Reader Q&A

Susan H. Cramm answers questions on “Charm School for CIOs.”

Q: How do I recognize the point when my mantra should change to “be charming and tough”?

A: First of all, let’s define tough. Tough means making sure decisions are made in a win-win fashion. If you are getting pushed around, it means deploying the “Getting to Yes” techniques. Tough means asking questions that make people’s principles surface, and getting beyond the typical requests that start with a preconceived solution.

As to the issue of timing, you can begin finding out about someone’s principles only when you come to know the person and he knows you. Test yourself on what you know about people — their backgrounds, kids’ names, hobbies, proudest accomplishments. Making sure they know you is easy — have a few informal meetings, demonstrate effort in getting to know their organization, and take care of them or their organization in some way.

Q: As a new CIO, I was once given a review in which my boss’s big gripe about me was that I was too nice. He said people had to fear me and that I needed to execute (that is, fire) people who did not obey my every order. His management handbook was The Art of War. How do you respond to that mentality and way of thinking?

A: The fact that he referred to the The Art of War isn’t necessarily a problem; that book has a lot of valid points about how to approach difficult challenges and competitive situations. Unfortunately, your former boss interpreted the book as a treatise on how to do it to them before they do it to you.

If someone wants you to toughen up, you need to do three things. First, think about whether there’s anything you really can learn from the feedback. Next, examine your language to make sure you are expressing yourself in a way that will be heard by your boss. Compare these phrasings, for example: “Before I manage him out, I will coach him to focus on developing the following skills,” and “Before I get rid of him, I will hold his feet to the fire.”

Finally, at the end of the day, you must lead in a manner consistent with your values and personality. If your values and approaches are not consistent with those of your organization or superior, at some point your paths will part. Here’s hoping that you take the high road.

Q: How can I handle a verbally abusive CEO, especially when the outbreaks occur in front of my IT staff and others?

A: If you are ready to stand up for your principles, talk with him in private. Don’t take exception with the content of his comments, just the forum in which they are delivered. I have had to do this a couple of times myself. In both cases, the discussion went well because it was private and the people could tell it was a make-or-break issue for me. If you aren’t ready to go that far, then limit the CEO’s exposure to your staff if possible.

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