by Patricia Wallington

CIOs Need to Be Tough Yet Empathetic

Oct 01, 20016 mins
IT Leadership

“ARE YOU TOUGH ENOUGH TO DO THIS JOB?” I got the best job of my career with my answer to that question. But more about that later. I’m sure you’ve heard the saying, When the going gets tough, the tough get going. It certainly seems to be a mantra suitable for today’s business environment. These are times when tough is not only advisable but imperative.

How do leaders muster the courage to do the tough things? How do you know when tough is good and when it isn’t? What do you do to keep your sense of balance during these periods? Over the years I’ve learned some lessons that may help you.

What Is Tough?

Whether making tough decisions, implementing tough actions or giving tough feedback, there is one overriding rule: Act tough, but don’t be tough. Don’t be personally hardened by the need for difficult actions. Always keep in mind that people’s lives are affected by your decision and by how you communicate and implement it. As Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower said, “You do not lead by hitting people over the head; that’s assault, not leadership.”

Firing someone is probably number one on everyone’s list of tough things to do, followed closely by giving a negative performance review. Significant changes in business conditions also call for difficult decisions and the painful implementation of them. For example, shutting down a business, factory, project or product with the attendant layoffs is common headline material today. Cutting costs at any level requires decisions and actions that seem onerous at the time. But leaders must be able to execute all of the above skillfully, not only for the sake of the individual but for the survival of the enterprise. The need for tough actions cannot be wished away or waited out. The longer you take, the worse it gets?for everyone.

There are many reasons we tend to try to avoid the tough actions. Most of these actions involve conflict, for instance, and conflict generally feels negative. Sometimes there is an implied criticism of a person or of previous decisions. Tough decisions almost always involve aggressive, rock-the-boat kinds of actions and take a great deal of personal courage. We like to be liked, and being tough gets in the way, at least in the short run. But whatever our particular reasons, none can be justified if you take the proprietor’s view. This is your company, no matter where in the hierarchy you sit. As proprietor, you must exhibit great strength of commitment and willingness to take personal risk.

Getting Tough

OK, I’ll do it, but how do I do it well?

The first time I had a serious performance issue to deal with, I struggled to help the staff member overcome his problems. We spent many hours in reviewing, counseling and coaching. Despite all this effort, we did not make progress. Ultimately I had to gather the courage to tell him he was going to lose his job. Here was a smart young man who was just not able to get the art of programming. I knew he would be successful at something else and told him that. It was a devastating day for both of us.

Many years later, this young man sent me a letter to let me know what a positive effect I had on his life. If he hadn’t been fired, he might still be struggling to succeed at something he could never do well. Instead he became a lawyer and was very successful. The key, he said, was forcing him to confront reality.

Not all situations will be as simple as this one or result in such satisfaction, but there are a few steps that may help address a variety of difficult circumstances.

  • Turn on the spotlight. Identifying the problem and calling attention to it is the first step. Exposing it to light helps to clarify the real issues rather than the symptoms.
  • Think positively. Attitude counts for a lot. Be constructive, not destructive. Try to find a solution that meets the greatest set of sometimes competing objectives. When Xerox was considering outsourcing, we did roundtables with employees of the competing vendors to try to understand how they felt before, during and after they were outsourced. They gave us extremely valuable advice.
  • Do your homework. Consider as many alternatives as possible before narrowing to your final decision. Even in a business turndown, avoid the tendency to hip-shoot a solution. Your current strategy is based on a set of assumptions. Examine the assumptions and make appropriate changes. Then determine if the strategy needs changing. Be sure you don’t panic. Your actions will set the tone for the whole organization.
  • Rally support. Communicate, communicate, communicate?honestly?to all who are affected, customers or employees. Focus on what you can affect?performance, productivity, revenues, costs. Don’t waste energy on what you can’t.
  • Brace yourself. Recognize that tough actions will generally not be popular ones, at least in the short run. Prepare yourself mentally for the storm of protest. (Remember the “Neutron Jack” label assigned to Jack Welch, the CEO of GE.) Also recognize that everyone is affected indirectly, if not directly. After a layoff, those who stay are sometimes more stressed than those who go. You will have to face a lot of negative energy in the workplace at such times, and that can be exhausting. It is important to be as physically fit as possible.
  • Look for the silver lining. Keep morale up by focusing on areas of improvement not possible during busier times. Education and development can flourish and better prepare everyone for the next upturn in the business.
  • Ask three questions. When you are struggling with a tough decision, the following three questions bring things into focus. Am I doing the right thing? Am I doing it for the right reasons? Am I doing it in the right way? Answer yes to all, and your direction is clear. Any “no” answer should cause you to rethink and adjust accordingly.

    Tough Enough?

    To the question asked of me in the interview, my response was, “I know I am tough enough, because I’ve done this before. The real question is, Are you tough enough?tough enough to stand behind me when the going gets rough?” I got the job and the support necessary to be successful.