Steps Toward Improving IT Bosses

In 1997, I examined why IT professionals at established companies changed jobs. Managers erroneously believed that the top reason people quit was money. They were wrong then, and they would be wrong today. I find that the top reason people quit can be summed up in this sentence: "I won't work for a jerk."

In corporate IT, "jerk bosses" come in three flavors, which I categorize in descending order of "jerk intensity:" - The "Bad Leader" Jerk, the uberjerk of the IT workplace.

- The "We're Too Busy to Look Where We're Going" Jerk, a middle-of-the-road kind of jerk - not incompetent, simply myopic and self-absorbed.

- The "When the Work Is Done, I Promise" Jerk. He's not really a jerk, just a hard worker who can't keep up with the pace.

A poignant example of a Bad Leader jerk comes from David Masiel's new novel, 2182 kHz, (Random House), in which the reader meets a tugboat captain known as the Chemist. The Chemist prowls the deck, screaming at his crew, "Do things!" This sounds frighteningly familiar to many IT workers.

Walk through IT shops today and you don't find much joy. Many CIOs' direct reports and next-level IT managers are stressed out, physically exhausted and concerned that top executives aren't doing the right thing or taking the company in the right direction. This is the workplace presided over by the We're Too Busy to Look Where We're Going boss, an individual so absorbed with managing senior management's perception of IT's execution of the little things that he has no time to think about or discuss the bigger picture of where IT is going and why. Perpetually focusing on "whats" and "hows" rather than "whys" and "wheres" can destroy souls.

The When the Work Is Done, I Promise boss recognizes the value of career and skills development. But that's promised to key reports only when the workload becomes more manageable. Unfortunately, the IT workload, like the universe, is expanding at an ever-accelerating rate. The customer continues to require more secure, privatized, customized and economized (read: affordable) 24/7 support, and fulfilling that consumes an immense amount of time and labor.

The bottom line is that good people will migrate to good work environments. If yours isn't a good environment, you'll lose your good people. So, here's my advice to companies and their IT organizations:

1. Grow a backbone and dump bad leaders.

2. CIOs should proactively develop the next generation of leaders by getting them to focus on next-generation problems.

The typical CIO parses his workload into three boxes "Do Now" (such as, cut costs), "Do Next" (such as, presell enterprise security strategy to senior management) and "Do Later" (such as, deploy biometric ID/access management tools). Each IT organization needs to launch a "Next Generation of IT Leadership" program, a forum in which direct reports and next-level managers can think about future IT problems, then suggest ways they might solve them.

By combining career development and empowering IT managers to help chart a course for the organization, a CIO can create new energy and enthusiasm and creatively address ahead of time problems his organization and company might face in the future. That would go a long way toward avoiding or shedding a "jerk" tag.

THORNTON MAY is a senior member of Toffler Associates Inc., an Manchester, Mass., executive advisory firm. Contact him at