CIO Leadership: Leading Courageously in Times of Crisis

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We are living in an era of intense market and business disruption. Technology-led innovation is enabling companies such as Airbnb, Uber, Netflix and Tesla to upend entire industries. To help their own companies to remain viable and to identify fresh opportunities for disruption, CIOs and technology executives are expected to step up with fresh ideas to reimagine and reinvent the business.

During times of crisis, such as the current coronavirus outbreak and its impact on business, CIOs and technology executives must also step up and demonstrate their leadership mettle.The global death toll from the coronavirus has passed 3,000, with 90,000 people infected across 73 countries and territories and more than 100 cases confirmed in the U.S. Health and government officials around the world are ramping up efforts to contain the outbreak. To put this in broader perspective, the death rate from coronavirus is 2.3 percent versus the 0.1 percent of people who die from the flu each year, according to Science News. The death rate from coronavirus is far below that of SARS – severe acute respiratory syndrome – which swept across China nearly two decades ago and killed nearly 10 percent of those who were infected. At least 12,000 people have died from influenza since October 1, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).As executives assess the business risks of the coronavirus outbreak, “the leadership aspect is somewhat lost in the shuffle,” says Eric McNulty, Associate Director of the National Preparednesss Leadership Initiative and author of You’re It: Crisis, Change, and How to Matter When it Matters Most. Multiple studies on the topic recommend that executives adjust their leadership style during a crisis to inspire and reassure employees, pay attention to individual needs and provide positive feedback.“We as humans are hardwired to be competitive and to be collaborative. That’s how we’ve survived as a species,” says McNulty, a frequent speaker at HMG Strategy Executive Leadership Summits. “In a crisis situation, it’s critical to call upon those collaborative skills. CIOs draw upon their collaborative skills every day where they have to understand the business issues in addition to the technology issues to help meet the organization’s needs. Making sure you understand perspectives on the problems and the options that are available are the types of things that CIOs are good at,” McNulty adds.The ability to be adaptive over time is another special skill set of leaders during crises, notes McNulty. This includes thinking through the challenges at hand and understanding and addressing what-if scenarios.Drawing Upon Courageous LeadershipIt’s also critical for CIOs and technology executives to demonstrate courageous leadership in their interactions with the CEO and the Board during a crisis situation. “Courage is what it’s going to take these days because there’s a lot of information being disseminated about the virus and there’s a lot that’s not fully known and that confounds people a little bit,” says McNulty. “As a leader, this provides CIOs an opportunity to step up and say, ‘This is what we can do, and this is what we’re not ready to do’ This includes what we know and what we don’t know.” “I think it is important to not let fear paralyze your company and don’t let the sheer size of the challenge prevent you from taking methodical action,” says Andrew Campbell, CIO at Terex Corporation and a top executive in the HMG community. Campbell and McNulty recommend that team member safety be communicated as a top priority. “Only after team member safety has been addressed can you begin efforts with the executive team to address business continuity and/or business resumption actions,” says Campbell.“It’s important for CIOs and executives to acknowledge the health concerns they have for their families and communities and to encourage their peers and staff to address their own self-care as part of the courageous leadership they demonstrate,” says McNulty.Executives should also have contingency plans in place ahead of a healthcare crisis to allow knowledge workers to work remotely. “We’ve seen that pay off for us as we have a much larger portion of our China and Italy teams working from home,” says Campbell.Characteristics of Crisis LeadersExecutives who excel in crisis situations tend to have a few things in common, says McNulty. For starters, “they’re crystal clear in how they prioritize people and the common good. When you live and breathe your core values, it gives people an island of certainty in a chaotic situation.”Second, they pay attention to self-care and the care of the crisis management team. “Nobody can work 18-to-20 hours a day for weeks on end,” says McNulty. “You’re not going to be as effective in decision making. Make sure you take a break because if you don’t as a leader, nobody else will.”Executives who shine during a crisis also model and work through collaboration across organizational boundaries with external stakeholders such as business partners and customers.True leaders in a crisis are also clear about what success looks like, says McNulty.“You’re going to have days that suck because things aren’t going well, but leaders communicate clearly how we’re going to get there. You want to find out about the impediments people encounter and help find solutions to address them. It’s all about having the right feedback loops in place. You’re really trying to instill some adaptive resilience in the organization, regardless of what the nature of the crisis is,” says McNulty.“When you do all of these things, people will be more engaged, more productive and feel psychologically safe.”Key Takeaways:

  • When a crisis occurs, CIOs and technology executives must demonstrate courageous leadership to help reassure employees and guide the organization to safetyIn a crisis, the safety of team members must be communicated as a top priorityCIOs and technology executives must acknowledge and demonstrate their own self-care and encourage others to take care of themselves throughout the course of a crisis

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