says.

“His direct reports were confused about what he wanted of them, because in the process of talking nonstop, he changed his mind several times. He himself sometimes couldn’t remember what instructions he’d given,” Karten explains.

Co-workers and staff started to avoid him. Since his customers didn’t want to talk to him, and his motormouth made him an ineffective manager, it became impossible for him to do his job effectively. Some co-workers warned him that his verbosity was hurting his business performance, but he didn’t change and was finally dismissed.

Pratt is a Computerworld contributing writer in Waltham, Mass. Contact her at marykpratt@verizon.net.

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