7 ways to cope with a C-level rival

Leadership colleagues who endlessly throw cold water onto your plans, initiatives, proposals, or insights can be a drain on your energy and motivation — and your career. Such rivals can prevent you from receiving sufficient budget, successfully implementing vital business initiatives, and steering your organization in the right direction. They must be dealt with but doing so can be tricky.

When encountering roadblocks from a C-suite colleague, a CIO should always try to determine why that person views them as a rival, says Mike Bayes, co-founder of People First Companies, an organization dedicated to elevating businesses as better places to work for and buy from. Are they threatened by some of the CIO’s successes? Does their business area need to make long overdue tech-based changes, but they’re unwilling to invest the necessary time or resources? “The CIO can then explore ways of reaching out and mending the relationship with the rival,” he advises.

Coping with an adversary requires skill, patience, and a certain amount of cleverness. Here are seven ways to deal with that executive who seems intent on blocking your every move.

1.  Respond strategically

CIOs who find themselves at odds with a C-level rival need to step back and dedicate time to developing a strategic response. “In most cases, the antagonist will likely move onto other issues that are under their purview, or they’ll simply understand they’re being unreasonable,” Bayes says. In either case, the CIO should stay the course and, politely but firmly, push for the value of their projects.

Patience is crucial, Bayes notes, since it allows the CIO to “wait out” the rival while using the time to clarify their project plan and strategy. During any setback or delay caused by the opposing C-level executive, the CIO can refine their use cases and value propositions to further support their ideas.

A CIO with a well-constructed project plan that promotes business success knows full well that the rival’s objections are rooted in pettiness, jealousy, or some other emotion-based vendetta. They can combat those feelings with detailed plans that are presented to management with logic and passion.

On the bright side, negative interactions with C-suite antagonists can actually encourage a CIO to increase their business knowledge. This added expertise will help inform future innovations and digital transformation efforts, giving the CIO more context and deeper insights when they discuss upcoming plans with C-suite executives, whether they’re allies or competitors.

2. Take the high road

Instead of calling the rival out, or debating issues in front of colleagues, consider taking the high road. Meet with the critic one-on-one to discuss the exact places where you disagree with each other. “The goal isn’t to change their mind, but to build trust that you won’t stab them in the back,” explains Marina Nitze, former CTO of the US Department of Veterans Affairs and the author of Hack Your Bureaucracy. “You could still disagree and have rivalry on many issues, but this will make your working relationship significantly more functional in other areas.”

If all efforts truly fail, it helps to keep enterprise leadership apprised of your good-faith efforts to make the relationship work. “I’m not suggesting you report back on every one-on-one meeting, but you could approach your leaders for advice and use that opportunity to explain how you’ve been trying to find common ground on your own,” Nitze says.

3. Kill them with kindness

Embrace and uplift your foe, regardless of whether they embrace and uplift you, advises Paola Saibene, principal consultant at IT and business advisory and consulting firm Resultant. “Your focus should be on revamping, refreshing, reinventing, and progressing, so that you’ll be known as a leader, no matter what,” she says. “If you put your focus on getting better and better, and being inclusive along the way, the rival will have fewer and fewer opportunities to bring you down.”

Also try to view the situation from the antagonist’s perspective, no matter how unjustified it may be. “Take the opportunity to bring them into a conversation to deconstruct the issue,” Saibene recommends. “If it’s not a personal issue, it’s solvable.”

Finally, if all efforts at compromise fail, feel free to proceed with no regrets, Saibene suggests, fully realizing that you tried your best.

4. Consider mediation

As you struggle with your nemesis, it’s important to maintain your composure and not let emotions get in the way of your decision-making process, says Kimberley Tyler-Smith, a former McKinsey & Co. analyst. Currently the strategist at career tech service company Resume Worded, Tyler-Smith advises seeking impartial help. “If all efforts to work with the rival fail, it’s best to go over the situation with someone who’s not involved in the conflict — perhaps in HR or a trusted colleague — and then decide on the next step.” If an in-house negotiator isn’t available, consider using the services of a professional mediator.

A neutral mediator should be able to assist and guide the two parties toward an acceptable resolution. The mediator won’t decide the final outcome, and has no enforcement power, but can help the combatants understand and focus on the issues necessary to achieve a mutually agreeable resolution.

5. Build internal support

A strong in-house network can provide reliable and potentially persuasive support when dealing with a rival. “There are many voices who can provide influence, particularly at the C-level or in the level just below,” explains Mark A. Herschberg, an IT entrepreneur and the author of The Career Toolkit: Essential Skills for Success That No One Taught You. CIOs often think of networking in terms of finding employment, but internal networking is an often overlooked executive success tool. “The stronger your internal network, the more voices you’ll have for your position if direct negotiations fail,” he notes.

To avoid confrontation, build consensus within management that accepts your opinion and champions your vision, suggests Jack E. Gold, president and principal analyst at J. Gold Associates, a business consulting and research firm. “It’s much harder for someone to dismiss a strategy that’s accepted by several people than one promoted by a single individual,” he states. “Consensus is a very powerful tool and is a great way to avoid direct confrontation.”

6. Encourage collaboration

CIOs often find themselves in a power struggle with other members of the C-suite, particularly the COO and CFO, observes Jeroen van Gils, CEO of LiFi, which offers a wireless optical networking technology service. “While it’s important for CIOs to assert their authority, they must also be careful not to overstep their bounds,” he warns.

One way to ensure CIOs have a seat at the table is by developing strong relationships with their C-level colleagues, van Gils says. “By working together and sharing information, CIOs and their rivals can overcome their differences and find ways to use technology to improve the bottom line,” he advises. “Ultimately, by forging a partnership with their rivals, CIOs can position themselves as essential members of the C-suite and ensure that they’re able to effectively meet the needs of their organizations.”

7. Practice toleration

When all else fails, learn to live with the situation. “As someone in a management position, you have the responsibility to be on good terms with other people in the same group,” observes Isla Sibanda, a cybersecurity specialist with data privacy research service PrivacyAustralia. “Be transparent about your expectations and let the other person know how aware you are of their rival actions,” she suggests. “Also practice transparency when it comes to management practices and give your honest point of view.”

Sibanda believes that it’s important to at least attempt mitigation and to work cooperatively, if not entirely happily, with the rival. “There should be a shared sense of commitment and purpose,” she notes. “This is particularly vital on the C-suite level.”

Finally, if every approach fails, simply step back and keep working at your job. “The ideal way to make a point is to be good at what you do,” Sibanda says. ‘When people see you producing good results with your approach, their claims will automatically fall short.”

CIO, IT Leadership