How CIOs can take a lead in disrupted times

30 Mar 2020

How CIOs can take a lead in disrupted times

As COVID-19 re-shapes our daily life, technology is proving critical to maintaining operations, but what kind of senior technology leader can truly rise to the challenge of extraordinary times?

Almost overnight, as working from home becomes normalised, it simultaneously demonstrates the potential of technology to re-shape working habits and presents immense challenges for senior technology professionals.

Suddenly, questions over the potential of technology to streamline business operations have accelerated to the top of the agenda. Technology is an essential component of any strategy to grapple with managing costs and surviving through times of unprecedented difficulty and crisis.

And beyond today, as organisations reshape in the not-too-distant future, greater use of artificial intelligence, machine learning and the data sciences will be further additions to the agenda for many CIOs and CTOs.

Leading across several fronts

Right now, maximising the potential of the existing technology to support businesses through a challenging time is under scrutiny as never before.

Maintenance of core infrastructure and functionality, raising awareness and increasing security to counter enhanced cyber threats with remote working, and recreating normality in a virtual working environment, all are now at the forefront of the agenda.

Leadership from the CIO or CTO is critical across all these fronts, as senior technology leaders engage right across the organisation.

However, of note is that even before COVID-19, there was actually a crisis of confidence in that technology leadership itself. This was revealed in a recent global study we undertook with Harvard Business Review Analytic Services.

Leadership Confidence Index

Based on input from nearly 2000 senior managers at companies of all sizes around the world, this Leadership Confidence Index study sought to gauge how much confidence those executives had in their top business leaders to navigate disruption and unforeseen events of the type we are now experiencing.

It found that only 15% felt confident their company’s top leaders could manage this kind of accelerated change successfully.

Our study also revealed that senior leaders in technology are seen as being second only to the CEO in their importance to help organisations navigate disruption.

Despite more than half of senior managers around the world (53%) believing that CIOs and CTOs are pivotal, for these, and indeed all C-suite roles, there is far less confidence in the ability of current incumbents to manage a world of rapid, disruptive change well.

Our study found that only 60% are even confident the CEO can do what’s needed, falling to 31% for CIO and CTOs.

This shortfall reflects doubts that many senior leaders possess the values, mindset, required skills, and ability to deliver change seen as critical to lead organisations through turbulent times.

One important requirement is their ability to attract and maintain the right talent, but this was precisely the area where, for all roles, confidence was lowest.

Untested talent faces new challenges

We believe this lack of confidence in part reflects rapidly-shifting business demands and the pace of change. This breeds innovation, but also unease. Most technology leaders have not been exposed to these challenges before and are simply untested. This period will prove that assessing leaders’ potential on appointment has become as important as scrutinising their past achievements.  

In unprecedented times, technology leaders will be valued on their ability to remain calm and visible whilst ensuring a reliable continuity of service, focusing on the delivery of excellent channels of communication. This is just one of several ways in which the style of successful technology leaders in future will differ from those in the past.

A new style of leadership will succeed

Overall, the findings show that new styles of leadership will drive success in changing times. We believe that the most successful companies will reinvent leadership, based around the attributes and qualities shown to be most important for organisations to succeed in times of crisis and change.

For CIOs and CTOs, like other top leaders, there are now several critical traits required to successfully manage through disruption.

These critical traits are a high degree of agility, open and consistent communication, coupled with high emotional intelligence.  

Successful new leaders must also show vision, purpose, and possess strong talent development skills –both to understand what’s needed across their teams, and work collaboratively, inspire and foster new ideas, engaging people across the organisation. 

For many specialists who have risen to the top of the function, these are very different qualities than in the past, where technological expertise played a larger role.

This moment and its aftermath are both a great opportunity for senior people in technology to play a more central part in the success of their companies, as well the dawn of a new breed of leaders with the qualities to succeed in the face of unprecedented adversity.