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Secret CIO: Fix The Problem, Not The Blame

Focus on learning from mistakes and preventing a repeat performance.

Karen Lovell, our VP of planning, and I were loafing in the cafeteria. Instead of discussing the boring meeting we had just attended, we were talking about the weather forecast for the weekend and the deteriorating quality of the coffee served in our canteen. Our conversation turned somehow to the various bosses for whom we had worked over the years. Karen, who is an exceptional raconteur, had me laughing as she related one experience after another. I commented that in my younger days I would categorize those for whom I worked by management style--leader versus manager, event-driven versus strategist, and so forth. By doing so, I could usually figure out a successful way to work with my boss in handling problems and communicating results. I found it a useful method to get along with people with whom I frequently had little in common. Karen seemed intrigued and asked me which traits I thought made for the best executive. I deliberated for a while before answering:

I never really was able to determine what makes for a perfect boss. Certainly, you want someone you can trust and from whom you can learn. You also want someone who will back you when you're right and not come down on you too heavily when you aren't. On the other hand, when it comes to the leader-versus-manager type, I have mixed emotions. I know the strong leader image is in vogue, and I must admit I'm partial to admiring that style, but there also are situations where the manager is better for an organization than a leader. Likewise, we could spend all afternoon debating the event-driven executive versus the strategist. The one thing I could say unequivocally is that the type of boss more interested in figuring who to blame for a mistake than in making sure it never happens again is corrosive for an organization and should be consigned to the outplacement box on the organization chart.

Years ago, I took a job as head of IT in a company whose systems group was suffering from low morale, blown estimates, poor service, and a miserable reputation among the business people. I've never forgotten my first project-review meeting, where I learned about an impending major overrun. I said that it was totally unacceptable to spring on me that we would be late on delivering a system or that the budget had been exceeded. I watched as people sprang into action, pointing fingers of blame at each other and the users. In that moment, I realized why my predecessor had failed. Finally, I could take it no longer. I said, "Look, I'm not interested in who did what wrong. I want to know what we learned from this failure and what we can do next time to keep it from happening again!"

There was a stunned silence. I don't know whether they were frightened that the new boss had started yelling or whether no one had ever before said that fixing the problem was more important than fixing the blame. In any case, from that point we began the long and arduous task of building an organization that took pride in its accomplishments as opposed to seeking excuses for its lack of performance.

Karen pondered what I had said for a moment and asked me how I characterized Phil, our CEO. I just smiled at her and took another sip of my coffee.

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

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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