by Polly Schneider

Are You a Bad Boss?

Apr 01, 200015 mins
CIOIT LeadershipMentoring

Your people are flying out the door left and right. Blame it on recruiters if you like, but you're the problem.

Not long ago, a thriving young manager we’ll call Paul was happily ensconced in the IT department of a large manufacturing company. Paul loved his work, found his team members stimulating and had a great boss. One day Paul went to his boss, an IT director, asking for help. Paul was in the middle of a heated conflict with a coworker and hoped his boss could intervene in some way. Paul was so distressed about the problem, he wondered out loud whether he should look for work elsewhere. The boss scratched his head and came up with what he thought was a supportive answer. “Paul, you do what you feel is best for you.” Wrong answer, boss.

What was best for Paul was not best for his boss or the company. A few weeks later, Paul got a call from a headhunter and for the first time in the five years he’d worked at the company, returned it. Soon after, Paul left for a lucrative job at Cisco Systems. Sharon Jordan-Evans, a retention expert and executive coach in Woodland Hills, Calif., who promised Paul confidentiality, says the boss never figured out what he did wrong. The case is a chilling revelation for CIOs and IT managers today: You don’t have to be the Boss from Hell to lose good people. All it takes is one critical mistake. What Paul’s boss should have said is, “Don’t even think about going,” and then arranged a meeting with the coworker to discuss the problem.

Most people have had a lousy boss at some point in their career, and Paul’s case is a relatively mild example. Think you have a retention problem at your company? (Who doesn’t in this industry?) Throw away the HR manuals and take a good hard look at yourself and your management team. You and the managers who work for you—not the hot job market—might very well be the number-one cause of attrition in your organization. Retention studies show that 70 to 80 percent of the reasons why people leave companies are related to bosses, according to John Sullivan, a professor of human resources at San Francisco State University who is currently working for Agilent Technologies as chief talent officer. Sullivan, author of the e-book The Manager’s Retention Toolkit (revised May 1999), consults high-tech companies on retention and says money is not one of the top reasons people switch jobs in the industry. “People either say my boss was a jerk, or I wasn’t challenged,” he says.

Brand-name companies can recruit an outstanding employee with a generous benefits package and a good reputation, but keeping her is another matter, according to Marcus Buckingham and Curt Coffman, authors of First, Break All the Rules (1999), which chronicles a multiyear research project by The Gallup Organization. “It is her relationship with her immediate manager that will determine how long she stays and how productive she is while she is there,” they explain. Indeed, an IT department’s retention rate is the most accurate indicator of the quality of a department’s leadership.

The problem exists in every industry but may be particularly troublesome in IT organizations. Even though business types are now increasingly promoted into senior IT spots, historically managers have been culled from the technical ranks. People skills are (surprise!) not always their forte. (For advice on coaching new managers, see Coaching: What Managers Need.)

The management and retention equation is complicated by the current IT staffing crunch. “I think the real issue may be that we’re in a hot industry where employees have options and don’t have to put up with poor working circumstances,” says Rory LaGrotta, a senior IT executive at a major northern California company. But paying close attention to management skills behooves any executive in a competitive market.

Discussing bad bosses is an exercise in hair-pulling. No one wants to think of herself as a weak boss—and no one wants to talk about peers. At some level, it’s a dirty little secret. San Francisco State’s Sullivan believes senior managers tend to protect each other from censure, even if one is known as a bad apple. Executives fear the finger-pointing will eventually backfire. “There is no tradition in American management to fire bad bosses,” he notes. In IT the problem may be concealed further because of sky-high turnover rates. The pressure to reduce attrition in the face of rising workloads may cause CIOs to skirt the issue of problem managers—inadvertently or otherwise. Marc D. Lewis, managing director of the technology and venture practice at Cleveland-based executive recruitment firm Christian & Timbers, concurs. “Anything that creates even greater turnover is a real problem—and may well be swept under the rug.”

Although most people agree on what makes a bad boss, the definition of a good boss is highly subjective. Still, as an IT manager, you can and should take stock to see if improving your own skills can create a better environment and higher retention. To evaluate yourself as a supervisor, consider the following questions:

Do You Really Know What Makes Your Employees Happy? Managers and companies often get stuck in the endless cycle of revamping benefits and on-the-job perks as a means to keep the restless talent satiated. They institute onsite dry cleaners, pizza Fridays, ropes classes for team bonding, bigger bonuses—all of which may be valuable but fundamentally miss the mark. The most important thing a manager can do is talk to his employees on a regular basis, asking what they want and what issues might cause them to leave, says Jordan-Evans, whose organizational development consulting firm, the Jordan Evans Group, has coached teams and executives at major corporations in North America and Europe, including GTE, Universal Studios and AT&T. She recalls a client in a high-tech company whose direct report, a manager, hinted when asked how things were going that he might leave because he wasn’t learning anything new. His boss found him a mentor, sent him to training and then offered to take him to a senior staff meeting. The result? The manager stayed with the company. “Had the manager’s boss not asked, he would have never learned,” Jordan-Evans says.

