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You Got a Problem with That, Buddy?

You Got a Problem with That, Buddy?

Few of us enjoy confrontation, but it’s still a critical part of our jobs

Picture this: You are about to enter a meeting of the most senior executives in your company. You're going to propose a drastic reduction in the systems enhancement budget for each of their departments in order to fund some new development activity. You know they will hate this proposal. How will you handle the inevitable confrontations looming in front of you?

It behoves the CIO who values his or her position to become an expert in the art of confrontation

I was faced with just this situation as the relatively new CIO in Xerox's US Marketing Group in 1989. Later I'll share with you the strategy I chose and why it was successful in that situation. But first let's agree that confrontational situations make most of us uncomfortable, understand why confrontation is important in honing our leadership skills, and identify some strategies for successful confrontation and some things to avoid.

The CIO position, more than most others, is rife with confrontation. It is the hub of change in most companies. So it behoves the CIO who values his or her position to become an expert in the art of confrontation. Because even if you could avoid the confrontation, in my experience, this only leads to a situation even more intractable than the original one.

I have often been asked what makes a successful CIO. I believe there are stages a CIO goes through in developing and gaining the credibility necessary to make an impact in a company. Conflict and confrontation and how you deal with them are at the core. This is my version of the lifecycle of a CIO:

  • Introduction. You are new to the senior executive team. They welcome you, hope you won't say anything technical and, if you do, that it will be understandable.

  • Honeymoon. You make a few cogent, business-oriented remarks, have a few successes. She's OK!

  • Crossroads. You encounter a difficult issue, which brings conflict to the forefront. This is the critical stage. You cannot pass this stage without working through the conflict, and confrontation may be necessary.

  • Respect. If you reach this stage, you have achieved at least grudging respect from your peers and customers.

  • Trust. Achieved only after several conflicts get resolved with consistent, predictable behaviour on your part.

  • Partnership. Now you can truly participate in shared objectives with other executives.

  • Strategic Relationship. A state of maturity that recognizes and leverages the strategic role of technology in the business.

If you get stuck at the crossroads, you will probably join the ranks of the roving CIO — the one who has a new job every 18 to 24 months. You will continually cycle through the first three stages and never achieve the respect necessary to endure. Developing skills in dealing with confrontation and resolving conflict are vital to your leadership role. What can you do to be more successful in these difficult situations? While certainly not a formula, nor all-inclusive, the following principles have been helpful to me and some of my colleagues as we dealt with many of the same issues you are no doubt facing now.

Anticipate

Don't walk blindly into confrontation. Sometimes it will be thrust upon you, but most often insightful thinking will let you know to expect it. Prepare a strategy to deal with it.

Confront the Issue, Not the Person

Most disagreements are driven by honest differences of opinion. Confrontation does not mean personal attacks or unprofessional behaviour. Staying with the issue is important if you want to achieve resolution and maintain or grow the relationship. Never personalize the arguments. Confrontation does not have to be confrontational. What do you do if the other party engages in personal attack? Some years ago I worked with an executive who was constantly on the attack. Boy, if I said "up" he said "down", and not gently.

First, don't respond in kind. Stay cool and professional, and hold your ground — but always be on guard for his attacks. Recognize that most times people like that succeed only in making themselves look bad. Second, in the background, try to find out what the problem is so you can better anticipate what position he'll take and be prepared with the appropriate facts. Talk to people he trusts or those with whom he has a good relationship. Third, treat it as an advantage. Ask yourself: "What will X say about this?" Often, doing this makes you take the extra step to think things through.

Fourth, engage the person. One day I had the opportunity to talk with my nemesis (I took as many of those as I could get) when he was in a relaxed mood. Jokingly, I told him my goal was to get a gratuitous comment from him someday. Things improved after that discussion. Why? Perhaps my comment communicated that I cared, that I was listening and that I was willing to earn his respect. It was hard work and it took a long time, but I finally did get the gratuitous comment and what I would classify as grudging respect. You never know what will change the tide. Don't avoid these contacts.

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