Crisis leadership calls on the new CIO skill set

The Leadership in a Crisis report highlights how the role has changed and the resources CIOs need to be leaders.

"There is no normal coming," states the report Leadership in a Crisis by Catherine Stagg-Macey, an executive and team coach. This report highlights how not only has the pandemic accelerated digital transformation and new ways of working in organisations, Covid-19 is also dramatically changing the way leaders lead. 

Stagg-Macey and Lea-p, an organisation that provides coaching workshops, created the report during the global Coronavirus pandemic lockdown, and a number of CIOs and CTOs took part. Having encouraged members of the community I chair to take part, I was fascinated to see the results, which correlate to my own experience of how the CIO role is changing, and will continue to change. 

The CIO has become a business leader, responsible for building a great team of deep technologists, collaborating with all areas of the organisation to create cross-functional teams that can deliver change, and work closely with suppliers. This is an important development, a great technologist is not necessarily the person to build and lead a team, great sales people are rarely great business leaders, excellent players don't always make good captains. Leadership is a skill, a talent, and a profession, and has to be recognised as such. In the work I do across Europe and other nations I increasingly see this recognition taking place, and organisations benefiting as a result. 

Leadership in Crisis demonstrates that empathy, communications and being true to yourself have been the most important skills CIOs needed to manage remote teams. With teams scattered from the enterprise headquarters and running DevOps from kitchen tables, spare rooms and bedrooms, understanding that this has not been a luxury, but a challenge to many has been vital. Interestingly, the report highlights that those leaders that used empathy well during the crisis have built up "trust credit" with their team members. As a second Coronavirus wave looks imminent, and the economic crisis continues, the challenge for CIOs will be to retain that trust credit, especially when other members of the leadership team demand a reduction in headcount. As argued last month, reducing the headcount is rarely the most incisive way to reduce the costs of the organisation. 

Empathy, communications channels and trust were not just skills for the pandemic, but will be in high demand in the coming months. Having proved the robustness of digital working methods, and with staff having demonstrated their productivity at home, a new way of working has to be shaped. Everyone, whether leader or team member, has seen a new horizon, working and delivering without sacrificing the family - in whatever form that takes.  The environment benefited, we breathed cleaner air, roads were safe for once, and rivers ran without a film of dirt. As a result, the expectations of team members has altered, and will be a major factor in leadership from here onwards. 

And for the CIO themselves, the role through the pandemic and beyond remains one of the most lonely. I certainly noticed a significant increase in activity in the CIO network I chair, as leaders not only sought professional advice and insights from peers, but also shared humour and personal wellbeing advice. 

So where do we go from here? Back in 2008 when the banking crisis brought the economy to its knees, the CIO was instrumental in reducing costs and enabling organisations to recover and respond. The same is true in 2020. Digital and remote working has finally been proved to be as successful as CIOs said it would. And whilst business technology leaders hold their tongues and refuse to utter the words: "I told you so", there will likely be an upsurge in technology demand. New services will need to be created, costs reduced and business processes remodelled. The Leadership in a Crisis report cites travel as being the immediate cost to be frozen, as well as investments, but CEOs won't see productivity continue to rise (as it did according to the survey), and new opportunities achieved if technology budgets are frozen too severely. 

So what do we need to do? Leadership is one of the toughest challenges any of us undergo in our careers and, speaking personally, get some help. Communication is hard, and its greatest challenge is the sheer amount of communications a CIO has to do. In a post-Covid or continuing-Covid world, CIOs need to increase the communication they do with their own team members and partners. That will see a rise in team, and personal communications, but also a need to communicate to the entire organisation, customers and suppliers - again, seek help.

As the CIO role evolves into coach, communicator and team enabler, leaders themselves will need to be receiving empathy, good communications and truthfulness.