How to Sniff Out a Staff Uprising and What to Do About It

Feeling out of the loop, not quite in control? You might not be paranoid. Read about five warning signs that the staff in your IT department could be planning a coup d'etat—and three tactics to deal with the situation.

Are you a CIO who has felt uneasy around the office? Feel like people give you the obligatory time of day but don’t really take you seriously? It might mean you’re in the midst of a full-blown leadership coup, perhaps being perpetrated by your IT lieutenant, who is working in close coordination with your boss.

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Here are five signs you’re in the midst of one, as well as a few things you can do to stomp it out in its tracks. Some of the signs might seem obvious, but recruiters and career coaches wouldn’t have mentioned them if they didn’t happen. It’s also important to remember that these coups normally occur at companies experiencing traumatic change. During this tumultuous time, recruiters say, there will be loyalists and dissenters, and your goal will be to retain as many of the former group as you can because they’ll keep you in the loop if something is amiss.

1. Left behind on the e-mail trail

If you find yourself struggling to catch up on an e-mail thread, that’s a blatant indication that things might be awry, says Shawn Banerji, an executive recruiter with Russell Reynolds Associates. “You might constantly be let in late on key exchanges that you should have been privy to, and that isn’t good,” he says.

2. Meetings between your second-in-command and the businesspeople

Even if you’re aware that your second-in-command is meeting with businesspeople to discuss a critical project that he or she has been assigned to, that doesn’t mean their conversations might not drift elsewhere, especially after your number two gains notoriety and trust.

“It begins with just a normal business relationship,” says Karen Rubenstrunk, an executive recruiter with Korn/Ferry International. “After awhile, [the second-in-command] gains an element of credibility. One he gets that credibility, he can begin questioning things and planting the seeds of doubt.”

3. While you’re away, your IT lieutenant might play

Though as a CIO you want to empower your number-two to make decisions while you’re away for purposes of solid succession planning, an ambitious IT lieutenant may try to make key strategic decisions while you’re away (when he should have shelved it and waited for you to return) to give the business a taste of how he or she would lead in the CIO role.

“You should know what’s going on back at the ranch while you’re out on the range,” says Russell Reynolds’s Banerji. One of the ways you can do this is by demanding a detailed debriefing upon your return both from your IT lieutenant and your other direct reports. In addition, walk the hallways and speak with what loyalists you have left. They might clue you into some things that were conspicuously omitted from the debriefing section. “If you walk the halls and sense that dissension, it behooves you to get in there and have an open line of communication,” says Patricia Wallington, former CIO of Xerox,who now gives career advice to executives and other business managers.

4. The CIO-to-be-search

While IT might be one of your company’s most important assets, you should do a double take when HR throws an IT candidate at you who, for all intents and purposes, might be a CIO at any other company your size. “The worst search is the CIO-to-be search,” says Banerji, who adds this often happens with CIOs who have been at an organization for 5 to 10 years and are “well-entrenched.” CIOs, whether ready for retirement or not, tend to get defensive and even block well-qualified hires in some extreme cases. “The fear of it, actual or perceived, has a material impact on a lot of searches because at the end of the day, people are looking out for their best interests,” he says.

5. Whatever you say, Joe. Whatever you say.

According to Martha Heller, an executive coach with ZRG, a lot of CIOs prime for ouster find that their opinions have already become marginalized by the time they get overthrown. “People will dismiss their ideas, sometimes without good reason,” she says.

What to Do About the Situation: Three Tactics

If any of the above signs seem to ring true for you, you'd better keep reading. The more signs you see, the more perilous your situation. Here are three things you can do, however, to stop your rising IT coup in its tracks. And perhaps you’ll save some face while you’re at it.

1. Find another job

Sorry not to lead off with a fighter’s attitude, but if you find more than one of the five warning signs in your organization, it might be too late to save your job. In this case, as ZRG’s Heller says, perhaps you should take a job in another organization and save some face. “If you feel like you’re on your way out, maybe you should make a change before a change is made to you,” she says. She adds that you also might consider a position somewhere else in your current company if you can swallow your pride and admit your number-two would make a better CIO. “If you’re better at strategy than you are at executing, then maybe you could take that VP of strategy post,” she says.

2. Reconnect with business partners and staff

More often than not, an IT coup is launched against you not just because you have an enterprising IT lieutenant and a CEO you’re constantly at odds with. It might be that you’re not in touch with the business. Ironically, you can lose touch with the business from working too hard and traveling too much. “You can be out on the road working, but if you take your eye off the ball and don’t stay busy managing relationships, you can’t perform in line with business expectations,” says Korn/Ferry International’s Rubenstrunk. To remedy the situation, start asking more of your business partners to lunch and to other strategic meetings, to show you’re concerned about the business first, technology second. In the IT department, start walking around the cubes and seeing how people are doing. Even if things have gone from bad to worse, you’ll always have some loyalists who can communicate to you what’s been going wrong.

3. Sponsor the good deeds of your lieutenant

If you brought on or raised an all-star on your IT staff, why should this be a liability for you? According to Valuedance executive coach Susan Cramm, this should be an asset. If that person keeps wooing the business, start attaching yourself to his or her success. “If your second-in-command has done some good stuff, adopt it,” she says. “When you promote it, use the word ‘we.’”

Copyright © 2007 IDG Communications, Inc.

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