Ask The Secret CIO: Bad Managers And The Sinking Ship

<B>Herbert W. Lovelace</B> responds to readers who need advice about coping with a bad manager, managers who permit office infighting, and figuring out which questions to ask vendors.

Herbert Lovelace, Contributor

February 26, 2002

9 Min Read

How Do You Handle An Incompetent Manager?

Dear Herbert:

I work for a guy who has been shunted from position to position, never staying anywhere long enough to learn anything. He was even forced to retire from the Army.

Four years ago, we held parallel customer-service positions, but Tom's modus operandi was to take a problem from the caller, go to someone in another department to get them to fix it, and report back to management how clever he was at solving the problem and avoiding discredit to the group.

When the supervisory opening for our group was posted, human resources found Tom unqualified for the manager's job. I was one of the qualified candidates, but the selecting official (who had never previously held a supervisory position) promoted Tom temporarily. When the temporary appointment expired, Tom was "qualified" because he then had four months experience.

Unfortunately, I enjoy what I do, the pay is reasonable, and there are few other opportunities that I might want to pursue. But no matter what incompetent presentations are made to senior managers (which change about every two years--this is a Department of Defense agency), Tom is still there. It has gotten to the point where he jeopardizes the whole group, because he isn't knowledgeable about current technology and doesn't attempt to improve himself. Our group continues to dwindle and lose revenue because of obsolescence of our services.

His best workers are the junior people. The other day, he told these junior people that he was going to have to lose three positions to break even next year. Yet, Tom keeps on staff a senior programmer who does nothing and who he removed a year ago from any revenue-creating work and internal responsibilities.

Tom's attributes are well known, so he's unable to attract new business opportunities. Yet, his superiors seem to be willing to continue our activity even with negative revenue flow.

I'm looking for approaches to help everyone deal with the situation, short of the trauma of relocation or resignation. There are possibilities for everyone except Tom and his programmer, but it appears that so long as he is in the position, the whole group is tainted by his presence and continues to wither.

If you have time, I'd be grateful for your thoughts.


Dear Jim:

More often than we like, a bad manager makes a lot of people unhappy and blocks their creativity and professional advancement. When that happens, it's important to recognize that the situation rarely fixes itself.

One thing you need to do before you take action, though, is to be sure that your sentiments about Tom are the consensus of the group, rather than just normal complaining within an organization--or mirrored feedback from people who don't want to disagree with your opinion. After all, four years ago, you and Tom were in contention for the same job. Is it possible that you may be harder on him than you should be because of that experience?

If, after serious thought, you're convinced that Tom is really causing the ship to sink, you have two choices. The first option is to go to the other people in the group and see who's willing to sit down with Tom (if you think he will listen) or Tom's superiors and explain the state of affairs. After all, if some good people are going to lose their jobs because Tom has an incompetent friend he doesn't want to fire, you may get some support.

However, if no one wants to back you up, or Tom's boss doesn't want to make a change, then you have another choice to make: give up this comfortable job that provides interesting work or keep quiet and make the best of the situation.

Continuing to complain about Tom while staying in the job is corrosive to your own personality and cannot be good for the young people in the group. As a senior person in the organization, you need to make some decisions.

Big Bosses Talk Teamwork But Tolerate Infighting

Dear Herbert:

I read your column, Bad Blood In The Executive Suite. I have just one question: Why would Phil allow this type of bickering among his staff? What is his motivation to allow it to continue? OK, that was two questions.

I've seen this type of infighting in every organization, from the Kiddy Clubs on up, yet I've never seen the "boss" step in and put a stop to it. (We would never allow kids in a kindergarten class to "agitate the class" by this behavior.) I have sat through far too many "teamwork" sessions, all saying that "you the staff" must work together, but I've never seen the boss stop the knife throwing by calling someone up short for the verbal attacks.

And to make the situation worse, by not responding to the verbal sparring, there's a very real "approval" message being sent by Phil to his staff that this behavior is expected.

Do bosses feel as though they're powerless to stop it? Or does it somehow reinforce the boss' position (at the top)?

OK, OK, it was four questions. Anyway, keep up the good work.


Dear Larry:

Sad to say, some bosses encourage infighting as a way of controlling their executives. The idea is to keep them off-balance and unsure of themselves. That way, the big boss has total power. However, CEOs like that are the exception, rather than the rule. The ones for whom I have worked have been consensus builders or leaders, with a strong vision of where they want the company to go.

As for Phil, he doesn't like confrontation. He's not used to it, and it makes him uncomfortable. As the CEO, he has been shielded from it for years, so people rarely fight in front of him. Although he can talk tough about what should happen to the minions in the company or the competition, Phil views himself as running a team and finds open dissention to be unpleasant. When I asked him once why he permits some of the nonsense (that wasn't the exact word I used) to go on, he responded that senior officers were quite competent to fight their own battles without any interference from him. And it was clear that was the end of the conversation.

On the other hand, I really enjoyed one boss (not a CEO) who had his own way of handling the backbiting that you so accurately describe. Whenever someone came into his office to complain about someone else on the staff, Lou would nod, showing his intense interest and encouraging further disclosures. Then he'd smile, pick up his telephone, and call the object of the complaints and say, "Could you come to my office? I want you to hear some things being said about you."

This technique always worked; no one ever complained behind someone else's back more than once. It was a group where people simply did not try to knife each other. Everyone knew better.

Lou would tolerate people disagreeing with each other in front of him. You could actually say you thought that someone else at the table had a really stupid idea. But, if you did, you were expected to back it up with facts. I don't think I ever was in an organization where more disagreements went on at staff meetings, but you never took cheap shots at the other guy or gal. That was considered dirty pool, and Lou would nail you with a sarcastic comment--or worse--if you did.

The funny thing was, when you left a staff meeting after fighting furiously over ideas with these people, you would wind up going to lunch with them or out for a drink. I don't think I ever was in another organization that worked so well together.

So How Did The Story End?


Thanks for writing about the CRM experience (I Want A CRM System!). I'm a student in Christchurch, New Zealand, studying information systems. We have a project to analyze CRM systems, and I'm coming to the conclusion that no one single system will offer the answers to all the questions. From your experience, would you subscribe this point of view?

I'd also be very interested to learn how the story concluded. What systems did you analyze, and what systems did you conclude on? Many thanks for taking the time to reply to my questions.

Kind Regards,


Dear Nigel:

Much to the dismay of Tom Siebel and others (including the AT&T marketers who came up with the slogan) the system is not the solution. It's far harder to know what questions to ask than it is to figure out what software to buy. From that perspective, there may be one single system that will offer the answers to all the questions, but before you can decide that issue, you need to decide what the questions are (and why).

I was going to write a column on the outcome of our great CRM search, and I still may. The short version, though, is that Ron really got into investigating the business processes that we were using and exactly what information we needed and why we needed it. As a result, he got so involved with these issues that he commissioned a task force to fix a whole lot of little things within the organization. His units are making more money (adjusting for the economy) and morale even seems to be higher. Evidently, getting rid of a lot of stupid stuff has removed a bunch of frustrations from people. Ron tells me that he'll get around to wanting the CRM system soon, but hasn't committed to it. He's too busy making sure that the "low-hanging fruit" is harvested before he decides to spend the big bucks on software.

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'd 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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