Ask The Secret CIO: When Promotions Go Bad - InformationWeek

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Ask The Secret CIO: When Promotions Go Bad

Secret CIO readers ruminate on the sad situation of a manager who promotes a friend, only to have to remove the friend from the job when he can't handle it.

Ed really wasn't being fair, but I bet you learned something, too

Dear Mr. Lovelace,

I've been reading your columns in InformationWeek for several years now and I always enjoy them. Apart from the news and together with the informative outlook that the magazine provides, your writings are my favorite.

Your column about Ed and Alan (Good Worker, Good Manager?) was "on target." I have seen this sort of situation arise before, in both my own organization and elsewhere.

Did Ed really separate his thinking from his friendship when deciding what was needed in a manager? Just as it wasn't fair to deny Alan the job because he and Ed were friends, it wasn't fair to give Alan the job because of it, either.

Now Alan is, apparently, not feeling so great about things. What about Ed? How is he? How is his credibility with his peers?

I left out the most important nugget in your column: you haven't let this go; you're still thinking about it. I bet you don't have this happen again!

I can't tell you where I work, since I have to speak for myself in this E-mail, not for my company. But I've been in the IT business for 20 years, and have spent 13 as a manager in a large organization. I still have lots to learn!

Looking forward to more of your columns!


Dear Owen:

I'm convinced that Ed thought he was being fair by giving Alan the job. He had worked with Alan in the past, had the highest regard for him, and sincerely thought that the closeness of their relationship would allow him to coach Alan past any difficulties. Ed and I discussed whether Alan was the best person for the job and he was certain that Alan would be a real success.

There's no question that Ed was depressed by what happened. After Alan was replaced, Ed was just a touch sensitive around his fellow managers for a while. Within two weeks after the transition, though, he was back to his normal energetic ways. He learned from the experience, but I know that he was hurt by the newly cooled relationship with Alan. As far as his peers were concerned, Ed lost no esteem in their eyes. While there were one or two subdued comments of "I told him so," most of them had the attitude, "It's a shame that it didn't work out better."

Finally, you would lose your bet that I wouldn't do it again. I gave Ed my advice, tested his logic with him, and tried to make sure that Alan got the proper training. I still would let him make the final decision for a position reporting to him.

If you had overruled Ed's judgment, you still would have lost

Dear Mr. Lovelace:

I enjoyed your article, but one thing you didn't cover is as important as the consequences of taking Ed's recommendation and giving Alan the managerial job. That factor is the possible consequences of ignoring Ed's wishes and not giving Alan a chance. In that scenario, you may very well have lost them both.

Ed would have believed that you had little respect for his decision-making abilities. Alan would have felt betrayed and unappreciated. Your accurate assessment of Alan's management abilities would have been moot, since your point would never have been proven.

Sometimes, you have to make the wrong choices for the right reasons. It is just as important to learn the things in life that you are not good at, as it is to discover your talents. Alan learned a very important lesson, and you did him a greater service by giving him a chance.


Dear Jim:

I appreciate your letter. It hits at the essence of why I finally didn't overrule Ed's decision. Had I not permitted Ed to pick a manager to report to him, I would have make it clear that I thought his judgment was faulty. Even worse, it would have implied that I was unwilling to consider that he might be right and that I might be wrong.

I did what I could to get Ed to review the logic of his reasoning. We had several long dialogues about the candidates and the attributes needed for the job. I even insisted that Ed put together a matrix of skills and rank the potential people who might fill the position. After a while, it became evident that he had made up his mind, and that further discussion wasn't helping either of us. I think, however, that once it became clear to him that Alan wasn't going to make it as a manager, our discussions helped keep Ed from dragging out what was, for him, a painful decision.

You wanted control and didn't realize that management training won't help Alan


Look at the bright side. At least you didn't lose Ed. Actually, the outcome wasn't all that bad. Everyone, including you, seems to have emerged a bit older and wiser. Perhaps the reason for your "comprehensive analysis" (which I, too, would call brooding) is that you couldn't control what happened. You can't protect others from the consequences of their actions, even if you are responsible for the consequences to your group.

