The COVID-19 pandemic has put leadership in the spotlight—and under a microscope. While leaders at all levels of government have been dealing with the same public crisis, some cities, regions and countries have managed far better than others. What can CIOs —who are also navigating the crisis within the microcosm of a single organization—learn from these divergent leadership styles and what are the leadership takeaways from the first wave of the pandemic?
1. Lead with empathy
The CIO who has been calm, confident and reaches out to staff and teams with empathy has no doubt helped to reduce employees’ anxiety and earn their trust through the crisis.British Columbia’s provincial health officer, Dr. Bonnie Henry, is a highly effective leader who has been praised in the New York Times article, “The Top Doctor Who Aced the Coronavirus Test.” In her daily press conferences, her mantra of “Be kind, be calm and be safe” coupled with facts about the spread of coronavirus have engendered trust in a citizenry that has largely followed her advice.
The lesson learned is to not just talk the talk, but show your staff that you care and then take action. Employees may need all kinds of assistance in this “new normal”, and the best way to find out is to ask what their needs are. Do they have the equipment, internet connectivity or office furniture they need to do their jobs efficiently and comfortably? Do they have access to a tech helpdesk that can swiftly move them past any hurdles? Are you supporting teams with training, seminars and certification to assist them in adopting new procedures and tools? If some of your staff are still heading into the workplace, have you addressed their safety concerns with protocols that reduce the risk of contracting the virus?
2. Communicate consistently, and with transparency
Active communication that is consistent and based on facts is key to supporting a workforce during any crisis. Germany’s leader, Angela Merkel, is a trained scientist, and she required that all information released to the public about the pandemic had to be based on thorough research, and that any political decisions must be transparent. Germany has had a relatively low death toll, and Merkel’s popularity has surged due to her commitment to releasing consistent and credible information, as well as relaying what the government doesn’t know.
In the rapidly changing situation related to COVID-19, CIOs have become the “head learners,” needing to connect frequently with the C-Suite, stakeholders and staff about the immediate circumstances, and consistently relaying the action that is being taken.
3. Embrace flexibility
The pandemic is a human tragedy and one that has upended every aspect of our daily lives. However, the disruption may have affected each of your employees differently. Some could now be working in complete physical isolation, while others are trying to work while caring for sick or elderly family members, looking after young children or homeschooling older ones.
Leaders that have shown flexibility and adapted their responses to a fluid situation, or new information, have had better results at slowing the spread of the virus. The CIO who is flexible acknowledges the unique circumstances every employee is challenged with. Ask team members what times are best for meetings. If employees are providing care to other family members, such as small children, there may be times which work much better than others. You may not be able to physically re-create the water cooler vibe, but consider creating daily meetups for casual conversations where staff can still feel that human connection to each other.
Unorthodox work-from-home schedules mean that you may need to establish new norms for accepted communication response times. Also, having flexible time off and sick leave policies protects the physical and mental health and safety of the individual, and your whole workforce.
4. It’s time, CIOs – Act quickly, and decisively
During an economic crisis, which is inevitable in the aftermath of COVID, companies may feel safer taking a default position – by cutting costs and reverting to a traditional working model of doing business.
In the public sphere, one leader who acted quickly and decisively at the outset of the pandemic is New Zealand’s prime minister Jacinda Ardern. Instead of playing a waiting game, Ardern’s government took ambitious action, implementing a national lockdown and closing borders before many other nations. The decisive move paid off, and the country recently declared the country virus-free, which has allowed New Zealanders to return to normal activity within their own country.
In contrast, companies that ‘hit the pause button’ on key decisions such as investing in digital strategies take the risk that when the economy does rebound, they will be outpaced by those businesses that took a pro-investment approach. Instead of simply reacting to the crisis, CIOs have an opportunity to drive innovation, and build competitive distance for their business.
Although there is still much uncertainty ahead, CIOs have the benefit of learning from leaders that have truly shone in their response to the first phase of the global pandemic. And those that communicate honestly with both the C-suite and employees, and respond to their needs with empathy and transparency will lead their companies through the next phase of the pandemic from a position of strength.
About the Author
Ashiq Ahamed is the Founder of SolvedAF Consulting Inc., a boutique consulting firm providing fractional CIO and digital transformation services. As Principal, he leads the implementation of various programs and projects that increase innovation across businesses. Learn more about SolvedAF at www.solvedaf.com.
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