It could keep you up at night—the thought that you could get fired suddenly in spite of the good work you have done. I received a call a few weeks ago from a very talented CIO in shock after being terminated on trumped-up charges of financial improprieties. He had been with the company for several years and had been promoted to CIO a little more than a year before. During that time, his accomplishments were impressive: improved governance, alignment with the business, strategic positioning and delivery in spite of organizational downsizing.
In the CIO’s final meeting with the CEO, when the charges were presented, the CEO ended with a question: “Why didn’t you play golf with us during the last offsite?” You may ask (as did the CIO) what golf had to do with the cause for termination. Although the CEO denied any connection, in a single question he was more honest and direct about the underlying cause for the rift than he had been during the previous few months, when his relationship with the CIO degraded from strained to hostile.
This example underscores the importance of building relationships to be a successful CIO. To be sure, relationships are important at almost every professional level, but the stakes increase once you get to the top job and have to balance the needs of a diverse group of stakeholders.
To address this issue, large companies spend a boatload of money on developing competency models that identify critical values, behaviors and skills necessary for executive success. Executive recruiters and career counselors advise their clients to understand their personal motivators (including financial rewards, power and influence, lifestyle, autonomy, affiliation, workspace, intellectual challenges, skill building, and recognition) and examine their cultural fit with companies accordingly.
Unfortunately, competency models, personal awareness and interviewing processes are imperfect at best. At some point, you will find yourself working with people you don’t really like—and most likely, they’ll feel the same way about you.
Although relationships are two-sided and you cannot control the behavior of the other party, it is possible to change the nature and quality of a relationship.
Be positive. Executives are optimistic by nature. They believe in possibilities and are attracted to people who approach work and life with enthusiasm. Make it your goal to leave the participants in each meeting and interaction feeling energized, by placing their needs in front of your own. Don’t sap energy by complaining, commiserating or gossiping. Put work in proper perspective by developing a personal life with outside interests and passions. When asked “How are you?” make sure that you can say “Great!” with conviction.
Say yes. If you are asked for something, find a way to say yes. Don’t negotiate the what, only the how and when. The phrase that you should eliminate first from your speech is “yes, but”—it really means no and will stop a conversation dead in its tracks. Instead, ask questions that will clarify the goal, and then fill in the blanks by getting your subordinates working together.
Do the little things. Find out how your counterparts use technology, and make it easier, slicker and more personal. Compliment their organizations on their successes and hard work. Recognize their birthdays or company anniversaries or kids’ graduations or sports awards. Invite them to participate in the vendor gimmes—basketball tickets, golf tournaments and so on.
Face your shortcomings. Search out feedback on your performance, and enlist others in supporting your professional development. We all have issues. You will gain a lot of respect and support by demonstrating the ability to listen and change.
In my example, the CIO did deliver the goods, but he did it in a way that disenfranchised the CEO. Truth be told, the CEO was a bit of a head case, forever changing strategies, without follow-through and with questionable integrity. Although it is unlikely that the CIO would have remained with the company for the long term, he lost control of the decision because he put his needs over those of the CEO. He poked holes in the CEO’s visions and publicly challenged the effectiveness of the executive team.
For some people, this advice may seem superficial. But by giving up control (by placing the needs of others over your own), you will gain control over your employment. If you decide that the company is not for you, you will be able to exit on your terms, rather than theirs.