It's an unfair stereotype to say that IT professionals don't have the people skills to navigate tense personnel issues that come with an economic slowdown, acquisition, or restructuring.
But it is fair to say that handling such issues is rarely No. 1 on their list of favorite things to do.
"Most of them didn't get into this kind of work to deal with people issues. They went into it primarily because of technology," says Bill McCarthy, a VP at human-resources consulting firm LeaderSource Ltd. Many CIOs pull back and avoid dealing with people issues until absolutely necessary, he says.
Staffing issues--whether layoffs or just shifting people off projects they've sweated over--present one of the toughest leadership challenges during a downturn. Adding to that is how sharp the current reversal has been from just a year ago, when morale issues focused on motivating burned-out IT workers and finding enough skilled people to keep projects moving.
Campbell Soup Co. CIO Doreen Wright has one guiding principle in dealing with such uncertainties: Act fast. When people are in limbo about their jobs or projects, productivity suffers as employees ponder their fate. Leaders need to deal with such issues quickly and honestly and trust workers to handle economic realities. Wright knows her subject. She joined the Camden, N.J., company in June after Nabisco, where she had been CIO, was acquired by Kraft Foods Co. "People are much better able to handle the truth and go on with their work and lives than dealing with uncertainty," Wright says.
Many of the problems caused by an economic downturn--layoffs, canceled projects, restructuring--are similar to the sorts of leadership challenges CIOs face when companies are acquired, says Allan Grossman, senior partner of executive search firm A. Davis Grant & Co. Often, big chunks and even the entire portfolio of work accomplished by the IT staff of an acquired company is left to wither in favor of the other company's platforms, applications, and systems. Not only are staffers faced with adapting to new corporate and IT environments, they also face a blow to morale when effectively told that the fruits of their labor are no longer valued.
General Motors Corp. group VP and CIO Ralph Szygenda emphasizes keeping employees informed about how the overall business is doing, so they understand IT's role in that and why changes are made. People feel more in control and less alienated if they understand the business reasons behind a shift in IT priorities. He holds weekly teleconference meetings with the top IT executive assigned to each process--such as engineering, marketing, and product development--as well as with division CIOs. In addition, he taps the company's employee Web sites to communicate changes broadly to the rank-and-file.
Employees also need to know how they're doing individually, Szygenda says. Then, if it comes to laying off staff--which GM hasn't done--IT lead-
ers are in a better position because individual employees know where they stand in the company. "It should never be a surprise how well people are performing," says Szygenda. "You have to make performance goals clear."