Before I start, let me say that when I say that someone "doesn't matter" as much as someone else, I'm not trying to imply that they don't deserve as much air as the person next to them; instead, I mean that they don't hold significant importance in my personal happiness or professional success.
Perhaps my biggest flaw as a person is my desire (need?) to be liked by those around me. This isn't really all that uncommon, of course. Deep, deep down, I think that most people want to be liked on some level; we're social creatures, after all. For me, though, I tend to take personally too much that should be kept professional. Oh, over time, I figure out how to move most things into that "professional" box and out of the "personal" box, but it can often take a few sleepless nights before I get there.
Over the past few years, I've been working in my first executive role as a VP/CIO. Prior to becoming a CIO, I held multiple IT Director positions where I reported to an executive level officer.
What have I learned about relationships in these roles?
Obviously, relationships with people really define us and our work. Personally, I believe that it's important to do what it takes to make relationships successful, but only up to a point. At some point, it's time to throw in the towel and invest energy elsewhere.
I've also learned a couple of other things. First, I don't need to have great, beer-drinking, joke-telling relationships with all of my executive peers. Second, I don't need great relationships with every single division and department director in the organization. Instead, I need to make sure to maintain adequate relationships with the right people in the organization in order to ensure organizational success, or at least be able to work around those with whom a relationship isn't likely. By "right people" I'm not saying that every person and every position isn't important; after all, if someone is employed by the organization, they have an important task to perform. What I am saying, though, is that I have come to realize that I'm not going to be liked or respected by everyone in the organization and I'm not going to have a great relationship with everyone in the organization.
Example: There is another VP in my organization that goes out of his way to rail on IT constantly and for no particular reason. To be fair, he does this to everyone, so he's not picking on me exclusively. Although he's a VP in the organization, he's marginalized, due to the fact that his division isn't that strategic and he's simply one voice at the executive table when it comes time to discuss issues. I will say that, as people, we get along fine. As peers, we rarely see eye to eye, and that's OK.
For quite some, though, I did take this person's comments very personally, wondering what I was doing wrong and what I needed to do to correct the problem. One day, though, I finally realized that it wasn't about me. I don't try anymore to persuade him when it comes to agreeing to new initiatives from IT nor do I engage him when I need advice on something in the organization. The overall impact: My stress level went down. Nothing else happened. Work stayed the same; my job didn't end up on the line. Status quo, except I was happier. That said, when he has a genuine concern about a service we provided, or when he needs something from IT, I'm all ears. I'm not going to use this issue to punish him or his division; that would be more than short-sighted and relatively unprofessional. But, I do minimize my interactions with him. So, in the sense that I want to make sure my group provides good service, this person matters, but in the context of my happiness and self-worth, not so much.
Another example: Over my few years as the CIO at my company, I've had to do some things that truly ticked off a few people in the organization. Change is very hard and the IT department when I arrived in my job was a mess and needed an overhaul. Some of the steps that I took to clean up the mess (i.e., firing the dead wood) resulted in destroyed relationships with other people in the organization who liked the people as people (as did I, but as employees, not so much). Those people saw my actions as a major failure, have never let it go and, as a result, don't like me. Again, looking back, I've realized that my overall job performance and the performance of my team has not been impacted either by their anger or by my actions. In fact, the overall productivity of the IT department is now higher than it was before. When I need to work with these people now, it's strictly professional - get the job done and get out - but it's workable. I don't invest a lot of time in trying to improve these relationships anymore. To do so is energy wasted that is better spent elsewhere.
By the way, on the other side of the equation, many, many people were happy with the action taken, including the CEO, so it's always a mixed bag.
Of course, there are some relationships that are absolutely essential to maintain. In fact, they're so important that failure to maintain them would be career limiting. In my case, I maintain a very good relationship with my CEO and CFO, and I don't fake it. The three of us have a genuinely good rapport and work extremely well together. I also have excellent relationships with the two VPs responsible for sales and other revenue. Obviously, those positions are extremely important to the success of the organization and failure to keep them strongly intact would be poor form.
I also have a great many other people in the organization with whom I've developed very positive working relationships; there really aren't that many that don't like me (after all, if everyone hated me, it would be difficult to get anything done). With these people, though, I have a great sounding board for ideas and even the occasional lunch partner. It also keeps me in touch with the user base and their reasonable concerns can sometimes act as the canary in the coal mine for looming larger issues.
I've learned that although everyone matters to some degree (i.e. Are we providing you with good service?), not everyone matters when it comes to defining my success and the success of my organization and my own self-worth. Some people, by their position, do matter while others matter because they've become trusted allies, confidants or friends.
It's hard to turn around years of conditioning and make these leaps, but the overall leap has been an important part of my overall development, both as a CIO and as a happier person in general. Trying to make everyone happy and keep them that way is a losing battle likely resulting in failure, both personally and professionally. Develop and maintain the relationships that truly matter.
Since 1994, Scott Lowe has been providing technology solutions to a variety of organizations. After spending 10 years in multiple CIO roles, Scott is now an independent consultant, blogger, author, owner of The 1610 Group, and a Senior IT Executive with CampusWorks, Inc. Scott is available for consulting, writing, and speaking engagements and can be reached at email@example.com.