Leadership

Reversing IT staff attitudes: One CIO's story

You read a lot about aligning IT with the business side of the house. There are a variety of reasons for the perception that IT and the rest of the organization are at odds with one another. One reason this perception holds in some organizations is due to the overall attitude of the IT staff. I'm going to discuss my own experience with this problem and how I handled it.

I've been in IT management since 2001 and have led three different IT departments. All three were in need of some kind of attention, but in my most recent posting, the situation was truly abysmal. Immediately upon arriving in my new office, I held individual meetings with each member of the staff, with the following results:

  • One of my subordinates was passed over for my job, although he was a finalist for the position and had acted in an interim director capacity prior to my arrival. Three other members of the staff, even after I physically arrived to my job, continued to support his efforts at the CIO chair.
  • According to the person who had spent six months as the interim director of IT, we were woefully underfunded and, without an immediate injection of new money, we would soon be unable to continue our basic operations. According to him, it was obvious that executive management didn't "get it" when it came to running IT. His request was to double the total amount budgeted for IT operations, not including salaries. This request came in the middle of a sales shortfall.
  • The week prior to my arrival, a new web site was launched for the company. During that week, the organization's senior vice president tried to contact the web person to ask some questions only to be told that she was told by the interim director that she was to talk to no one. When the senior VP queried the interim director about this situation, the interim director replied with "I'm a member of the executive team and expect others that want to talk to my people to go through me." Bear in mind, this was mere days before the arrival of his new boss (me).
  • Shortly before my arrival, IT was on the hunt for new office space and developed a proposal that included taking the best customer space in the organization offline for office-only use. When the idea was flatly rejected, some of the IT team took that as a sign that IT didn't deserve decent office space.
  • Months earlier, IT had contacted the buildings and grounds group and notified them that IT would no longer hep them support B&G's work order system. The reason: "We have too much to do."

I have a small staff that totals eight people, myself included. Of this eight, four had the attitudes described above. To make matters worse, one of the people was woefully underskilled and had been protected from termination by the previous director and interim director. A few months after my arrival, although I had made it clear that the old ways were no longer acceptable, one of my staff said the following at our annual staff retreat: "When IT tells the executive team that something needs to be done, they damn well better do it." I was also told that I didn't "fight" enough with the other executives to get what IT wanted.

So, what did I do? A lot.

I agreed--to a point--about the budget situation. We had a ton of needs, including replacing all of the failing network gear, but little money to do it. From a political perspective, I didn't want my first act to be to request money the company didn't have, so I took a long, hard, historical look at the budget and found that IT had been operating with a Cadillac mentality on a Hyundai budget. Some relatively recent purchases made my jaw drop when I looked at the price tags. For example, the organization bought a new storage array in 2006 with a total of 1TB of space. The price: $40,000 plus $6,000 annually for maintenance. When I queried the interim director about this purchase and the reasoning behind it, he said "Our old array was from this company so I just went with a new one from them, too." His response when I asked if he had even considered other options: "No." My take: If we really, really needed more money to maintain basic operations, I'd probably be able to get it but only after I demonstrated that I wouldn't completely waste what was already allocated. Over the next few months, I completely reworked the budget and was able to drop a number of maintenance lines, including the one I just mentioned. I took the Hyundai budget and bought Hyundai-grade gear. Remember, Hyundai cars have become ultra-reliable, cost less than others, and have ten-year warranties. We're not skimping in any way, but are putting a lot of thought into our purchases now and spending more appropriately to our situation. By the way, our budget has still not increased, but we're undertaking major improvement efforts using our existing dollars.

From the beginning, I told the staff that I intended to work with, not against, the rest of the executive team. As a result, I'm a respected member of the executive team whose thoughts on new business initiatives are sought out rather than simple tolerated. Had I started my relationship in a negative way with the rest of the executive team, I doubt I'd be taken seriously today, even when there is a serious situation. The impact: I didn't charge full force into every issue that some of my staff thought were critical. As the CIO, it's my job to decide what is critical and what isn't and then determine what action to take: take it to the executive team for further discussion, handle it within the department, or dismiss the issue.