Regarding the use of management school for training someone for management: At some point in their lives, everyone needs to consider the truth of the rhetorical question, "Can a leopard change his spots?" Some people are not just cut out for management. Even though management skills can be taught, not everyone chooses to learn them--or, learning them, is able to implement them.

In my view, a large part of managing others is managing one's own personality, a task which some of us are either incapable of, or which we are simply loathe to do, even if we are the best and the brightest in our area of expertise.

Enjoyed the column; keep up the good work.


Dear Jeremiah:

It wasn't so much that I couldn't control what happened as it was that I still wonder if I could have done something else to get Ed to think through more realistically (in my opinion) the risk of failure and its consequences. I learned a long time ago that if I wanted to control everyone in my organization, it would be best if I worked alone.

It seems that I may have more faith in management training and those who take it than you do. There's no doubt in my mind that some people are just born to the role of being a manager. They have a winning approach to dealing with others and they are naturally good at communicating direction and objectives. For the rest of us, training can improve our proficiency. I know some good managers who have labored very hard to earn their skills.

Once, years ago, I worked with a group of technical folks who were having a great deal of trouble getting their ideas across to the professional people in the company. I hired a firm to come in and run a several-day course on public speaking and presenting ideas. Some of my staff thought that I had lost a few mental microcircuits, but they humored me. The experience turned out to be very successful for the majority of the team; the improvements were immediate and greater than my (and their) expectations.

Training may not overcome all obstacles (as it did not in Alan's case) but it 's a worthwhile action.

I fell off the horse and then got the training to learn to ride it successfully


At one time, I was Alan. I was a great technical specialist who had risen through the ranks because I could produce great technical work. When I was promoted to manager, all hell broke loose. Just because someone is a great technician doesn't guarantee they will make a great manager. I learned, the hard way, that they are absolutely two very different jobs, requiring very different skills.

After two years of near-mutiny in the group, working 14 hours a day and having heart palpitations, I requested that I be placed back into a technical job. After some time away from the management job, I saw where I had gone wrong. When my replacement left the company after six months, I requested to be given another chance.

My immediate manager wanted me back, because I always produced for her and was loyal to a fault. Her boss wanted to know what would be different the second time around. We all met. I explained where I believed I had gone wrong, and we laid out an intensive managerial training agenda.

During my classes, I learned that what happened to me the first time is very common. Unlike your situation, I was given no training in managerial skills. Evidently, it's quite common for companies to promote technical people to management positions, give them little or no coaching and training, and then wonder why they end up looking as if they were in a train wreck.

Delegation was by far the hardest thing I had to learn. It is very hard for a technical person to let go. I always knew I could do the job better. I didn't want to lose my technical skills. I had no people skills. But the one statement I remembered from my training was, "If you are doing, you are not managing". Every time I was tempted to jump in when someone in the group was struggling, I remembered that saying and instead provided direction and coaching.

To make a long story short, I applied myself and worked extremely hard to become the best manager I could. The group was extremely successful over the next several years. To this day, the staff laughs at my first attempt. They tell me that they were going to have me assassinated if it went on much longer.

The moral of the story is that if a technician really wants to become a manager, with the proper training, it can happen. If Al wants to give it another shot, and he is dedicated to making it work and willing to apply all the training that he receives, you might want to say yes.


Dear John:

Congratulations on your achievements. You were able to analyze what had gone wrong and learn from your errors. Your training helped but, first of all, you had the courage to try again to succeed in a job at which you had failed. Fortunately, your manager and her boss were smart enough to realize that you were deserving of another chance.

Your next step is to continue to do what you've done in your letter to me: mentor others so that they can take advantage of your experience.

Your letters to my print column and this E-mail forum raise some serious issues about managing information technology in today's world. Since today's world is essentially absurd, my serious responses may sometimes sound a little whimsical, and my occasional whimsical one, serious. In any case, if you want to participate, or comment, write to me. I reserve the right to edit for size and content. Just sign your E-mail the way you want it to appear online. And feel free to join me in my discussion forum.

As I've mentioned, I am planning to put my InformationWeek columns together into a book with a little bit of additional commentary around the events and people about whom I write. If you would like to be notified of such an event, please drop me an E-mail and I'll build a mailing list to let you know about it. Just use the word BOOK as the subject line.

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