CIO Crises: Write 3 Letters!

There is a version of an old joke about a CIO starting an exciting new position and being given three letters by their immediate predecessor to be only opened during times of great crisis. When the first crisis hit, the CIO opened the first letter and it stated “blame your predecessor”, which the CIO did to survive that particular crisis. A while later the second crisis occurred and the CIO remembered to open the second letter, which advised the CIO to “reorganize”. The CIO also followed that direction and was able to make through that crisis as well. Finally, the third crisis happened, and when the CIO opened the third letter, it simply said to “write three letters”.

The news feeds always seem to be full of different stories about bad things happening to CIOs. These bad things include failed projects, major service outages and serious security breaches to name just a few. It really doesn’t matter the reason for these problems, as ultimately the CIO is accountable for the results or lack thereof within their area of responsibility. These disasters can define the CIO’s reputation at a particular organization and negate all of the positives that may have also happened during their tenure. Needless to say that how one handles these “CIO crises” can have a major impact on the CIOs career and future plans.

Based on my own personal experiences and also witnessing many other CIOs in times of crisis, here are some recommendations to consider on what to do:

  1. First recognize that despite whatever preparations have been made to avoid major problems, bad things do happen to good organizations and good people. Of course, you do want to take all of the practical steps to avoid these crises in the first place, but sooner or later it is very likely that you will gain first-hand experience in managing these types of situations. This means that you need to be ready with your Emergency Response Plan (ERP). Larger organizations will typically have formally documented plans as required by the Audit Committee of the Board of Directors. Smaller organizations will be less structured and probably somewhat less prepared. Whatever the situation, you will want to be as prepared as well as you can be in advance, because once you are actually in the crisis there will be precious time to do anything other than react.
  2. As part of these ERPs, you will most likely have a formal communications action plans with the related responsibilities well documented. Again, if you are with a larger organization, the external and internal PR will probably be handled for you by a Communications Team. If you are with a smaller organization, you may be on your own. Managing the messaging is a very important aspect of successfully surviving any “CIO crisis” and that takes real skill and focus. Make sure you spend the required amount of effort on getting the messaging right. If you have not taken a PR course (which many large organizations offer to senior executives), seriously consider doing it. While not a panacea for solving all of your communication challenges, it will help dealing with the press, which can have a major impact on how the crisis is perceived in the marketplace and by other key stakeholders.
  3. Recognize the emotional and physical stress that managing these type of crises will have on you as the CIO. There will be a blaring spotlight on your actions, or inactions, and how well you are coping. Key stakeholders will be looking for reassurance that things are under some semblance of positive control and that there is light at the end of the proverbial tunnel. Maintaining your overall balance with a focus on the future is key to maintaining some sense of normalcy and sanity. Sometimes walking away from an organization after the crisis may be the best action for both you and that organization. Whatever you do, recognize that your legacy will be somewhat defined by the crisis and how you as a leader responded to that crisis. So crisis management is critical for your long term success as a CIO. I have seen many CIOs suffer through different types of crises. Some have been consumed and negatively defined by their crises, while others have used these opportunities to learn and reinvent themselves thereby coming out from the other side in a much stronger and more positive position. As always it depends on the choices that we make as leaders and how we position ourselves for the future.

So back to the beginning of this posting, have you written your three letters for your successor to handle their crises and are you prepared as you can be to lead as a successful CIO for your own crises? Hopefully you will not need those letters for some time, but ultimately, it is up to each of us as to how this crisis management plays out and the longer term implications for the future. We all need to be the leaders that we can and should be as successful CIOs, especially during times of crisis.