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A CIO Conversation: When quitting is an option

Consultant Chuck Sunderman discusses making the tough IT leadership decisions -- like knowing when to step down after a merger and acquisition.

When infrastructure services provider Black Box Corp. acquired voice technology vendor Norstan Inc. last month, it also acquired Chuck Sunderman, the senior-level technology leader at Norstan. Knowing he would no longer retain the same level of leadership in a newly formed enterprise, and predicting that there would be too big a divide between IT and business goals, Sunderman made a bold career move: He made it clear that he was the wrong guy to keep.

Now working as a consultant and looking for the right leadership role, Sunderman chronicled for the role he played in the M&A -- and the reasons he's not around to see how it played out.

Chuck Sunderman
Chuck Sunderman

What did you do when you first found out Norstan was going to be acquired?

Sunderman: What you're getting paid to do is look out for what is best for the shareholders -- and then what is going to happen to me. And they can be in conflict.

What role did you play in the M&A?

Sunderman: The data [the acquiring company] asks for -- about systems, hidden costs and IT spending -- is not information that we keep at our fingertips.

From a management perspective, it becomes difficult. You're in confidentiality mode, so you can't let much of your staff know what is going on -- yet you need to get this information from them in order for due diligence. You don't want to get anyone nervous because you don't know if a merger is going to happen. It's a lonely path because you can't talk to anyone about this, because you're in a quiet period.

Did it feel unethical not sharing information about the acquisition with your team?

Sunderman: It really does. When you lead your team, being open and honest, and you're in a situation where you can't discuss why you need specific information from them, it almost feels like you're being unethical.

The last thing you want to do is cause fear because many times mergers and acquisitions don't go through -- and you don't want good people jumping ship. There is a delicate balance between running the organization, keeping the team together and [having] personal feelings on how you manage and communicate with your staff.

If you stayed, what would your job look like today?

Sunderman: The level of the person to whom I would have reported would have significantly changed. I would have been moved down two levels.

I would have no longer been reporting to the CFO and dealing with the CEO and his direct reports on a daily basis. I would have been reporting to someone else who reported to those people, and it wasn't my career goal to go backward.

And it also would have been more of a management role as opposed to a leadership role. I was going to be doing a management position and doing day-to-day management of infrastructure. I'm more of an innovator, and I really enjoy the interaction with the senior executives -- losing that was not an option for me.

Why did you decide to leave?

Sunderman: Part of what really played into my decision process to leave was that my heart was not into the new organizational model.

I did talk to my leadership -- and the leadership of the other company -- and told them that I thought it was appropriate for me to step aside and allow someone who was in the right mind-set to lead the transformation.

There was a point in the discussion where they were laying out what my new role was going to be, and I made it clear at that point that it was not a good fit for me. Although I could do the job, I didn't have the passion for it. The company and the team needed a leader whose heart and ambition was going to be in it.

What advice would you give an IT executive looking to survive an M&A?

Sunderman: The No. 1 thing you need to do is understand your career goals. You're not going to be effective for your team if your heart is not in it. You need to give 100% and you need to be in the game for that to happen.

How do you cope successfully with change?

Sunderman: Change is good. In IT, we always talk about change and we always think about changing the company, but there are a lot of IT people who really don't like change when it comes to jobs and careers.

I really look at every change as an opportunity to learn something different like working in a new industry or working for a new leader who has different styles of leadership and mentoring capabilities.

One of the worst things you can do is be fearful.

The number of people who couldn't believe how comfortable I was with the change is incredible, and I really was that comfortable because I knew there was something better out there for me.

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