The following is an all-too-familiar scenario: One day, everything’s on track, with business processes, procedures, and a smooth chain of command in place. The next day, that organizational foundation is gone as a new management team steps in—and now no one’s quite sure who reports to whom, or what’s expected. The one thing employees can be sure of, however, is that current business approaches and processes aren’t likely to remain in place for long.

When new management takes the helm, most CIOs and VPs of IT have little choice but to make peace with the new corporate reality and adjust. The change in command could be the result of a merger, an acquisition, a business consolidation, or a radical internal change—a CEO firing, for example—by the board of directors.

No matter what the instigating factor, the main impetus for IT leadership is to begin cementing relationships with the new management team. What IT leaders should not do is sit back to see how the new management proceeds, advises Bob Sutton, Professor of Management Science and Engineering at the Stanford Engineering School in Stanford, CA. Sutton is co-director of Stanford’s Center for Work, Technology, and Organization and author of Weird Ideas That Work: 11œ Practices for Promoting, Managing, and Sustaining Innovation, published by The Free Press.

There will always be uncertainty when there’s a new CEO or COO. And while CIOs occupy a vital and valuable rung on the corporate IT/business ladder, many are still not part of the high-level decision processes and can only guess what changes will occur within their departments, budgets, and responsibilities. The key, say experts, to surviving the new leadership change is to move swiftly to meld with the new team and begin building corporate relationships.

No time to be idle
It’s time for what Sutton calls “robust action.” “Rather than taking a ‘wait-and-see’ stance, it is actually a mistake to stay idle,” he advises. “First, it creates enormous anxiety, and second, it makes you look bad.” Sutton suggests that CIOs and VPs stay productive.

“If you’re in the middle of a project, finish it and then move on to another, preferably something you were waiting to jump on. When management takes over, your productivity and attitude will score points.”

It’s also good for staff to remain active for similar reasons. “If they sit around, the anxiety concerning how their jobs might change will create unbearable stress,” Sutton explains.

He cites the Hewlett-Packard IT staff as a good example of high-ranking IT managers continuing a business-as-usual attitude while the pending merger with Compaq looms over the entire organization. While HP staffers don’t have a clue if, when, or how it would impact business processes, it obviously hasn’t inhibited productivity, says Sutton, as revenues are up.

TechRepublic members say that personality can take you far in your IT career—and it can undoubtedly be a factor in melding with new corporate management as well.

Tips for a smooth transition
Yet, while it’s easy to recommend that CIOs stay busy as a new leadership team comes on, making a healthy adjustment is much more difficult than people realize, says Michael S. Dobson, co-author of Enlightened Office Politics: Understanding, Coping With, and Winning the Game—Without Losing Your Soul and a management consultant and trainer in Bethesda, MD. Dobson has guided several CIOs and top-ranking executives through difficult transitional periods, and he offers these tips for making the adjustment as smooth as possible:

  • Keep a low profile during and immediately following the change of management. But remember that “keeping your head down” and disappearing are two different things, he warns. When new management steps in, there’s obviously change coming. But unless there’s a problem area in IT that needs attention, the most important contribution a CIO can make to the transition is not adding to the change management task list or creating additional issues to solve. Obviously, it’s not the appropriate time to propose a big technology upgrade, the purchase of major new systems, or even a new business opportunity. “Although the CIO is in a visible position, IT is still regarded in most organizations as being staff, not line,” Dobson explains. “While it may make sense to try to change that perception, now is not the time. Steadiness, dependability, and stability are what you should attempt to provide. Your ability to achieve bigger goals often rests on demonstrating that you can get the fundamentals done without problems.”
  • Do your homework on the new management. Learn about the new executives in terms of their background and past corporate experience. There’s a lot of public information available online (even for a privately held company), so dig for it. Use your network of contacts and look up articles in the business press. The information you learn could directly impact your career path. If the new leadership doesn’t inspire confidence and enthusiasm, it may be time to look for a new job. If you decide to go this route, you should follow Dobson’s advice and keep a low profile. But Dobson warns against jumping to conclusions and making quick career decisions. “Don’t be in a hurry to conclude that things are going to be rotten with the new team,” he cautions. “You may want to hold back and see what happens before making a final decision. Still, look around to see what your options are.”
  • Learn the new strategic vision. Find out where the new leadership team wants to take the organization and how that vision will affect the IT department. Then determine whether those business goals will be supported by the IT department, and be practical about what you can and can’t do. “Get with the program, change the program, or find another program you can get with,” says Dobson. “If the new strategic vision is one you can get behind, that’s great. Your early knowledge and understanding lets you get there [quickly]. If you don’t like it or think some parts are okay, then consider [whether] you can change it. Your political power and leverage in the organization is one criterion to consider. The other criterion is the degree of change you seek. If you think the new strategy needs just a little tweaking, you may find that fairly easy to achieve. If the new strategy needs to be thrown out and rebuilt from ground zero, the challenge is much tougher. If you can’t change the program and can’t be part of the program, then it’s time to go.”
  • Learn how the new management views your role. Is IT considered the bane of everyone else’s existence—filled with people who speak an incomprehensible private language and a department that takes too long to get projects done? Is IT viewed as a cost center and a revenue drain whose contribution is at best hard to quantify? Perhaps it isn’t nearly that bad, but whatever the story, CIOs need to know where IT stands. “When negative news comes down (budget cuts, layoffs), you need to know the big picture,” says Dobson. “If there is money, you can fight for some of it. But if there’s no money, then the issue of whether IT deserves it is irrelevant. Cuts are going to be made, and the choice is either do it yourself or let someone else do it for you. Even though it’s unpleasant, doing it yourself is usually the strategy that leads to less damage.” Again, the ultimate decision is to stay or leave. If you decide to stay, you will have to work within the bounds of organizational reality, warns Dobson. This consists of fundamentals like financials, market pressures, and the political environment.
  • Pick your battles wisely. Choose the ones you can win for the most part, experts advise. If you have to stand up and take a position when you know you’re going to lose, don’t burn unnecessary bridges. Keep anger, sarcasm, and personal attacks out of it. As a CIO, you can earn respect, even when you lose a battle, if you play fair. Accept that some decisions will not go your way and don’t make a big deal of it.

Finally, a big factor in successful management transitions is listening and avoiding knee-jerk reactions, advises Dobson.

“A lot of stuff comes down that looks bad,” he says. “Some of it may well prove to be bad, but some of the rest will just evaporate in time. We’re worried about the parts that look negative to our interests and our values, but slow down to avoid jumping to inappropriate conclusions. Listen carefully, and listen in particular to what’s not said.”

What’s your tip for dealing with new management?

Write and tell us about any lessons you’ve learned the hard way about melding your IT department with new corporate leadership.