by Patricia Wallington

Total Leadership

May 14, 20079 mins

Picture this: You are about to enter a meeting of the most senior executives in your company. You’re going to propose a drastic reduction in the systems enhancement budget for each of their departments in order to fund some new development activity. You know they will hate this proposal. How will you handle the inevitable confrontations looming in front of you? I was faced with just this situation as the relatively new CIO in Xerox’s U.S. Marketing Group in 1989. Later I’ll share with you the strategy I chose and why it was successful in that situation. But first let’s agree that confrontational situations make most of us uncomfortable, understand why confrontation is important in honing our leadership skills, and identify some strategies for successful confrontation and some things to avoid.

The CIO position, more than most others, is rife with confrontation. It is the hub of change in most companies. So it behooves the CIO who values his or her position to become an expert in the art of confrontation. Because even if you could avoid the confrontation, in my experience, this only leads to a situation even more intractable than the original one. I have often been asked what makes a successful CIO. I believe there are stages a CIO goes through in developing and gaining the credibility necessary to make an impact in a company. Conflict and confrontation and how you deal with them are at the core. This is my version of the life cycle of a CIO:

  • Introduction. You are new to the senior executive team. They welcome you, hope you won’t say anything technical and, if you do, that it will be understandable.
  • Honeymoon. You make a few cogent, business-oriented remarks, have a few successes. She’s OK!
  • Crossroads. You encounter a difficult issue, which brings conflict to the forefront. This is the critical stage. You cannot pass this stage without working through the conflict, and confrontation may be necessary.
  • Respect. If you reach this stage, you have achieved at least grudging respect from your peers and customers.
  • Trust. Achieved only after several conflicts get resolved with consistent, predictable behavior on your part.
  • Partnership. Now you can truly participate in shared objectives with other executives.
  • Strategic Relationship. A state of maturity that recognizes and leverages the strategic role of technology in the business.

If you get stuck at the crossroads, you will probably join the ranks of the roving CIO the one who has a new job every 18 to 24 months. You will continually cycle through the first three stages and never achieve the respect necessary to endure. Developing skills in dealing with confrontation and resolving conflict are vital to your leadership role. What can you do to be more successful in these difficult situations? While certainly not a formula, nor all-inclusive, the following principles have been helpful to me and some of my colleagues as we dealt with many of the same issues you are no doubt facing now.


Don’t walk blindly into confrontation. Sometimes it will be thrust upon you, but most often insightful thinking will let you know to expect it. Prepare a strategy to deal with it.

Confront the Issue, Not the Person

Most disagreements are driven by honest differences of opinion. Confrontation does not mean personal attacks or unprofessional behavior. Staying with the issue is important if you want to achieve resolution and maintain or grow the relationship. Never personalize the arguments. Confrontation does not have to be confrontational. What do you do if the other party engages in personal attack? Some years ago I worked with an executive who was constantly on the attack. Boy, if I said “up,” he said “down,” and not gently.

First, don’t respond in kind. Stay cool and professional, and hold your groundbut always be on guard for his attacks. Recognize that most times people like that succeed only in making themselves look bad.

Second, in the background, try to find out what the problem is so you can better anticipate what position he’ll take and be prepared with the appropriate facts. Talk to people he trusts or those with whom he has a good relationship.

Third, treat it as an advantage. Ask yourself, “What will X say about this?” Often, doing this makes you take the extra step to think things through.

Fourth, engage the person. One day I had the opportunity to talk with my nemesis (I took as many of those as I could get) when he was in a relaxed mood. Jokingly, I told him my goal was to get a gratuitous comment from him someday. Things improved after that discussion. Why? Perhaps my comment communicated that I cared, that I was listening and that I was willing to earn his respect. It was hard work and it took a long time, but I finally did get the gratuitous comment and what I would classify as grudging respect. You never know what will change the tide. Don’t avoid these contacts.

Seek Understanding

Your goal should be to understand each other. You may have to ignore the initial bluster to get to the problem. Don’t be defensive; do listen carefully. What is the real issue?

Is there anger? Frequently, proposed changes are interpreted as criticism of the existing way of doing things. This is particularly true if the person you’re dealing with was the author of the status quo.

Is there fear? Is there a threat to the current status or power of the person? Many times reorganizations or the introduction of new technology that will change the roles people play will generate this type of reaction.

Is there ignorance? Are the facts well understood by both parties? Maybe they know something you don’t.

Knowing the real issue is helpful for several reasons. You may be able to redress the issue by some change in the plan. You may be able to provide clarifying information, which tends to mitigate the issue. But even if the issue remains, most times, the constructive dialogue has brought the parties in the confrontation to a better meeting of minds. You may not be in agreement, but you understand and honor each other’s position.

Get Help

Now is not the time for maximum independence. Solicit help from mentors, coaches and bosses. Some of us have a difficult time asking for help. Yet, everyone I have ever asked for help has come through with good, thoughtful advice, and they liked being asked. One of the most effective tools for confrontation is the use of a professional facilitator. It is particularly effective when the confrontation involves a number of people, such as on project teams. At Xerox I was lucky enough to have a very talented staff member who was able to accomplish some amazing breakthroughs with this technique.

Find Ways to Ease the Pain

Loosen up! No need to be so serious all the time, even if your stomach is in knots and your hands are shaking. Most business issues are not life and death. So let’s keep our perspective. Of course, that may help ease your pain, but how do we help your colleague? Always try to address his or her issue in the solution. I also find humor is a great way to defuse the painful momentswith one caveat: Never use humor to ridicule your colleague’s position.

Be Generous

Be generous of spirit throughout the process. At its conclusion, give credit liberally to those who helped make it successful, no matter how small the part they played or how grudgingly. Credit is so easy to share; only blame is hard to allocate.

Win the War, Not the Battle

I don’t generally like war analogies, but this advice was given to me early in my career by one of my favorite bosses and mentors: Every issue is not equally important. It will be necessary to choose those important enough to warrant using your political capital in the confrontation. Everything will seem crucial today, but will it still be important one or two years from now? Hone your judgment and critique your own choices.

Now let’s go back to the situation I described in the opening paragraph. I knew I was going to face a hostile group. They probably agreed it was necessary to take the action I was proposing, but it was going to be extremely painful to implement in their groups. I tried to think of some way of letting them know that I understood the difficulty and was willing to help. When they arrived for the meeting, at each of their seats was a gift bag all nicely done up with tissue paper and bows. It contained a small monogrammed towelThe Crying Towelto be used when consoling members of their organization suffering from the embargo on enhancements. What did this do? It defused the situation, eased the pain by bringing a little shared humor to a tough problem and showed some empathy for the difficulty they would be facing.

My recommendation was approved, and the towels got lots of use. Some VPs even used them, symbolically, for other issues they were facing.

Now I am confronting the end of this column. In parting, I remind you of that famous homily: “Leaders are like teabags. The longer they are in hot water, the stronger they get.” Good luck.

Before retiring in 1999, Patricia Wallington was corporate vice president and CIO at Xerox Corp. In 1997 Wallington, now based in Sarasota, Fla., was inducted into the Women in Science and Technology Hall of Fame and named by CIO one of the 12 most influential IT executives of the decade. CIO invites you to share your thoughts about our ongoing Total Leadership column. Please contact Features Editor Katherine Noyes at