“How could she let this happen to me?” I wondered. “She must not know what he’s doing. If she only found out, she’d put a stop to this,” I thought.
It had just been made clear to me that in the eyes of my boss (the “he” above) I’d gone from hero to zero, from being worthy of higher office to being guilty of dereliction of duty, not coincidentally right after turning down a promotion he wanted me to take.
The “she” above referred to the company CEO at the time, a lady with whom I’d had a cordial relationship. We didn’t see each other a lot, but when we did, it was usually because the magazine I was working on had been doing well, and she wanted to pick my brain for lessons learned that could be applied to other publications in the company.
So when he started screwing around with me, I thought she would take my side and step in. It turns out I had a thing or two to learn about a thing or two, one of which was a mantra I’ve repeated ever since. “You don’t beat the boss.” Now, when I say “boss,” I mean your direct boss. This is very important. Don’t ever think you’ll be saved by a higher power, or by the network of relationships you’ve made in the C-suite or any other suite, or the board or the industry. I’ll say in again and remember it — “You don’t beat the boss.”
Now bear with me. The above is not to say that — if being asked to do things you don’t agree with — you don’t fight the boss. You fight the boss when what the boss is asking you to do will damage your reputation in the larger industry. We will call this your “brand.” So, yes, building a professional brand is very, very important. Your brand should be of the Boy Scout variety — truth, justice and the American Way. Of course, there are other things, but generally you want to be thought of as honest, reliable and uber-competent. “He can get the job done and he’ll tell it to you straight,” will get you most of the way.
So, let’s recap: you don’t beat the boss, but you need a brand, which you cannot let the boss damage too greatly. And what does the brand do for you? Helps you get another job after you get fired or are forced to resign, of course, and one of those two will always be the outcome when you throw down the gauntlet against he who performs your annual review.
So, a la “Who Moved My Cheese,” get a sense for when things are going south and start planning a migration. Stand your ground and fight the good fight until it’s clear the time has come to make a clean break, but stay away from the worst of all outcomes — the selling of your soul. For those of us who have left a “my way or the highway” environment (where “my way” was, in our opinion, an odious one), those left behind seemed to make a deal with the devil. But remember that when you dance with the devil (to borrow a line from 8MM), the devil doesn’t change, you do — and so does your reputation. That means when you do eventually get spit out, you’ll have no reputation to act as your parachute; you’ll have traded it to Mephistopheles for a few more month or years of employment.
Why do I write this column now? Because I know a good handful of CIO executives who are on the move for one reason or another, all of whom suddenly found themselves to be persona-non-grata in a C-suite ripe with politics and intrigue. You think you’re in healthcare? That may be true, but we’re humans first, last and always, which means our professional survival still has more to do with appreciating Shakespearian dynamics than anything having to do with our actual jobs.