Keeping employees happy also requires giving them meaningful rewards. Managers frequently make the mistake of doling out group rewards that fall flat for the individual. One employee may love that dinner-for-two certificate, while another would rather have a massage and yet another may opt for a day off. Jim Harris, a strategic retention consultant based in Pensacola, Fla., winces as he recalls a Fortune 25 client who thought putting a clown in the lobby would help motivate the IT department during a high-stakes project. “The managers thought it was a brilliant idea, but the employees hated it,” he recalls. Harris, whose company NetSpeedConsulting works frequently with high-tech companies and IT departments, recommends learning something personal about each employee and starting a file for reward ideas. Or, he suggests, at the start of a project, ask every team member to write on an index card what they’d like to receive if they meet the project goals.

Needless to say, there are times when group events do wonders to boost team morale and blow off steam. Just ask Jim Foster, executive vice president of product strategy and technology for Reston, Va.-based Best Software, a developer of human resources and financial software. After a project team reached a major milestone, Foster hired a limo to pick up the 25 team members and take them out for a night on the town with him and other company execs. “They partied all night, and we did too,” he says.

Do You Cringe at the Mention of Soft Skills? Don’t: They really do matter. While many managers pay lip service to this HR mantra, CIOs like John Lochow swear it was his drive to be a savvy communicator that allowed him to climb the corporate ladder. Now executive vice president of worldwide systems and logistics for hardware and software distributor Tech Data Corp. in Clearwater, Fla., Lochow wasn’t always so keen on right-brain attributes. Fifteen years ago he looked for just two things when promoting employees to management posts: technical know-how and business problem-solving prowess. “Today I look at their people skills—can they talk or write well?” says Lochow, who has worked in senior executive and CIO roles at large companies including AT&T and Bell Canada. But it goes deeper than that. Managers have to show that they genuinely care about helping others, he says. “If you don’t and are merely playing a role, it will come out in the wash.” Good managers, in his view, analyze every decision from the “human nature perspective” first. Do You Give Your Team Enough Freedom to Work? Although building relationships with direct reports is crucial, if a manager is too involved in the employees’ business, they’ll run for the exit door. LaGrotta says her ideal boss is someone who points her in the right direction and then “gets out of my way and lets me do my job.” Today’s independent workers don’t take kindly to a litany of rules, policies and controls. Ironically, those same anti-establishment programmers and project managers are evaluated by their ability to “micromanage” code and budgets, so many of them carry these traits into their people management roles. CIOs must watch for this behavior among their new managers—and honestly confront their own micromanagement tendencies. Tom Holahan, an IT consultant in Washington state, tells the story of a nightmare boss he had 10 years ago. “Jack,” who held the number-two IT spot at a major software company, was a new hire from AT&T and apparently believed gaining respect could best be accomplished by keeping a tight leash on his employees. Jack required Holahan and 16 of his coworkers in tech support to wear walkie-talkies so he could reach them at any second of the day. “We would be working with a software engineer on a critical problem and would have to drop everything and go help fix Jack’s boss’s e-mail,” Holahan recalls.

Holahan says the practice went on for years—to the chagrin of his internal customers who were often interrupted by Jack’s screaming voice. He complained to the corporate HR department about this and other instances of Jack’s controlling behavior but says he got no results. Finally, after progressing through two management positions, Holahan decided five years under Jack was enough and left. Strapped with a mortgage and with a family to support, he admits the company’s “velvet sweatshop” culture of great pay and stock options made it tough to leave any sooner.

Yet micromanagers often operate in more subtle ways. Early in his career at DHL, John Keast, former CIO at online catalog company, was given the task of renegotiating a vendor contract. During the discussions, Keast butted heads with the vendor on an issue that was delaying completion of the deal and causing Keast untold frustration. At one point, over a beer with one of the sales reps, he learned that the vendor had told Keast’s supervisor, the CIO, that the issue was non-negotiable. Keast is still unsure why his boss would have concealed such an important piece of information. The incident caused Keast to start to lose confidence in his boss and ultimately contributed to his decision to leave DHL. “There’s a group of managers who don’t want their people to be successful so they withhold information,” he says. Effective bosses give their employees the information they need to do their jobs well.

