CIOs: Grace under fire!

Do you have it?

Every CIO will undoubtedly run into very challenging situations at some point in their career which will test their endurance and perseverance. These situations can range from strategic digital transformation initiatives that go off the rails to cyber-security incidents that becomes a  major public relations disaster. These situations will put the leadership skills of the CIO under a microscope and, depending how they react, will end up defining how the CIO is viewed both internally within their organization and externally to the market at large. Ultimately the CIO’s reaction can also impact how the rest of their career plays out.

Based on my personal experience over the years of having to face a number of these difficult situations, and also having networked with literally hundreds of other CIOs, I would suggest that there are no “silver bullets” or “magic solutions”. However, while every situation and CIO is somewhat unique, I would propose that there are several common attributes of successful and resilient CIOs in dealing with these challenges and having “grace under fire”.

At a high level, I would offer the following points for consideration:

About our contributor

Gary Davenport is a CIO and consultant, mentor and advisor to organizations. He serves on the board of the CIO Association of Canada, and the Information and Communication Technology Council (ITCT), and is the Chair, Program Advisory Committee, Ted Rogers School of Information Technology Management.

  1. Obviously, CIOs will want to do whatever they can to avoid these types of career-limiting situations in the first place. However, despite their best efforts, CIOs may find themselves facing a crisis in any event due to failures in people, processes, or technology. As always, the first priority will be to take the necessary steps to recover from the particular situation as quickly as possible, while at the same time to learning any relevant lessons that will help the CIO and the organization avoid a repeat in the future.
  2. As tempting as it might be to potentially blame others for the situation, even if it seems to be warranted, it is important for the CIO to step-up to accept accountability for the results or lack thereof of their respective organization. This is not the act of being a martyr, but rather of someone acting in accordance with their own core values despite the circumstances. Remember that in accepting the privilege of being a CIO, there also comes the responsibility to serve the highest good of the organization, especially during difficult situations, which translates into the “buck stops here” mindset and related actions.
  3. Under these circumstances, as the leader, a CIO may feel alone and isolated. However, that is not really the case as it very likely that other CIOs have had similar career experiences. It is helpful to be able to reach out and have access to those learnings by doing targeted networking and openly sharing with other CIOs and industry advisors who can help provide their perspective and context.
  4. A CIO’s communication skills are especially important during times of crisis. In learning     how to best communicate with external parties, it would be beneficial for CIOs to take some specialized PR communication training. I have had the opportunity to do this training on two separate occasions in the past and it is indeed a helpful skill to be able to frame and respond to difficult questions without looking like a “deer caught in the headlights”. I highly recommend this type of training for all CIOs.

So, what does all of this mean? Of course, there is that old adage to not let the circumstances of a particular situation define you, but for you to define the situation in a manner that is in keeping and consistent with your own skills, capabilities and contributions. This translates into CIOs being able operate with “grace under fire”, which is not about being defensive or offensive, but by being the type of leader that we all aspire to be. This means taking charge in difficult situations, accepting responsibility and accountability, proactively networking with others for solutions and improving our communication capabilities. In other words, by being the best leaders that they can be, CIOs can walk away from any situation with their head held high knowing that they have done their very best regardless of how it plays out, which is the mark of a true strategic leader for all to see and the definition of “grace under fire”.