CIO Leadership: Leading Courageously in Times of Crisis and Uncertainty

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Clearly, we’re experiencing an unprecedented global crisis on a scale that we’ve not seen before. It’s in uncertain times such as these that true leaders step up to the plate and communicate clearly and effectively to reassure team members and articulate the plan going forward.

It’s a prime opportunity for CIOs and technology executives to demonstrate courageous leadership in the C-suite. These qualities are being exhibited by many CIOs today as the agenda for technology leaders is highly focused on driving business innovation and developing and refining business strategy, according to’s 2019 State of the CIO research.

HMG Strategy recently caught up with three technology executives from its 2020 Atlanta CIO Executive Leadership Summit Advisory Board to explore the leadership issues that are commanding CIOs’ attention in these times of uncertainty: Tim Crawford, CIO Strategic Advisor, AVOA; Jay Ferro, CIO, Quikrete; and Jason James, CIO, Net Health.

Jason James: There are long-term ramifications regarding the impact of COVID-19. We’ve got an entire generation of kids who are now home from school and we’re creating a workforce who will know how to work remotely in the future. You’ll have a massive amount of the workforce who will realize that a large number of jobs can be done remotely. There will be a large number of workers who will never return to their 8-to-5 Monday through Friday job in a traditional office.

Jay Ferro: There will be valuable lessons learned from executives in all industries. It’s going to transform our thinking across the board, from remote work to crisis management to office layout to communications to everything else.

Tim Crawford: Assuming we meet in August for the Atlanta CIO Summit, I’m wondering whether we’ll be far enough along with reactions to the pandemic from a business standpoint for CIOs and executives to be able to share lessons learned. It might be more along the lines of ‘Here’s what we’re thinking going forward.’

Jay Ferro: When this is all over, we’ll need to ask ourselves ‘What would we, as CIOs, have done differently?”. And, ‘now that we’ve acknowledged this, how is this going to change our strategic thinking and decision making going forward?’

Jason James: And how it changes our thinking going forward. What are we doing differently now than you were doing before this (pandemic)? Nobody had thought of a global pandemic as part of their business continuity planning. They might have considered a terrorist threat, but they hadn’t considered ‘What if my entire workforce wasn’t here (on campus) at all’.

Jay Ferro: You’re absolutely right, JJ, and what I’m seeing in speaking with a number of CIOs is that we’re – as a whole – uncovering a number of things that we did not think of. It’s not like it’s a snowstorm or environmental situation that impacts one of our offices for a few days. Global organizations are flexing new muscles and learning how to work and serve their customers over an extended period of time.

I believe this whole experience will accelerate digitization of legacy processes/technologies that aren’t built for this kind of situation.  I hope it will help drive out legacy thinking as well.

Tim Crawford: I would distinguish between the business continuity piece and the pandemic because those are two discrete pieces. What you’re describing is ‘OK, we had a snowstorm, so let’s shift our operations to another office’ – that’s business continuity whereas a pandemic is more about the workforce being unavailable to be in the same physical location.

The other piece of this is differentiating between pandemic planning and the economic impact piece of this. We’ve lost roughly a third of the value of the Dow (Jones Industrial Average) in the last week or so. That’s huge, and a lot of these industries are going to be disrupted for a heckuva lot longer than six or nine months.

What were companies doing to prepare for the next economic downturn? What were they doing in 2001? In 2008? We know that this is a cycle that keeps coming around. As I’m talking to some of my peers, they weren’t prepared – AGAIN! The question I have is how do we get this to be a real conversation that sticks rather than just going through the motion of talking about it again and again?

Jay Ferro: I think it’s a hurdle and let’s be real. When a CIO has a limited budget and finite resources, are you going to bat for something that happens once every twelve years when your average tenure as a CIO is three years? Are you going to suggest putting in pandemic planning for 2032, or are we saying that because we’re right in the middle of it? Don’t get me wrong – we absolutely should.

I’m afraid, often, we have short term memories and we’ll settle back into business as usual.  I hope that’s not the case with this situation and that we take it as a wake-up call to think beyond ourselves and see the big picture.

Jason James: Our entire organization pivoted within 24 hours and we were fortunate to be able to do so. In fact, we actually onboarded new hires during this time. But I was on calls with CIOs from other and often larger organizations and they were literally running out to buy laptops at Costco and Best Buy.

Most people did not have pandemic in any of their business continuity plans. And so, what I think is eventually going to happen is that the economic fallout from this is that there will be companies that will be gone – whether that’s temporarily or long-term.

Jay Ferro: I’m not sure we, as a society, can get our heads around the long term economic devastation this is going to cause. As CIOs we’re called to be leaders first, and technologists second. Never has that first aspect of our roles been more important.  

Hunter Muller: How about a summit theme going forward about what a tech leader can do to build a stronger go-to-market strategy?

Jay Ferro: I like drawing lessons learned from this and how we can emerge stronger. I like that angle.

Hunter Muller: It’s like the management consultant Ram Charan once said: ‘Never let a good crisis go to waste’. The angle I’m looking at is ‘Leading Through a Crisis.’ It can be scary and lonely and difficult, but the company needs your leadership and vision to help lead through a crisis and bring the company forward.

Tim Crawford: And then there are the security paradigms that are breaking down because (CIOs and CISOs) never anticipated this volume of people working remotely. Right now – today – if you’re a hacker, now is the time to take advantage of a company.

Jay Ferro: It has opened a couple of doors. First of all, our attention is diverted. Second, many companies were ill prepared to shift to a remote workforce entirely. We have to focus on the crisis at hand, but also remain vigilant in order to protect our customers and our colleagues.  

Jason James: The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services just went experienced a massive cyber-attack. A lab in the Czech Republic that is working on a coronavirus vaccine was hit with ransomware. So, to your point, Jay, everyone is looking the other way and now is even more of a dangerous time.

There are systems that must stay online such as healthcare or utilities. Threat actors will use this crisis to target overly stressed institutions. It’s an incredibly dangerous time, especially if CIOs and CISOs aren’t keeping their eye on the ball.

Jay Ferro: The bad guys are listening to Ram Charan, too, and not letting a good crisis go to waste.

Jason James: The other thing to focus on is human development in leadership throughout all of this. To be a leader, you don’t always have to be right, but you do have to be present. How, in the midst of a crisis, are you present? Are you engaging with your teams? People are scared. They’re worried that their mothers or grandmothers could get sick. And their children aren’t going back to school anytime soon, so how do you deal with that?

As leaders, we’ve been having a lot more touchpoints on a personal level just to make sure people are maintaining, almost as a sanity check. Because the longer this goes, the longer their mental health is at risk.

To learn more about the courageous leadership lessons that CIOs and technology executives are sharing during the current crisis in our HMG Live! Virtual Events, click here

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