In the past, IT saw themselves as an organization outside the company--experts at everything, not willing to yield even when necessary, and elitist; these were actual comments from some of our users. Because of this attitude, some others of the IT staff--those who understand that IT is a supporting organization that can operate without a hammer/nail mentality--were looking for jobs because they could no longer deal with the negativity emanating from the others. In general, IT considered users as a thorn in the side. When I was told that some of the IT team felt that the executive team should bow to the will of IT without question, I responded with "Bull"--or something close to that! That is not the method by which an IT organization operates when that department wants to be a serious player in business decisions. With that kind of attitude, IT will be avoided at all costs, which is exactly what had been happening. As a supporting organization, IT has a responsibility to work with other teams, even if it's not in the lead role. Partnerships with other executives are now common in the organization.

Change is hard, though. I spent months battling some members of my staff during staff meetings. IT needed to be turned upside down. We could no longer continue to run the organization as it had been run in the past. After it become clear that the person that had served in the interim role had no interest in my vision for the organization, I went around him to get things done and he simply became a worker bee complete with a "to do" list that I created for him. A few months after this, he left for a position for which he was much better suited. The person who was in a job for which she was not qualified left the organization within a month of my arrival. She made it clear that her departure was in protest of her friend not being appointed to the CIO position and as a result of her disagreement with my new direction. She was concerned that I was not going to "force" issues at the executive level.

The other two mostly turned around their attitudes and we developed reasonably good working relationships.

You may wonder how I handled the rest of the staff. I didn't. Those people had fantastic attitudes and skills and needed little coaching. They had been waiting for someone to come into the leadership position that could work in a positive way with others in the company. They've simply continued to perform their duties, albeit under a revised vision for the future. These people, as well as the people that replaced the departed, have bought into our direction and believe in where we're going. Everyone has an opportunity to provide their input into what we do, but I have little tolerance for continued negativity; unchecked negativity is a drain on an organization. If people are truly unhappy with the direction we're going, have expressed that to me, and I disagree with their assessment, they need to make some tough decisions. That may sound cold, but it's life. Everyone has an opportunity to speak, and I actually do change my mind when provided with a good reason, but at some point, I'm making a decision and moving. In fact, every couple of months, I ask my staff if there's anything I, personally, should be doing differently. When I asked that in the past, I generally got something way over the disrespect line. Now, I get candid advice from my people that is frank and sometimes blunt, but always handled in a positive way. It's become obvious that we have a shared mission and shared vision for our future.

The fallout from some of this hasn't always been positive, though. Even though the CEO and executive team are now absolutely delighted with IT's direction and support, some other people in the organization, who were friends with those that have left, basically hate me and everything I do. But, as long as we can get things done together, that's ok. Obviously, it's not ideal, but I can handle it. The people that I need to worry about (executive team and customers) are happy.

IT plays an important role in the organization. We have both leadership and supporting roles to play, but even our leadership responsibilities are designed to enhance the business. We're not supposed to be an entity unto ourselves. We must play well with the rest of the organization and IT people that are looking for "power" must change their ways if they want to be taken seriously.

Today, my IT organization is an extremely high performing, well-respected group working hard to support the goals of the business. Sure, some outside IT still resent that people left, but those are relatively few. IT is looked at as a "go to" group now with the ability to get the job done in a way that makes sense for the company and the people that make up the IT staff are happy and feel included in the overall operations of the business.

Footnote: I'll be the first person to admit that I'm not perfect. Getting through all this was, at times, extremely frustrating, even though the result has been worth it. In a perfect world, I would have been able to convince the entire original IT team that a new direction was necessary. I truly believe that, had there not been another CIO job finalist within the group, things would probably have been easier. That decision, obviously made prior to my arrival, laid the groundwork for the passed-over person's allies to cement their anti-management thoughts. I was charged with "fixing" IT. There are obviously some things I would do differently, but only because I now have information that I didn't have at the time.

