How the c-suite can effectively lead amidst COVID-19

As COVID-19 re-shapes almost every aspect of daily life around the world, technology is proving critical to maintaining day-to-day operations for most businesses and organisations, from the C-suite down. Almost overnight, most people are now working from home, demonstrating both the potential of technology to re-shape working habits, and presenting immense challenges for senior technology professionals.

Suddenly, questions over the potential of technology to streamline business operations have moved to the top of the agenda as most organisations grapple with managing costs and surviving through times of unprecedented difficulty and crisis. Greater use of artificial intelligence, machine learning and so on could re-shape and accelerate the transformation of many companies and industries – and advising on this is a priority for many chief technology officers.

At the same time, 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 a remote workforce and recreating normality in a virtual working environment are now at the forefront of the agenda.

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Almost without exception, organisations are now face a unique set of challenges we have never seen before. Even before the COVID-19 outbreak there was already a crisis of confidence in the technology C-suite, revealed in a recent global study our firm undertook with Harvard Business Review Analytic Services. Based on input from nearly 2000 senior managers at companies of all sizes around the world, this sought to gauge confidence in top business leaders to navigate disruption and unforeseen events of the type we are now experiencing – finding that only 15% felt confident their company’s top leaders could manage this kind of change successfully.

It also revealed that senior leaders in technology are seen as being second only to the CEO in their importance to help organisations navigate massive disruption. More than half senior managers around the world (53%) believe CIOs and CTOs are pivotal, although for these and indeed all C-suite roles, there is far less confidence in the ability of current incumbents to manage well. Our study found that only 60% are confident the CEO can do what’s needed, falling to 31% for CIO and CTOs.

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This shortfall reflects doubts that many senior leaders possess the values, mind set, required skills, and ability to deliver change seen as critical to lead organisations through turbulent times. The most critical requirement of all is their ability to attract and maintain the right talent – but this was precisely the area where, for all roles, confidence was lowest.

We believe this lack of confidence in part reflects rapidly shifting business demands and the pace of change – which 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 a number of ways in which the style of successful technology leaders in future will differ from those in the past.

Overall, the findings show that new styles of leadership will drive success in changed times – and 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.

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We believe that for CIOs and CTOs, like other C-suite members, there are now several critical traits required to successfully to manage through the COVID-19 pandemic. These are a high degree of agility, and 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 is both a great opportunity for the C-suite in technology to play a more central part in the success of their companies – but it’s likely a new breed of leader will emerge from the aftermath of the COVID-19 outbreak in the process.

Written by Caroline Sands, head of CIO and technology officers practice at Odgers Berndtson

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