Follow the Loser

Leverage Partners Inc. –

If one of your New Year's resolutions is to find a new job, consider an often-overlooked criterion: the reputation of your predecessor. You might want to pass up the post that was previously filled by an individual who was valued and respected. Instead, choose the job where your predecessor was perceived as a failure. You will work harder during your first year (to fix existing problems and rebuild IT's credibility), but you'll have a better chance of succeeding in the long run.

If your predecessor was held in low esteem, you start the job with multiple advantages. Here are some things you can do:

Capitalize on quick wins. Most IT organizations have overlooked opportunities to save money or improve service. If your predecessor was incompetent, distracted or scrambling to save his job, he probably ignored some opportunities. Follow the money. A careful review of IT spending and service levels may reveal opportunities for consolidation, renegotiation or other improvements. Remember to include outsourcing agreements in your review. (Successful predecessors typically leave fewer opportunities for these quick improvements.)

Blame problems on your predecessor. For the first six months, you get to blame any problems on the idiot you replaced and (rightly) claim that you are just cleaning up the messes he left. Use this honeymoon period to create an objective assessment of departmental strengths and weaknesses. This baseline will serve as a valuable reference point for measuring your progress in future years, even if you have not fixed every problem.

Rebuild the IT team. If your predecessor was an incompetent leader, some changes will probably be required. Your best staffers may be jumping ship, and people who opt to stay may be in the wrong jobs. If IT's reputation has been tainted, you will likely get support for reorganizing your department or hiring additional staffers. And you will probably get both sympathy and action from human resources executives and others. (Following a successful predecessor gives you less freedom to change the organization or the people.)

Ask hard questions. As a newcomer, you have an opportunity to question everything. For example, you can ask to see the business case and the work plan for the sacred-cow project that has gone in the ditch. If business imperatives have changed or the project appears destined for failure, pointed questions can help obtain the necessary buy-in to restructure or cancel the effort.

Gain instant credibility. If your predecessor is considered a failure, you are granted credibility just because you have a pulse. Then you can earn real credibility over time by helping others solve their problems. Listen carefully for the most frustrating problems, both inside and outside the IT organization. Any improvements help boost your credibility rating.

Acquire necessary resources. Managers who are viewed as incompetent often have a hard time getting sufficient budget, head count or authority. They often have even reasonable resources withheld, and the results can be disastrous. One organization I worked with was so suspicious of its CIO that money for routine server upgrades was repeatedly denied. As servers reached capacity, service levels decreased and further reduced IT's credibility. The new CIO was able to negotiate the required budget easily.

If your predecessor was viewed negatively, the IT organization's reputation may be badly tarnished. Initially, this may be uncomfortable, but it can work to your advantage. Investigate the company's perception of your predecessor before taking a new job. You can leverage someone else's past incompetence into your own personal success and an improved IT organization. For long-term success, don't play follow the leader -- play follow the loser.

Bart Perkins is managing partner at Louisville, Ky.-based Leverage Partners Inc., which helps organizations invest well in IT. Contact him at BartPerkins@LeveragePartners.com.

This story, "Follow the Loser" was originally published by ITworld.

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