“This is a mutiny, Peter. There’s only two sides to a mutiny!” Matt Craven as Lt. Roy Zimmer in Crimson Tide, 1995
Last year I was CIO for a company that had grown markedly over a short period from a medium-sized business to a large corporation. This had been achieved by announcing a series of rolling acquisitions to the tune of literally hundreds of millions of dollars. I had been brought into the company to develop and implement a proper IT strategic plan and help enable the business it needed to become.
From a CIO’s perspective, managing one acquisition is challenging and two is much harder. So imagine the announcement of four in as many weeks! The challenge was to now integrate all these companies successfully and ensure the infrastructure and systems scaled, whilst simultaneously “keeping the lights on”. A neat trick but my team and I were up to the task.
Despite the long, long hours and seeming endless succession of issues, I loved the job and felt we had made excellent progress with the company’s IT since I had joined the previous year. We (the IT team and myself) were on this big adventure and though we knew it was hard we were prevailing.
So my plate was pretty full, to put it mildly. It was going to be challenging for the next year or two whilst everything settled into place. But of course I had a cunning plan. I always have a plan!
What started out as an ordinary day with this growing conglomerate turned out to be anything but, within 10 minutes of my logging on the corporate network.
The dramatic sequence of events began with the innocuous chirp of my phone alerting me to an internal call with a brief verbal request; “Please come into the Director’s office for a minute!” Then without waiting for a response, there came the dial-tone sound as the caller hung up.
“Weird”, I thought, no conversational bookends or general chit chat as per usual. My sensitive ’problem antenna’ stirred and told me something was up! So I walked the short distance to the Director’s office, thinking that whatever the problem I was confident it was manageable. At the same time, I was curious to know what was up.
Approaching the door to the Director’s office I noticed it was closed, indicating whatever was happening must be hyper confidential. I knocked and was immediately told to come in.
Upon opening the door it surprised me to see the HR Manager sitting at the table in the middle of the office. It wasn’t so much the fact he was there; it was the purposeful lack of eye contact on his behalf that grabbed my attention.
How interesting could that corporate brochure be that he was reading, to not even look up and acknowledge me as I entered the room? Then, in a flash I realised why he wasn’t acknowledging me and what was happening here; I was about to become a dead man walking!
On auto pilot, I entered the room and sat down. Then it began, like a bad nightmare where you are part of a horrendous and nonsensical scene that is totally out of your control but you let it play out.
“This is hard for me to do” the Director said, his words well-rehearsed, though expressed with the emotion of someone itemising their weekly shopping list.
He then gave a glowing report on my achievements filled with accolades such as “couldn’t have done it without you” and “you have been an excellent CIO” and “you’ve done a magnificent job”.
I listened intently, whilst a bizarre conversation took place in my head. (Hmmm ...I thought ...when is it coming? ...maybe I’m wrong ...yes, maybe it’s a raise ...or maybe they want me to share in the wealth of the new conglomerate ...yes, maybe this meeting was good, not bad.)
The axe falls
“However” he said, in a tone betraying the fact this was not a pat-on-the-back moment for me, and at that precise moment I saw the glint on the executioners axe above my neck ready for the chop.
(There it is! He is going to cull me I thought with no sense of satisfaction in knowing I was right. I don’t believe this is happening! Please let me be wrong! Damn, why can’t I be wrong ...just this once? ...yes, just this once let me be wrong.)
But my thoughts of trying to bargain some sort of deal with the universe were interrupted abruptly.
“...Moving forward, rightly or wrongly, and we could be totally wrong here ...” (this last bit was emphasised strongly and forcefully, which seemed quite odd both at the time and each time I reflect on that particular conversation) “we don’t believe we need a layer of management between the IT divisions and the CFO. So, we’re making the role of CIO redundant.”
I was gob smacked. What was he saying? A “layer of management” ...did I hear right? They see the CIO as a “layer of management”? Wow! My incredulity towards the scene playing out made me feel as if I’d been punched hard in the stomach.
They were executing me ...but for what? I hadn’t done anything wrong, in fact I’d been a loyal foot soldier and along with my team had helped save the company literally millions of dollars in the short period I had been CIO ...which is why they brought me in here in the first place. How on earth could this be happening?
I was confused ...and angry ...and confused again. Then in a blinding flash of realisation I was convinced this had nothing to do with my competency, my capabilities, what I had achieved for the company nor the vast amounts of money I had saved them — none of this.
This was all to do with politics. Big time politics. Someone (and I knew who that was) had obviously decided I presented a threat to their position. They were threatened so, in their whacky logic, I had to go. Period.
But this was wrong! To make the role of CIO redundant for any reason, let alone a churlish one, meant they couldn’t just install another CIO in my place.
I pondered asking, “Have you actually thought this through and understand the consequences of what you’re saying?” but decided to save my breath.
That they were actually telling me the CIO role was a superfluous position was mind blowing. What about the increased risk they’ve just introduced to the business (and for what gain?) by removing the senior IT leadership at such a pivotal point?; and there was the signal it sends to people working at the company who would think “Well, if they can get rid of someone senior like him then what chance do I have?”
