by Bob Lewis

Departure Tales

Aug 23, 2010
IT Leadership

There's a lot you can learn from headline-making personnel changes

ManagementSpeak: So-and-so has left the company to pursue other interests.

Translation: We finally fired his worthless behind.

KJR Club member Dave Farris’ interests include interpretation of management phraseology.

This is a tale of three departures and their lessons for IT leaders.

Departure #1 is Steven Slater. In case you’ve been living in a cave, Slater, a JetBlue flight attendant, experienced an intense customer relationship opportunity with a passenger who retrieved her luggage before the plane reached the gate.

That’s when Slater achieved greatness:

Instead of just counting to some large number, he unleashed a vivid stream of abuse over the PA system, activated and released the emergency exit slide, and, grabbing a beer from the beverage cart on the way out, slid to immortality.

And, possibly, prison. Activating the slide violates federal law because of the potentially lethal consequences should a member of the ground crew be standing underneath.

Lessons for IT leaders: Had Slater not grabbed a beer on the way out, I doubt he’d be such a folk hero today. So lesson #1 is that attention to detail makes the difference between a one-day wonder and a legend.

Lesson #2: Just about anyone who has ever answered Help Desk calls feels a sense of kinship with Slater, not to mention vindication. Your Help Desk staff, like flight attendants, rank low on the status totem pole; their worst end-users make unruly passengers seem tame; and Help Desk staff can’t even offer a free drink to placate them.

And, they’re your front-line troops in managing IT’s relationship with the rest of the business.

Do what you can to increase their status. Give them lots of training and support for dealing with obnoxious callers. And, spend some of your time listening in on calls so they know you know what they have to contend with.

Departure #2 is Mark Hurd. Except for the same cave dwellers who are reading about Slater for the first time, this is getting to be old news:Hurd purportedly had romantic (I’m being nice about this) intentions toward a former actress (I’m being even nicer about this) turned contractor-working-with-HP-until-recently, which would have been okay had he not faked his expense reports.

HP’s board of directors terminated him immediately. The official reason was the faked expense reports. As the board paid him $50 million to go away we’ll never be sure of the real reasons.

Which hasn’t stopped an army of opinionators from expressing their views, including Hurd’s buddy, serial-alleged-harasser/Oracle CEO Larry Ellison, whose sole ethical metric appears to be shareholder value.

Even if the only issue is faked expense reports, let’s get real for a moment. Problem-with-Hurd-staying #1 is that HP would be unable to terminate any other employee, ever, for faking an expense report. Problem-with-Hurd-staying #2 is even bigger: Hurd’s compensation was … significant. And yet he couldn’t pay these expenses himself? What kind of judgment does that reveal?

Lesson for IT leaders: Insist on more than just results from your management team. Once you let being a strong producer cover for violations of company policy (let alone legal infractions) you’ve endorsed all violations of company policy.

Then there’s departure #3: Ed Whitacre, soon-to-be-former CEO of General Motors. Whitacre’s departure is both voluntary and wise (making him Wiseacre?). He returned GM to profitability, focused at least its advertising on the desirability of the cars sold by all of its brands (a tactic previously reserved for Cadillac), and created at least the illusion of sustainable success to support an upcoming IPO.

I say illusion because of his successor’s pedigree. GM’s new CEO, Don Akerson, is the head of the Carlyle Group’s global buyout business. Which means he’s a money guy, not a run-a-company guy.

Prior to that he worked at General Instrument, MCI, Nextel and XO Communications. XO is the only one that even exists anymore as a separate company. Which at least suggests he never was a run-a-company-successfully guy.

I had hopes for GM. Now I figure GM’s board has given up on it being a sustainably competitive company, and has decided the best plan is for Akerson to groom it for sale to some other automobile manufacturer that does know how to build and sell cars people want to buy.

My guess (and it’s just a guess): India’s Tata Motors.

Lesson for IT leaders: If you’ve taken your organization as far as you can and can’t see the next logical step, get out while your reputation is intact.

Even if your replacement is wrong for the position, you’re better off moving far away, where you are the right person for the job.

It beats the alternative: Drifting along while the situation deteriorates and your name is on the accumulating problems.

Bob Lewis is president of IT Catalysts, a consultancy focused on IT organizational effectiveness, business/IT integration, and helping organizations become more adept at designed, planned change.