by David T. Gordon

How to Stay When Your CEO Goes

Mar 01, 20038 mins
IT Leadership

Back in the boom days, CIOs were like players in a corporate game of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? playing with big IT budgets for a slew of enterprisewide projects. Today, with spending locked down and empty cubicles surrounding the remaining IT staffers, the game may feel more like Survivor, a test of deprivation and endurance through a bear-economy obstacle course. So what happens when your corporate sponsor?the CEO or other executive who brought you on board and signed off on your major projects?gets voted off the island by an antsy board? What happens to your projects, your employees…and you? Here is the hard-won advice of a few CIOs who’ve been there.

Don’t Forget Your Customers

The game of CIO survival can be won or lost before a high-level chair-shuffling ever takes place, says Malcolm Fields, vice president and CIO of Hon Industries, an office furniture maker based in Muscatine, Iowa. Fields successfully steered his IS team through a major transition two years ago when the executive who signed off on an advance planning and scheduling package left just before implementation. When the dust cleared, Fields had to sell the project to a pair of new company presidents as Hon Industries was split into two business units.

Some of Fields’ biggest allies turned out to be his customers, those business-unit leaders across the company who could vouch for the work IT was doing to help solve problems. “If you spend all your time marketing yourself to one person?the CEO, CFO or whoever?then you lose all the equity you’ve developed in one fell swoop when that person leaves,” he says. Instead, help executives in logistics, manufacturing and customer relations “understand exactly how your IT organization empowers them and their departments to move forward,” says Fields. “Not only do you cover your rear, but cultivating those relationships makes you a more effective CIO because you better understand what your customers need.” What’s more, any one of those executives could become the next CEO?your new boss.

A broad base of support for the IS group’s work is bound to impress a new CEO, says Charlie Feld, founder, CEO and president of The Feld Group, an Irving, Texas-based IT consultancy. “Those relationships are important because they show your work is not done in a vacuum. You’ve developed a joint agenda with the business units, and your work is focused on moving the business forward.”

Don’t Forget Your People

As a leader, you have the job of keeping your staff attuned to business needs. When those needs change, IT workers need to be asking themselves questions like, What are we trying to accomplish in the new regime? and How will that change the customer experience? The Feld Group had been running Burlington Northern’s IT organization for a year and half when the company merged with another giant railroad, Santa Fe, in 1995. Feld says he moved quickly to end any talk in the IT ranks about which railroad’s technology system was better. The only question he allowed on the table at meetings was, What will work best for the new company? “Each company had its own systems footprint, culture and business model,” he says, “but we didn’t worry about what the old models looked like because those old companies were gone.”

During a merger, in particular, people’s fear of mass layoffs are heightened. Although you can’t make those uncertainties disappear, you can make sure the IT group puts its best foot forward by getting them focused on the new needs of the business. “The more people are tuned in to the business model, the better they’ll adapt to change,” says Feld. “The more they’re tied in to the technology?if they insist on being Java people or whatever?then the more they will be resistant to change.”

Don’t Forget Who’s Boss

Doug Barker unexpectedly found himself working under new leadership at the Nature Conservancy when the former CEO died suddenly in May 2000. Barker didn’t see eye-to-eye with the successor CEO and recently left his post as CIO. In hindsight, he advises CIOs who are beginning work under a new regime to think of themselves as outside consultants. “Be objective. Look at the strategic agenda from the highest level on down, and try to paint an accurate picture of your organization,” he says.

Your past accomplishments probably won’t interest your new boss, so don’t focus on those, Barker says. Instead, identify what the problems are and what remains to be done. That will give the CEO confidence that you understand the business issues facing the company and can provide insights into how technology can help address those concerns.

Another key to survival is to not be defensive or inflexible when a new boss arrives, says Feld, who was CIO at Frito-Lay from 1980 to 1992, a period when the company changed CEOs six times. Remember: The CEO gets to set the agenda, Feld says. Your job as CIO is to determine how this newcomer wants to run the business and to shape your organization accordingly. “IT should always support the business agenda,” says Feld. “That means being open to where the new CEO wants to take a business.”

In times of transition, it may be tempting to overstate your own importance to the organization and to tout yourself as indispensible. That’s a mistake, says Fields. “I’ve seen a lot of IT professionals try to hold their business hostage by convincing [a new boss] that things would fall apart without them. That shouldn’t be the point,” he says. Instead, straightforwardly explain the projects you’re working on and their underlying rationale.

As you think about the substance of conversations with a new CEO, you should also consider the style or format for such a conversation, says Beverly Lieberman, president of the Stamford, Conn.-based IT recruiting firm Halbrecht Lieberman Associates and author of’s Executive Career Counselor column. How does the new boss like to get his information? In 15-minute PowerPoint presentations? Is he a voracious reader of memos and reports? Does he like discussions over a cup of coffee? Find out how tech-savvy he is, Lieberman says. Has this person ever had a CIO or IT person report to him?

If You Have to Go

Even if you do all the right things, you may still find yourself out the door. A new boss might want to install new faces to signal that things are going to be different. “We all tend to think of our status and the security of our positions as based on the sum of our accomplishments. But, of course, a new CEO means a brand-new day,” says Barker. “What you’ve done is yesterday’s news. Even at top levels of executive management, your survival is, to some degree, out of your hands.”

What are some signs that a new CEO is going to want to work with you?or not? Look at whether your boss is willing to spend time on IT, says Feld. The first weeks after a transition will probably be devoted to financial matters and business operations. But by the second month, the CEO should want to spend time learning your part of the business and how it fits in. “You can usually tell by the end of the third month if this is going to work,” says Feld. “If there’s dialogue, there’s hope. If not, you can’t move forward with your agenda. If you can’t get on [the CEO’s] calendar, it probably means you’re not going to be a component of the company’s success.”

Still, unless you’re pushed out, think carefully before wading into the current job market, says recruiter Lieberman. “This is not a time to be impulsive,” she says. “Your company may not be in good straits, your relationship with your boss may not be the most positive one, but if it’s tolerable and you can still make positive contributions and build your rŽsumŽ?if you’re not in extreme pain?then stay put.” Lieberman says she’s taken up to two years to place CIOs in new positions.

After leaving his post, Barker teamed with another IT executive to start Barker & Scott Consulting in Washington, D.C., which works with nonprofits such as the U.S. Fund for Unicef to align their IT practices and strategic goals. As one might expect, he terms the transition “fun and interesting,” a time to “try new things on for size” and get a broader perspective of the field. “As CIO, you’re so focused on what the organization is doing, you can lose perspective,” Barker says. “I’m rehoning all kinds of skills.”

He needs no refresher in survival skills, however. If and when Barker returns to the CIO ranks, one of the first actions he plans to take is to create an exit strategy. “Early in the position, CIOs should know what they want to accomplish in the job,” he says. “That makes it a lot easier when it’s time to move on.”