Quickly summing up the situation it seemed any discussion, debate, disagreement or any attempt to bargain was not only futile, it would be demeaning. I quickly determined they might take my job but I refused to let them take my dignity. That belonged to me.
I’ve always believed that people ascending to the position of CEO or director do not automatically avail themselves of the management equivalent of papal infallibility, or mean that we must genuflect in their presence. CEOs, directors (and CIOs for that matter) are people who have both strengths and flaws. Unfortunately for me, that theory was being validated in front of my eyes.
I could do nothing. For me, it was check and mate... game over!
What happened next
Later, telling the assembled IT team was the hardest thing I’ve had to do in my career. I managed to say one sentence (that I’d been made redundant) then could think of nothing else so there was just silence. Some thought it was a joke and laughed, expecting a non-existent punchline. Those who realised it was not a joke audibly gasped. The rest of the day was a blur of short discussions with many people in the company, many handshakes and many “it will be OK” and “these things happen for the best” statements — not really believed by those saying them, nor by myself hearing them.
The next day was worse as I awoke and the reality hit home ...I didn’t have a job! That was hard to absorb — yesterday morning I was this power-wielding CIO and today I had no job and no career! After a couple of hours letting it all sink in I decided the best thing was to get back on that horse — yep, I’ll use my contacts to find another CIO role quickly and get back in the saddle!
How silly of me to think this would be easy. The reality has proven much, much more difficult!
Dusting off my resume and looking around for another full-time senior position or CIO role has been one of my worst experiences. I had been really happy at my job and by a number of measures I was doing it well. Now I canvass my credentials to potential employers who get to the stage where they like what they see, like what they hear but, well, if I was that good then why did the other company make me redundant? And that is something I can’t answer.
So contracting seems like the way to go in the interim, (however long that is), so I can continue to put food on the table. But lurching from project to project is not a sustainable long-term career option.
And there’s the “you’re resume is great, but you’re far too experienced” response when applying for roles, though no one has been able to explain to me exactly what that means. I couldn’t see anyone saying that in the fields of medicine, engineering or physics where experience would be coveted.
Where is the justice?
Here is the biggest thing I’ve found out of all this — when this sort of thing happens there is no umpire you can turn to and put your side of the story or who can determine this was the right thing done here.
Facts don’t matter. Directors or CEOs can act with impunity and without being answerable to anybody. Ah, you say, yes they are — they answer to the shareholders. Well, how do the shareholders know what is happening?
To my knowledge no one in senior management approached the Director in my case to say you’re maybe making a wrong decision or you may not have acted in the best interests of all the shareholders or even to debate the matter — their silence was most likely for reasons of self-preservation.
So no external shareholder ever heard what happened — there was never any announcement. I just went quietly into the night.
I did seek the obligatory legal opinion and a lawyer I consulted was of the opinion those who made me redundant acted illegally and were in fact circumventing the employment laws. Several legal letters followed in an attempt to engage the company in a dialogue but we were met with stone-walled silence. They just ignored me. My lawyer advised me I could sue them but that would mean going to court, thousands of dollars, months and months of stress, etc. And I needed to focus on the future and my career so decided I would not sue. I mean, who was going to hire a CIO who had taken his previous employer to court?
So what happens now? The company’s IT is being executed by an excellent team of professionals who I was proud to lead and very sad to leave. However, they have lost an experienced and seasoned leader and have no strategic plan to follow, so there is now a more tactical and non-strategic focus to IT. The IT divisions now report directly to the CFO. Not sure how that’s working for them but it’s academic as the company can’t recruit another CIO given they made the position redundant. So they’re stuck with that model.
The team can’t operate across functional silos as they do not have the authority. They can’t push the responsibility up either as the CFO does not have the competencies to manage and lead a complex IT environment — that is, after all, why they recruited me into the company. So the pressure continues to be exerted downwards.
The net result is the operational model for IT will devolve back to a re-active, less efficient model. This is, I believe, extremely stressful on the team, creates a lot of unnecessary pressure, will cost the business more in the long run and it is not a pleasant working environment.
Another thing I learned out of this is that incumbent CIOs I’ve approached are somewhat reticent to help someone in my position. I guess they feel one CIO in an organisation is enough. A number of those I contacted have been positively spectacular in helping identify particular opportunities and I am grateful to them but for the most part others have offered only empathy.
As for me, well now I’m in a strange position. Those companies I’ve engaged regarding potential CIO roles like what they see, but as mentioned they have these niggling doubts over the way I parted company in my previous CIO role. So whilst I believe I have much to offer in leadership, experience and shareholder value to a potential employer as CIO, I find this avenue is a hard road to hoe.
This leaves contract work but that means focussing on one project at a time, not the dozens of simultaneous projects I’ve been used to concurrently managing. But at least it pays the bills.
So I guess I’ll continue to drift for a while longer. I’ve given up trying to rationalise this all in my head. I realise it will never make sense and trying to find some logic behind what I consider gross corporate incompetence would only serve to legitimise what happened.
Perhaps, after nearly three decades in ICT, it’s time to do something completely different?
I guess there’s always potato farming!
The author, who requested anonymity, is writing a book on ICT management..
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