Sometimes, managers are perceived as controllers by their direct reports simply because they aren’t comfortable with breaking the rules. This sort of flexibility—allowing employees to work at home one day a week, giving sabbaticals or catering to an employee’s desire to telecommute from Hawaii so that he can pursue his surfing hobby—is often what it takes to keep good people.

Have You Learned to Mentor? Being a mentor implies taking employees under your wing, investing significant chunks of time into their development, helping them build relationships with key allies in the company or industry—in effect, becoming an on-the-job parent.

Most employees, however, simply want quick, regular feedback and support; in fact, that’s what the Gen X and Gen Y workforce demands, Harris says. “Managers who get it understand that every time they interact with people it is a performance review,” he says. It can be as simple as sending an e-mail of thanks to someone who puts in extra hours to meet a deadline. Too often, managers focus on the negatives without realizing that positive reinforcement is what drives employees to go the extra mile. Another mistake is trying to force employees into particular roles that may not suit their personalities or strengths; look for the golden nuggets in each employee and spend time developing those instead.

Encouraging risk-taking is another valuable mentoring task because it allows people to push the envelope without fear of penalties. Several years ago at Best Software, the attrition rate was above 20 percent. After creating new training programs and a more open culture, it’s now in the single digits, Foster says. He encouraged managers to push a risk-friendly policy, which paid off a few years ago when developers pursued a web platform for the company’s products—a then-risky venture that has turned into a highly profitable business today.

Above all, mentoring means always looking out for the employee’s best interests—for instance, making sure higher-ups know about his good deeds. It can even mean helping him out the door if a better opportunity exists elsewhere. “We have seen examples of CIOs recommending someone good in their own organization to us when we are recruiting for another employer,” Lewis remarks. While an extreme and perhaps controversial example, the message is clear. Being a good manager sometimes means putting an employee’s interests above the company’s—and that can drive loyalty among the rest of your staff.

Can You Be Tough? No, being tough doesn’t mean behaving like a military commander. It does mean being decisive and providing direction when necessary. One of the most coveted management skills today is the ability to make decisions quickly; effective managers accept the fact that they must often act on incomplete information. IT workers abhor bureaucracy, long meetings and anything else that slows them down.

Good managers also make sure employees don’t lose sight of the big picture. Programmers tend to get distracted by the cool aspects of what they’re creating, Foster says. They need and appreciate direction from those who understand the business drivers. He learned this lesson the hard way a few years ago during a development project at Best Software. The project was running behind, so one of the managers came up with an elaborate bonus plan to motivate the team. However, no one got to the root of the problem: There was no concrete plan for making the deadline. “Engineers saw this huge carrot but they couldn’t get there,” Foster says. “People were very frustrated and unhappy.”

Do You Address Conflict? Being tough also means resolving conflicts—whether they’re personal or political. Poor managers frequently avoid confrontation, which often comes back to haunt them at performance review time, Keast observes. If you’re glossing over criticism, stop. You’re doing both yourself and your employees a disservice. State the problem directly and discuss it. Some managers also shy away from intervening when their employees are having problems with other managers, which can damage relationships on all fronts. “Say you’re a systems analyst, and you’re having a problem with the CFO,” Keast explains. “If the CIO is not prepared to intervene politically, nothing gets resolved.”

How managers deal with conflict is a matter of personal style, however, and may also reflect the culture of the organization. Some prefer to approach problems head-on; others encourage employees and managers to resolve their differences without direct intervention from the top. Often, the most appropriate style depends on the situation at hand.

One of the toughest jobs for executives is handling sensitive situations between managers and their reports. How do you deal with an employee complaint about his manager? If it’s an issue of compensation or benefits, go to the HR department. If it’s a personal issue, try to confirm the allegations indirectly through others, if possible, before approaching the manager. A breach of company policy may require the CIO to step in herself.

CIOs need to be on the lookout for bad behavior among their managers because nine times out of 10, they won’t hear about it until it’s too late—like when an employee leaves—if at all. This means observing managers when they interact with employees, sitting in on team meetings, and evaluating and rewarding managers for their soft skills and ability to retain employees. It also means checking in with your staff from time to time. Ask them: Are you happy? Is your manager supporting you in your job? What can we do better? But your managers and your staff can’t save you from yourself. Ultimately your behavior and management style sets the tone for how others will behave in management situations. It’s your leadership that will determine the strength of your team and how long you can keep good people.