Can't get hold of your boss? Take advantage of the situation

When your boss plays hard to get, it's hard to know what you're supposed to do. But you can use the opportunity to make your own decisions

Dear Bob ...

I'm the new director of enterprise architecture at a midsize corporation, and I'm getting frustrated. It's a newly created position, strongly recommended in a report prepared through a significant consulting study, and I was hired to make the concept real.

[ Also on InfoWorld: "Notes for new managers: Assert your authority early on" | Get sage advice on IT careers and management from Bob Lewis in InfoWorld's Advice Line newsletter. ]

The problem? My boss (the CIO) won't meet with me.

This started my first day on the job, when he didn't even take the time to say hello, let alone introduce me around. The situation hasn't improved since then. When I do force an encounter, he's always running around, terribly busy and apologetic. But nothing changes.

I don't have a team to manage (I need one but require his approval to hire anyone); don't know what my authority is supposed to be, and as a result spend most of each day twiddling my thumbs.

I'm thinking of quitting, but don't want the short-timer stigma on my resume. And I really want the position I interviewed for, if I can find a way forward.

What do you think is going on? And what do you think I should do about it?

- Lonely

Dear Lonely ...

Having shuffled through the possibilities, I'm going to make a guess, which is that you (or rather, your position) was forced on the CIO by his manager. Very likely the consulting study was a thinly veiled expression of concern over his performance, the creation of your position was a sop to his public image, he's no more able to succeed in his position now than before the consulting study, and instead of figuring it all out he's going to prove the consultants wrong by setting you up to fail.

This last isn't, by the way, conscious Machiavellianism. If it were, he'd be more competent than he is. I'm guessing it's more of an emotional "I'll show them" than a conscious move on the enterprise chessboard.

Whether this thin chain of inference is on target or something entirely different is going on probably doesn't matter all that much, but it helps to have a working hypothesis to account for his behavior, so you can put it aside and spend your emotional energy making things work.

The question is how to go about it. The answer is, through your ability to influence and persuade, coupled with two simple tactics you can use to cover your posterior, just in case.

The tactics first:

  • Tactic No. 1 -- Presumption of approval:Any time you are concerned that some action you take might exceed your authority, send the CIO an e-mail that begins, "Unless I hear otherwise from you by [DATE], I plan to [ACTION]." Make sure you keep copies of these in a separate folder. If you're paranoid, keep printed copies as well, just in case. These are pretty much bulletproof evidence that you did everything you could to strike the right balance between taking initiative and acting without authority.
  • Tactic No. 2 -- Theoretical communication: Every Friday, before you leave the office, e-mail a status update to the CIO. It doesn't have to be lengthy -- just a list of decisions made and actions taken along with your rationale and who else you worked with.

Now, about your ability to influence and persuade -- this really isn't a problem you have. Cliched as it is, this is a terrific opportunity to develop the most important skill any leader can have: the ability to lead without exercising authority.

And since enterprise architecture never succeeds through the exercise of authority anyway (when you try, you're called the "standards police" and create resentment rather than good architecture), all this situation does is enforce what you'd have had to do anyway.

So develop your internal network, both inside and outside IT. Figure out who the players are and what they care about, both among your peers inside IT and among the company's executive management outside. Find out what they care about and what their pain points are. Learn everything you can about the current architecture and connect what you learn to the pain points. Find ways to solve internal IT problems through better architecture in a manner that also addresses pressing business issues.

And make sure you find ways to do all of this that are consistent with the recommendations of the consulting study. That gives you organizational cover with the CIO's boss should the CIO decide he doesn't like what you're trying to do.

When the time comes to act, funnel your decisions through your network of allies and the consensus you've built among them.

There is one possible outcome that will annoy you if it happens, and that's the CIO figuring out what's going on and deciding to put a stop to it. If he does and it's early in the game, he'll have to let you know what he'd prefer instead. That's OK -- go with it, unless it's foolish. If it is, do your best to convince him, but don't be insubordinate. Document his instructions and follow them, and if anyone questions your change in direction let them know you're acting under the CIO's guidance.

If he intervenes late in the game, he'll have a hard time being critical of your efforts, seeing as how you're following the consulting recommendations and have kept him in the loop every step of the way. If he tells you to pull the plug or change direction in a significant way, agree, and let him know you'll inform everyone of his decision.

Here's what's likely, if my inferences regarding the situation are on target: The CIO is in the process of committing career suicide. Your path to success is to outlast him without acquiring the taint of being part of his inner circle and without acquiring any stigma of being either ineffective or insubordinate.

Nothing is certain in a situation like this. The steps I've outlined should give you a pretty good shot at navigating through it.

- Bob

This story, "Can't get hold of your boss? Take advantage of the situation," was originally published at InfoWorld.com.

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