Tech & Work

What to do when your boss is incompetent

Most IT pros have dealt with an incompetent boss at some point, but the situation is much more involved when that boss is the CEO. Columnist Bob Weinstein offers CIOs tips on dealing with what is often a frustrating and politically charged scenario.


Virtually everyone on the organizational spectrum has had to cope with an incompetent boss, and the higher up that person is on the organizational ladder, the more difficult the problem becomes. While lower-level managers stand a better chance of reducing contact with an inept CEO, CIOs and other higher-ranking tech executives face a daily routine of unavoidable meetings and projects in which they must meet with the CEO.

Experts say that CIOs must first understand the reasons for incompetence and then assess how best to improve the situation.

Reasons for incompetence
Before determining what can be done about an incompetent CEO, it helps to understand some reasons why CEOs are ineffective, says Ken Siegel, president of the Impact Group, an organizational consulting group in Beverly Hills, CA.

One reason is that the CEO job carries no specific set of qualifications. There are rules and training programs for every conceivable job from sanitation engineer (garbage collector) to nuclear physicist, but no set "curriculum" teaches how to be a CEO, and no universal standards have been developed outlining how to perform in the job. Of course, there are exceptions, such as the MBA-type CEOs. They have been schooled in the latest trendy management techniques, but then again, having an MBA doesn't give them unique knowledge to help them perform as a CEO for a specific company.

“Most CEOs are not totally incompetent,” Siegel said. “Most are guided by prior experience that has some value. If he or she came up through marketing or sales, for example, all of their decisions will be guided by these experiences. It means they are dealing with just one side of an organization and neglecting everything else. The result is unbalanced and incompetent leadership.“

Incompetence levels vary
It is rare to find a CEO who is incompetent on every level, said Marc Lewis, managing director of the IT division at Christian & Timbers, an executive search firm in Stamford, CT. But few have all of the specialized knowledge they need to perform well in the position. Technological incompetence, for example, is common among CEOs, said Lewis. It is not uncommon for CEOs to neglect this part of the job, as many aren’t familiar with it and don’t understand it.

Lou Gerstner, IBM’s former CEO who has been credited with turning around the lumbering giant, admitted he barely knew how to turn on his PC. But that didn’t stop him from surrounding himself with the best techies he could find so that he could lift faltering Big Blue into the black.

The key to avoiding CEO incompetence, say experts, is finding someone who can fill those parts of a CEO’s responsibilities that he or she has neglected or is unfamiliar with.

”This person could be the bridge between CEO and CIO,” explained Lewis. “He could be the information filter explaining technology’s role and its significance.” The CIO does not have the time to take on this responsibility, and neither does his or her staff, but a separate liaison can do it. If there is no such person on staff, it pays to hire one.

Most CEOs won’t object to having CIOs find someone to act as middleperson between CEO, CIO, and CTO.

“Often, they welcome it because it takes a load off their shoulders,” Lewis explained. Yet there can be problems if a CEO does resent the hiring of a middleperson. If a CEO does not accept the move with gratitude, CIOs could have created a situation that puts their own position at risk.

Incompetence and its impacts
If a CEO is incompetent, CIOs need to determine how it affects their roles, advised Siegel. Does the ineffectual management style prevent a CIO from doing his or her job—such as making decisions and approving budgets?

If the answer is "yes," the challenge then becomes figuring out what to do about the problem. Experts offer three possible solutions.

"Managing the boss"
Many management gurus tout the "managing your boss (upward management)" approach. Organizations like the American Management Association stage conferences and sell books on the subject.

Upward management is all about understanding your boss’s world, asserts Joe Weintraub, professor of management at Babson College in Wellesley, MA. Once a CIO understands the CEO's world, he or she will be able to better manage the conflicting relationship with this person.

Weintraub says CIOs should gather information to find out what’s important to the CEO—the essence of the approach is to be more in sync with what makes the CEO tick. Weintraub believes it can lead to a better relationship and improved performance.

While this all may sound great, I question whether it actually works. How many CIOs have the time to go through a lengthy Sherlock Holmes routine so he or she can learn to accept the CEO as a person and thus improve performance? But if you can spare the time, it might be worth the effort.

Begin a discussion with the boss
The next step is to talk with the CEO about his or her behavior in a one-on-one meeting where you both can discuss how you can better work together. Experts say it’s much easier to have this type of talk with an MBA-toting CEO or one that is schooled in new management techniques and is open to learning about becoming a better manager.

If the boss is an old-line CEO who came up through the ranks, CIOs could be playing Russian roulette with their career—especially if the CEO doesn’t buy a deftly phrased speech about creating a better working relationship based upon honest exchanges of viewpoints.

Wait it out
The third and final approach is to basically do nothing, and just accept the fact that your boss is just plain incompetent. Hopefully, at some point, the incompetence will be noticed by the company board of directors and garner enough attention that the CEO will be ousted.

The downside is that it could take a couple of years before the incompetent CEO is replaced—and this could end up hurting a CIO.

“Hanging out for a few months is a good idea,” said Lewis, “but staying for a couple of years can cast doubt on your own competence. The CIO community is a small one, and word gets out fast.”

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