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12/4/2003
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Secret CIO: 'I've Never Had A Bad Performance Appraisal'

Giving an honest performance review is no way to win friends

Phil Whitestone, our CEO, loves mergers and acquisitions. He must have spent all his time in business school playing Monopoly. In any case, buying and selling businesses gives him a thrill. He looked delighted when he announced his most recent conquest, acquiring a business unit of a joint-venture partner. The deal did make sense. The other company was changing its direction, and the entity we were purchasing fit into our plans.

The new group used corporate systems exclusively, which meant we had to convert them to our stuff, no small task. The only help we'd get would be from their one computer-liaison person, Marlene. Phil said she would report directly to me during the transition and then I was to decide her next assignment, if any. The president of the incoming division, Hal, added that he'd have his hands full fitting into our company, so he was happy I was taking care of the systems. He did warn me that Marlene required a lot of management and could "sometimes be a little abrasive" to those who disagreed with her. That comment came as no surprise since the CIO of his old outfit, a friend of mine, had told me his staff couldn't stand Marlene.

I met with Marlene, welcoming her to the company, and asked what problems she thought she'd face in her new assignment. I said I'd measure her on how well the transition went and on her ability to get everyone to pull together, telling her that she needed to build good working relationships with her new colleagues. I stressed avoiding the abrasive behavior I'd heard about and instead smoothing the way so that the business got excellent service. She said she had great relationships with everyone in the old organization and would make sure she did in the new one.

The next few months weren't pleasant. Everything got done, but most of it was in spite of Marlene rather than because of her. Hal's people were great, thankful for the improvements we made (they often felt like stepchildren in their old company because they weren't mainstream to business) and tolerant when we messed up something. Marlene was in my office almost continuously complaining about someone, frequently before she had the facts. When she wasn't talking to me, she would be sitting with Hal, expressing the same sentiments.

Each time we talked, I gave her feedback about her methods, saying she was alienating people who could help her get the job done, but she insisted she was doing what was needed. Finally, when I gave her a formal performance appraisal after six months, she was shocked. She told me in no uncertain terms that she had never gotten a bad review before. I agreed and tried to tell her, to no avail, that phrases on her past reviews like, "a hard worker who sometimes is so eager to get the job done that she is willing to step on the toes of others" and "dedicated to the point of not worrying about the opposition to her ideas" aren't exactly glowing praise.

Marlene stormed out of my office. I sat there stewing about managers who give performance reviews without telling it straight. It's a shame; she's a talented person. Her knowledge could help the company, but after years of reinforcement of poor work behavior, she's probably too disruptive and high maintenance to be a keeper.

Herbert W. Lovelace shares his experiences (changing most names, including his own, to protect the guilty) as CIO of a multibillion-dollar international company. Send him E-mail at lovelace@comcast.net.


To discuss this column with other readers, please visit Herbert Lovelace's forum on the Listening Post.

To find out more about Herbert Lovelace, please visit his page on the Listening Post.

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