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How CIOs Lead in a Pandemic

How a CIO Delivers Critical Leadership Through A Crisis

by Abby Portugal on and last update on June 16, 2020

Unprecedented circumstances demand leadership. Leadership that steadies the course, and that provides reassurance to employees and clients that experience uncertainty. While a CIO has a remit that is predominantly about tech, their leadership also plays a critical role in ensuring organisational stability during a crisis.

The COVID-19 crisis has proven a particularly challenging moment in time. It is an opportunity for a CIO to show how they can deliver the leadership that drives an organisation through difficult times. But how and why are they such critical leaders in difficult times?

CIOs deliver operational stability

A crisis inevitably disrupts operations. In turn, disrupted operations imply reduced revenue and higher costs. In today’s tech-first world, CIOs are uniquely positioned to stabilise operations.

First, they must stabilise infrastructure and verify that critical service partners can deliver under shifting usage patterns. Their role in crisis management is also to quickly put in place technology that can fill the gaps created by a crisis. By, for example, providing the capacity to collaborate remotely. Likewise, companies will rely on their CIO to provide the technology and leadership that supports the shift in business models so often associated with a crisis.

Ongoing operational adjustments are also a key role for CIOs – crisis can lead to permanent changes in operations, and that is where strategic capabilities of CIOs come into play. In other words, during a crisis CIO leadership must steer a company’s technology estate so that it accommodates the new reality.

A firm grip on security

Changing circumstances also imply a changing security landscape. It is common for malicious actors to try and take advantage of the uncertainty and confusion generated by a crisis. Tech leaders are also responsible for eliminating vulnerabilities so that a successful cyberattack does not end up amplifying a crisis.

For example, during the COVID-19 epidemic, many businesses reported an increase in phishing and ransomware attacks as criminals take advantage of a mass shift to remote working. Through a crisis, the last thing any business wants is the compounding effect of a cybersecurity crisis.

That’s where CIO’s role in crisis management really becomes prominent. A CIO worth their salt will, of course, ensure consistent and ongoing cybersecurity that is airtight. Through a crisis, they must also rapidly jump to action by analyzing new, emerging risks.

For example, when a large proportion of employees start working remotely CIOs need to evaluate the risk introduced by unknown networks, and a profusion of endpoints. Just as with business operations, tech leaders must consider how a crisis changes the security landscape for the foreseeable future.

Customers in a changing business landscape

Businesses exist to serve their customers and CIOs are there to provide the technology and leadership to make it happen. A crisis affects everyone, including the customer base. On the one hand, CIOs should ensure that their company’s technology stack can continue to serve customers as needed. For example, they should enable a shift to online shopping if that is what circumstances demand.

CIOs can deliver more visionary leadership too. Senior tech staff should take a moment and consider how a crisis affects the lives of their clients and customers. Is there a way in which tech-driven changes in their company can make the lives of their customers easier?

A crisis often brings opportunities and CIOs are ideally placed to see how technology can help their company step in to meet the needs of its customers.

Taking a human approach

CIOs have a strong focus on technology but reaching out on a human level is also a critical skill. It’s even more important during times of crisis. First, CIOs should reach out to their technology teams – reassuring and motivating key technology staff throughout the crisis.

It requires constant, consistent communication that maps out the new normal and that communicates how a company will adapt to this new environment. But CIOs can lead at the human level right across the organisation. Crisis requires unique needs and requirements. CIOs should listen beyond their teams and try to understand how a crisis affects the way their organisation works.

Technology can fill in the gaps. For example, where companies previously relied heavily on in-person team meetings and group work, CIOs can put in place solutions that make team experiences possible even where team members are unable to physically meet up. These can remote meeting and collaboration tools, or for external parties such as shareholders, a virtual AGM platform.

Taking a view of the future

While crises are disruptive,  there’s another way to look at them: opportunity creators. Chances are that a crisis will lead to permanent changes, and CIOs can assume a leadership role by envisioning how technology can be exploited to make the best of changes. Or to, at least, prevent permanent changes from costing business in the long run.

Rapidly understanding what the new reality is critical to a CIO’s leadership skill. Shifting technology provisioning takes time and the CIO’s role in crisis management is to lead from the front. From a technology perspective, they examine the crisis and establishing where the opportunities lie.

The companies that can seize the opportunities in the middle of a crisis are the companies that stand to flourish once normality resumes. CIOs are in a unique position to spot those opportunities – and to deliver the winning technology that makes the most out of the normal

Governance and Leadership
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