December 13, 2000, 2:04 PM — PICTURE THIS: you are about to enter a meeting of the most senior
executives in your company. You're going to propose a drastic reduction in the systems
enhancement budget for each of their departments in order to fund some new development
activity. You know they will hate this proposal. How will you handle the inevitable
confrontations looming in front of you?
I was faced with just this situation as the relatively new CIO in Xerox's U.S.
Marketing Group in 1991. Later I'll share with you the strategy I chose and why it was
successful. But first let's agree that confrontational situations make most of us
uncomfortable, understand why confrontation is important in honing our leadership
skills, and identify some strategies for successful confrontation and some things to
The CIO position, more than most others, is rife with confrontation. It is the hub
of change in most companies. So it behooves the CIO who values his or her position to
become an expert in the art of confrontation.
How can you be more successful in these difficult situations? While certainly not a
formula, nor all-inclusive, the following principles have been helpful to me and some
of my colleagues.
Anticipate. Don't walk blindly into confrontation. Sometimes it will be
thrust upon you, but most often insightful thinking will tell you to expect it. Prepare
a strategy to deal with it.
Confront the issue, not the person. Most disagreements are driven by honest
differences of opinion. Confrontation does not mean personal attacks or unprofessional
behavior. Staying with the issue is important if you want to achieve resolution and
maintain or grow the relationship. Never personalize the arguments. Confrontation does
not have to be confrontational.
What do you do if the other party engages in personal attack? Years ago I worked
with an executive who was constantly on the attack. Boy, if I said up, he said down,
and not gently.
First, don't respond in kind. Stay cool and professional, and hold your ground --
but always be on guard for his attacks. Recognize that most times people like that
succeed only in making themselves look bad.
Second, in the background, try to find out what the problem is so that you can
better anticipate what position he'll take and be prepared with the appropriate facts.
Talk to people he trusts or those with whom he has a good relationship.
Third, treat it as an advantage. Ask yourself, "What will X say about this?" Often,
doing this makes you take the extra step to think things through.