Politics in IT: Separate Operators From Performers

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There's politics in IT. Are you shocked to hear it? I didn't think so. But it can be negotiated. It comes down to knowing what sorts of people are around you. I'll get to that in a bit, along with some advice for dealing with the bad players, but first let me tell you about two times in my career when politics came to the fore.

Incident No. 1

I had just renegotiated a multiyear contract with a major outside IT service provider that would save the company $6 million in each of the next three years. I was feeling confident about my competence as CIO, but at the same time, I saw indications that my days at this company might be numbered. The CEO who had hired me was now leading a rival company. We had been close, and a couple of my peers on the senior management committee had asked me whether I would follow him. There had even been subtle suggestions that I might be feeding our former CEO information about how our IT function was used to outcompete the competition. It was a baseless suspicion, but it's not easy to remove such a stain even when you're completely innocent. Shortly after my success with the renegotiation, the new president and CEO called me to his office. Once I was there, he cordially congratulated me on my negotiating success. In fact, he said, my performance had been consistently superior, but due to reasons he could not discuss with me, he would have to let me go. My competence was not called into question, and that was gratifying, but I was out of a job anyway.

Incident No. 2

Seeing the executive who hired you move on isn't unusual, of course. When it happened to me another time, I was left reporting to a committee of three senior executives who didn't know what they wanted the IT function to do. They would ask me what I considered to be the best path to take, but my carefully weighed responses would be interrupted by them as they argued with each other. I was being given three competing lists of priorities, and pointing out their contradictions only prolonged the meetings. None of them would give an inch. If they all hadn't had other meetings to attend, those sessions might have never ended. No one can serve two masters, and I found myself with three. I wasn't learning anything, which has always been of great importance to me, and I had the feeling that my situation was going to end poorly, so I began looking for another position. As soon as I found one, I resigned. Again, my performance was not the issue, and even though I had moved on through my own initiative, another change in my career happened because of events I had no control over.

I'm a believer in focusing on performance and developing relationships. But as these two incidents illustrate, even when you do that, you can be hit by the unexpected. But you know what? That's OK. The point is that the proactive competence that I have been preaching will indeed serve you well in the course of your career, even if it can't save you from every bumpy political situation. The truth is that when you run into the sort of trouble that I just described from my own career, you are running up against people who aren't the sort of proactive leader that I advocate. And chances are that when things reach a point where you can't continue to serve a company, it's really for the best that you get on to the next chapter in your career.

Not that you can run away from every job that presents you with uncomfortable politics. You would constantly be on the run. It's actually possible to overcome many political situations. The first step is to learn how to read people.

Two kinds of people

When it comes to workplace politics, it's helpful to learn how to differentiate the performers from the operators.

Performers are the people whom you to want report to, whom you want to hire for your team and whom you're happy to see among your peers. They have a high standard of behavior, a committed work ethic and a well-developed sense of integrity. You can't identify them by their education; they could be Harvard graduates or high-school dropouts. But they exude knowledgeability about their profession, as well as intelligence. They exist at all ranks, and whether they are in the corner office or a cubicle, their conduct is basically the same. They perform in a consistently superior fashion, giving the impression that they would rather do a good job and have it appreciated than almost anything else. They believe that their efforts will be recognized and rewarded (naïvely so, if they're working for an operator). They might make mistakes, but they are quick to own up to them and waste no time in dealing with them. They learn from their mistakes and never make the same one twice. Performers are also genteel, considerate and effective communicators. They work well with and support others. You can be certain that they will do the right thing even when you are not there to know that they've done it. They are happy to share credit for successes. They honor your belief and trust in them. I admit that all of this sounds too good to be true, but I can give you names.

Operators focus on pleasing upper management, being in control of all aspects of their organization and using any achievement to their utmost advantage. They tend to hire people less capable than themselves, sycophants who can be controlled, mostly by intimidation. That helps assure that upper management won't see anyone more capable to promote or replace them with; by default, they look like the only go-to person in the department. Any direct report who is capable and unintimidated is seen as a threat. If the employees who are perceived as threatening can't be bullied, they are subjected to a campaign of informal new requirements meant to encourage their departure. An operator's ethics can be summed up as "whatever it takes," which means that any good ideas will be appropriated, i.e., stolen. They have no compunction about spending time and resources trying to find out whom to blame for a mistake. Again, educational background is not an indicator, but operators are not knowledgeable about what they do; in their minds, taking training would be an admission that they don't know something. Their management style is reactive, and so they often have to accommodate surprises that would not have happened if they had a knowledgeable strategy in place. Worse, they actually like things this way; they figure that if they are seen to be the first person to throw water on a fire, they will be perceived as a hero, even if they started the fire in the first place. If someone you have pegged as an operator makes you feel important, you can be certain that they need something from you and that the situation is temporary. Operators love to flaunt any symbols of power they accumulate. Even the remote possibility of the limelight attracts them. If they work hard, you can bet that the sole reason is to be perceived by upper management as a performer. They are masters of creative half-truths, innuendo and stalling tactics such as "I'll certainly get back to you on that." At bottom, they are very insecure, always scared of being found out. I have seen more than my share, and once again, I have names.

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