About

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 w...

11 comments
jackspar
jackspar

This comment is considered an advertisement and was removed. - Tammy Message was edited by: tcavadias

candide08
candide08

Yes, this story is one side of one (or maybe 3) IT departments. I have run a consulting business and have extensive time and experience with several major IT corporations and departments. At least you met with each member of the staff. Many upper executives do not eve do that. The "other" side of the story is that IT staff are treated like disposable tools. Management usually does not have the inclination or technical ability to do what IT departments do, so there are walls of misunderstanding and resentment. Senior engineering positions require huge amounts of continuing learning and education - yet these people are often thought of as geeks or in some other derogatory terms. To add insult to this training is frequently "not approved." Attendance is expected in all normal business hours - then in addition to that much work HAS TO BE DONE outside of those hours. I find this is severely unappreciated and uncompensated.

jasonhiner
jasonhiner

This is a major issue. IT requires a lot of training and continual learning because the profession is changing so rapidly. Often, IT pros must have that training just to keep their jobs (and keep their heads above water). Unfortunately, a lot them have to pay for it themselves because their companies won't foot the bill.

tech
tech

Wow! This post is exactly what I needed to read. You did a good job and must have incredible patience. I would love to know your thoughts on what you would have done different. I am in the same boat and preparing to plan my entrance. I'm ready, more so now thanks to you!

jasonhiner
jasonhiner

This is a great example of how to go in and turn around a tough situation. It's an excellent success story. For the people in other departments that still have bad feelings, I bet you'll win them over in the long run.

Locrian_Lyric
Locrian_Lyric

The attitude towards us has changed, we must change our attitudes. When I worked for a large financial company, the trend to outsourcing was not driven by cost alone. The fact that the Indian companies and their people did not act like spoiled children every time a changes or new features were requested, along with the fact that the Indian companies never said "it can't be done" or that it could, but only with triple the budged, played a larger role than the cost.

Scott Lowe
Scott Lowe

I just said the same thing (regarding outsourcing) in another comment in the next article.

KaryDavis
KaryDavis

I'm one of those "worker bees" who can appreicate the satisfaction that comes from being part of a positive and productive IT team. The IT department's reputation can make a support tech's job either hellish or heavenly. My early experiences in IT sometimes landed me in departments similar to your initial group, which nearly made me rethink my career decisions. I chose my current position based on the dynamics of the whole IT department... I could tell from the first set of interviews that this was where I wanted to be. I got the sense that IT was not only well thought of by the user community (some users were actually in the interviewing process), but was also seen as a positive and driving force behind our business. My senses were right. Coming to work everyday is a pleasant experience... and I actually enjoy working. I know this atmosphere and environment is due largely to our IT Director's relationship with the executive management team and his (sometimes delicate and political) balancing of business needs with the reality of IT. My Director's ability to successfully manage the business directives leaves me free to fully enjoy what I do, which is making our users all warm and fuzzy about their computers and their IT Support Staff... Kudos to you Mr Sisko...

NotSoChiGuy
NotSoChiGuy

It's called 'Primal Leadership'. Without going too much into details, it does touch upon what you illustrate in this anecdote. The fill-in obviously had a combative and negative attitude, and it filtered out to the rest of the team (those that were prone to be swayed, at any rate). Acting that way with/towards the very people from whom you need to obtain funds is not conducive to a good working environment at all! Kudos on making the best of a difficult situation!

Mike Knapp
Mike Knapp

Add "The 5 dysfunctions of a team" to that list. Great read and has been really helpful in "rebuilding" teams.

Mycah Mason
Mycah Mason

...thanks for sharing. I think you have the right idea and that more people should have this approach.

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