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The best CIOs find opportunity in adversity

Maximizing the value of IT during a crisis requires a solid understanding of both the business and how it is impacted by the various IT roles and responsibilities.

High tech is weathering the economic storm caused by COVID-19 remarkably well, with U.S. unemployment rates at 3 percent in December compared with 6.7 percent for the overall economy. But that doesn't mean IT professionals are resting easy. The best corporate CIOs are taking an aggressive approach to managing their staffs in this crisis-driven time, looking for ways to promote business growth, retrain critical personnel, and find the best ways to move forward, both for their businesses and their teams.

Tech companies tied to travel, entertainment, retail, and similar industries laid off thousands of workers in 2020. At the same time, moderate staff cuts at companies such as Cisco and IBM, among others, have workers worried their jobs could be at risk if first-quarter 2021 financials do not show promise.

Yet, during times of trouble, experienced CIOs invariably manage to buck up, adjust, and overcome such adversity. They point the way to new possibilities, pull their staffs together, and deliver value and results—even in the darkest of days.

"CIOs that do well in their organizations during times like these are not just looking at response and recovery as their primary roles," says Khalid Kark, managing director of the Deloitte CIO program. "Instead, they look for growth opportunities. Their attitude is to never let any crisis go to waste."

Indeed, smart IT leaders reinvent the world around them to keep their staffs relevant and resourceful. Here are five pieces of advice for doing exactly that from crisis-hardened industry experts.

1) Know where your IT resources lie

Companies today value bold, change-oriented IT leaders who drive transformational projects aligned to core business priorities. They recognize there isn't a single process or customer experience not powered by technology. As such, they want CIOs involved in major strategic decisions.

"As CIOs, it is our responsibility to show our executive leadership what's possible in the digital economy even as they might be more focused on keeping the lights on because of world events," says Rashmi Kumar, senior vice president and CIO at Hewlett Packard Enterprise. "When CIOs are able to focus on doing that, they tend to get a seat at the table to drive broader innovation."

The challenge is those seats are often difficult to keep because CIOs must continually demonstrate how their investments are contributing to the company's goals and growth. And it can be incredibly challenging to get a true and accurate picture of the IT landscape.

Chris Bedi, CIO at ServiceNow, says many IT leaders rely on a variety of disparate tools for achieving this. But what they really need is one central apparatus or dashboard to help them understand and analyze where all of their IT resources reside and how well they are being used. That way, as business or market needs shift, they can adjust their recommendations and actions accordingly.

Bedi says some business leaders already do this fairly well. For instance, if supply chain executives were asked to present their cost profiles, an overview of their resources, or an outline of their production capabilities, most could do so in great detail. IT leaders, though, haven't traditionally operated that way.

"With its role in digital transformation, IT needs that same level of precision," Bedi says. "In the past, it has gotten away with not having it. But I think those days are over."

2) Prioritize results over maintenance

CIOs with staying power also look beyond their core mandates to find opportunities for delivering more business value and outcomes.

The best IT leaders "play offense," says Bedi. They try to drive as much transformation as possible because they know it's critical to business success. They're able to describe all the things they're doing to accelerate deal velocity or increase customer satisfaction, employee engagement, and productivity. They have scorecards showing the return on investment for every dollar spent on technology.

"Everything they do is predicated on value they are able to derive," he says. "And I think it's incumbent upon IT leaders to have that kind of complete picture."

Steve Hall, president of global technology research at advisory firm ISG and a member of the Technology Business Management Council, agrees. In the current economic downturn, more IT leaders are relying on tools and technology to demonstrate how their teams are helping their organizations survive, he says.

"The challenge in a down economy is to really understand where you have to make your investments," Hall says. "If a CIO doesn't have the ability to step back and look at what the business drivers are and how the business might be changing, they're probably going to be replaced by someone who can."

3) Build a business-minded workforce

Having that business mindset doesn't come naturally for every IT leader. Many studied computer science, computer engineering, or some related discipline. And they likely learned about technology in a different day and age, when artificial intelligence, machine learning, robotics, edge computing, and quantum computing weren't common terms.

