7 ways CIOs get themselves fired

CIO, the old wisecrack has it, stands for “career is over.” It’s a profession that’s fraught with ways to be forcibly escorted from your prestigious office and down to Human Resources to be walked through your severance package, and from there, after having signed mutual non-disparagement and non-compete agreements, along with a few other bits and pieces of paperwork, out the door to try your hand at a life of enforced leisure.

If this — living a life of leisure, supported by severance checks until they run out — is what you have in mind, here are seven popular ways to turn your employer into the most recent entry in the job-history section of your LinkedIn profile.

Or maybe, just maybe, you don’t want to experience this relaxing fate. Maybe you love your job (or hate looking for the next one) enough that you welcome new ways to stay where you are, to continue earning a living with a salary, not severance checks.

If that’s your goal, familiarize yourself with these job-termination traps so you can keep on keepin’ on.

1. Arguing about … just about anything. Don’t do it.

As CIO you’re responsible for what is, in most companies, the hardest-to-understand business function in the organization. That often means you recognize the need to invest budget and effort into arcana like IT’s integration architecture, platform and application lifecycle management, and AI-based information security, to name three items among many.

Because they’re hard for folks who aren’t steeped in the mysteries of our trade to understand, the executive leadership team (ELT) might be suspicious about these expenditures, calling them “technology for technology’s sake” or some other popular expression of skepticism.

As they are clearly on the wrong side of truth and righteousness, you might find yourself tempted to argue with them. But unlike discussions and conversations, arguments end up with one winner and one loser. Guess which one you get to be. And being perceived as argumentative doesn’t score you any points either.

One more thing: The CFO is the ELT member most likely for the CIO to argue with. Also the most potentially hazardous to a CIO’s career health.

2. Mis-defining or mis-managing the business/IT relationship

Lines-of-business leaders aren’t your customers. They’re your peers and collaborators in creating competitive advantage, or, if times are tough, in avoiding the creation of competitive disadvantages. Stress this as everyone’s shared goal in every conversation you have with your fellow executives. Because if they’re your customers they’ll think they’re always right, which means you can’t fail to disappoint them.

Then make sure everyone who deals with IT finds the experience as pleasant as possible. Because if they don’t like you, they won’t collaborate with you, and might decide it would all be better with someone else at IT’s helm.

3. Failing to keep critical projects on track

Projects are how organizations make tomorrow different from yesterday in an intentional way. IT’s name tends to be on any project that involves information technology, even for projects whose true focus is business change (all of them).

Which means that when projects fail, IT’s name — your name — will probably be on the failure. Failed strategic projects are a great way for CIOs to become ex-CIOs.

And, by the way, if you needed this article to point this out to you, you probably need more guidance on how to succeed as a CIO than you can get from one magazine article.

Just sayin’.

4. Failing to invest in fault-tolerant infrastructure

Every member of the ELT shops on Amazon.com, which means every member of the ELT is frequently exposed to a company whose systems never, so far as they can tell, ever go down. So they know six-sigma levels of system reliability are possible.

If your systems aren’t as reliable, or at least nearly so, buh-bye!

5. Ransomware

Once upon a time, information security failures were merely expensive and embarrassing. No more. They’re now life-threatening — for real if your company is in the healthcare business; metaphorically if not because (do you really need me to explain this?) ransomware attacks can put a company out of business.

Completely securing your systems from ransomware attacks probably isn’t possible. But securing them well, and with what might be termed a “high-recoverability architecture,” is something IT can achieve. Even more important is creating a ransomware response playbook and exercising it on a regular basis.

Because if your company is attacked, your response playbook is what demonstrates that IT knows what it’s doing and that everything is under control.

If instead your response is to panic, everyone panics. After which, buh-bye!

6. Ignoring bad managers

The managers who report to you are the people who deliver the results you get the credit or blame for. This is recursive — they have supervisors who deliver these results to them; supervisors have staff.

Managers at all levels are responsible for organizing how work gets done so it gets done right; they’re responsible for creating the organizational listening mechanisms they need to make sure they know it’s getting done right, and so on.

They’re also responsible for creating the sort of work environment that encourages employees to stay, and, even better, to recommend you to their friends.

Put simply, CIOs who want to keep their jobs create organizations people want to be part of.

Just in case the point isn’t clear: We live in an era in which even well-intentioned conversations can be misunderstood as hostile and harassing speech, and “But they shouldn’t find what my manager said offensive,” isn’t going to gain you much sympathy in HR.

You might think the key letters in “microaggression” are “m i c r o.” But in most organizations, grousing that an aggrieved employee should have a thicker skin and better sense of humor is an excellent way for a CIO to get on the severance gravy train.

7. Failing to keep an eye on your protégé

Having to keep an eye out for bad managers is enough of a challenge. Good managers can be even more of a threat, because not only do they very likely want your job, even worse, they might be qualified for it.

Not only that, they might be in a good position to get it, too, as they’ll be in a perfect situation to take credit for your shared successes while keeping any of the other missteps and blame storms squarely on your desk.

Seven steps to heaven?

As CIO you have one more thing to look out for, and it just might be the most promising one: Get yourself promoted. Yes, yes, yes, in principle all members of the ELT are created equal, and a CIO isn’t likely to be the next CEO.

But COO? CIOs have lots of opportunity to prepare themselves for running a business’s operations. Even better, having a highly competent protégé stops being a fraught and becomes one more way you’re the right person for the job when it becomes available.

CIO, IT Leadership