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How to Stab Your Boss in the Back

How to Stab Your Boss in the Back

Think you can do a better job than your out-of-touch manager? Trying to oust him is a career move fraught with risk, but it can be done if you heed these five steps

If you have ever entertained thoughts of overthrowing your toxic, out-of-touch boss, the tale of Shakespeare's Macbeth should serve as a caution: Macbeth, a general, is praised by the king for his valour. One night Macbeth encounters three witches, one of whom tells him that he shall one day be king. Macbeth decides to hurry things along, murders the King and frames the King's bodyguards. Macbeth gets the crown but is looked upon suspiciously by his rivals-one of whom does Macbeth in.

Obviously, you don't want to kill your career. Stabbing your boss in the back (even if your department really would be better off without him) is an expedition riddled with peril. So what's the upwardly mobile IT manager to do?

A CIO role is hard for any internal candidate to win: Recruiters and career coaches estimate that an open CIO position is filled externally about 60 percent of the time

Be subtle, and let your leadership skills and the facts about your boss's performance speak for themselves, say career coaches and recruiters. "If you are seen in any way as Machiavellian or underhanded, you will not have the reputation of having integrity and you won't get the gig," says Martha Heller, a career coach and managing director of the IT leadership practice at executive recruiting company ZRG.

How successful you will be also depends on how far up the ladder you've already climbed. For instance, a CIO role is hard for any internal candidate to win: Recruiters and career coaches estimate that an open CIO position is filled externally about 60 percent of the time. The reason? Internal candidates usually lack the broad experience necessary to thrive in the C suite.

Leadership: How to Spot a Toxic Boss

But as this how-to guide points out, it is possible to oust your manager and slide into his job. Best of all, you can do it without being a bad guy. By establishing strategic partnerships with the people who have the ultimate hiring and firing power, and by rallying support from those who would be your troops, you can make a case for why a regime change could be healthy for the business. However, once you achieve your goal, you'll need to be sure you can tackle the problems that led to your boss's ouster, or you could end up suffering his fate.

1. Assess your boss: Is he or she vulnerable?

Before you decide to put your plans for a coup in motion, you need to make sure your boss is vulnerable enough to be ousted. The red flag for a vulnerable manager is not necessarily a failed project (though those do raise some eyebrows) but the point when he or she becomes the aloof spouse in the unhappy marriage between the business and IT. "If I am interviewing a recently let-go CIO, I usually find that they took their eye off the ball and weren't busy managing their business relationships," says Karen Rubenstrunk, an executive recruiter with Korn/Ferry International.

When a manager loses touch, it's often because he or she became complacent. CIOs, for example, tend to hold their jobs longer than they used to and have more time to get comfortable. In fact, according to the most recent State of the CIO survey, the average CIO tenure in Australia is now more than four years — more than enough time for a leader's perspective to become narrow.

Patricia Wallington, who spent 10 years as CIO of Xerox, learned a few things about self-preservation. She says she held the job for so long by becoming an agent and facilitator of change, not a hindrance to it. Now, as an executive coach, she says C-level managers who fail to do the same become vulnerable to being overthrown. "They become entrenched in a particular view," she says. "They have an image of how things should be done, then they stick with it rather than show a willingness to adapt."

2. Assess yourself: Are you a compelling alternative?

Regardless of how much you disagree with, or even hate, your boss, consider whether you would really do a better job. Odds are, if your boss has fallen out of touch with his superiors or business counterparts, it's not because they don't like his taste in movies: It's because they disagree about some key initiatives. And your boss might be right.

With his higher-level visibility, maybe he sees something that you don't. Korn/Ferry International's Rubenstrunk says IT managers typically have between 40 and 80 percent of the visibility into the business that their boss does. "Their perspective is limited," she says.

Join the CIO Australia group on LinkedIn. The group is open to CIOs, IT Directors, COOs, CTOs and senior IT managers.

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