But such innovation is now influencing how businesses operate. As such, it behooves every IT leader to assemble staffs full of multifaceted people skilled in emerging digital transformation technologies and know how to use them to help the business and its customers.

These individuals are a rare breed.

"Right before COVID-19 hit, we did a survey and found that CIOs were saying almost a third of their tech talent was not going to be relevant in three years," says Deloitte's Kark. "What that tells me is there's a shift in operating models happening in technology, and that's even more the case since the pandemic came along because CIOs are having to rethink how they operate and deliver results."

Kark says that because of this, more IT leaders want employees with high levels of creativity, cognitive flexibility, and emotional intelligence. But technologists don't always excel in those areas. So CIO organizations must approach the hiring process differently than they might have just a few years ago.

"What many tech leaders are saying now is that it's a lot easier to get a person with the traits they need and train them on the technology than it is to have a deep technologist you have to reframe or rewire to think about these things," Kark says.

Because such people are in short supply, Kark recommends CIOs determine what skills they need and try to develop them from within.

"I've spoken to CIOs who are spending millions of dollars on massive reskilling programs because they believe they have an obligation to help their talent adjust [to business priorities]," Kark says. "First, though, there must be a willingness on the tech staff to actually change. So, beyond the classroom, CIOs need to focus on creating environments or cultures that encourage the types of behaviors they desire."

To achieve the right environment and culture, IT organizations must also assemble more diverse and inclusive workforces, says HPE's Kumar. And there is a real opportunity to do that because so many organizations have been exposed to remote work and are now better positioned to tap into a wider and more distributed array of worldwide talent.

"IT teams delivering the most value for companies tend to be those made up of people from different walks of life," says Kumar. "Seeing things through numerous lenses is the lifeblood of creativity. So, in addition to the moral imperative for diversity and inclusion, it's also needed from an IT perspective."

4) Nurture your professional networks

In tough times, it's also critical to remember the importance of professional networks. Too often, leaders fall into the trap of assuming their instincts, experience, and smarts are enough to get their teams and organizations through a crisis. That they can go it alone. In reality, tough times are when they need outside viewpoints the most.

"Part of the CIO's job is to be a relationship builder," says Kumar. "Within organizations, it's often about how well or routinely you work with the CEO, CFO, or heads of supply chain and product development to come up with ideas you can pursue together. CIOs cannot make that happen by themselves. You need business commitment and participation to create transformation."

Extended networks can also help you prioritize your work activities, evaluate your performance, and discover new opportunities while also building a safety net in case you suddenly find yourself on the job market," adds Mark Settle, former CIO of Okta and BMC Software.

"That's why it's important to consciously invest time in maintaining and expanding your professional networks—inside and outside of your company," he says.

Of course, that's especially hard during the pandemic. To raise visibility, experts recommend devising a digital communications plan to stay in regular contact with industry peers and colleagues. It should start with goals and objectives—and clearly show which industry peers will be contacted—before turning to specific tactics.

A variety of tactics are essential. First, it's important for a CIO to have a current, strategically positioned, and well-written profile on key professional social media sites, such as LinkedIn. Next, think through email and other digital communications to stay in frequent touch with key contacts. Build this outreach around something happening with the company or industry, and encourage recipients to respond with any thoughts or recommendations they may have about the issues raised in the communications. Finally, schedule regular video meetings to touch base with peers, even if there is nothing specific or timely justifying it.

5) Look beyond the crisis

Successful CIOs also prove their worth and stay relevant by looking beyond immediate problems or opportunities. The work CIOs have done recently to help their companies digitally transform and shift from office to remote work environments has elevated their stature within their organizations. To cement that status, they'll need to show they understand what's coming next and how they'll address it.

"You've got to have alignment with where the business is going," says ServiceNow's Bedi. "You must be able to say, 'Here are our multiyear strategic objectives, here's how our technology agenda and strategy fit into that, here are the transformational initiatives we will drive to support them, and here are the outcomes we expect.' It's incumbent upon CIOs to show that."

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This article/content was written by the individual writer identified and does not necessarily reflect the view of Hewlett Packard Enterprise Company.