Effective Leadership in Tough Times

As the economic picture gets bleaker by the day, many CIOs are wondering just how they are going cope. Budgets will surely be cut at some point, staff may have to be let go, projects once deemed mission-critical may no longer garner the same support as in better times; basically, leading IT in a recession is going to be a new and bitter experience for many.

This was the theme of Ram Charan’s talk on Friday at CIOhio, an annual gathering of the midwest’s leading CIOs and business leaders hosted by TechColumbus. Charan, a PhD and advisor to some of the biggest names in business—Coke, Nike, DuPont, Bank of America—said times are tough and they are only going to get tougher. This will lead to a lot of hard decision-making very soon; decisions most people are not happy making and most employees are not happy hearing. So, what do you do?

“IT leaders have to think in these tough times through three lenses,” Charan said in a one on one interview:

What is really happening with the financial crisis, “because that is having a huge and very serious impact on the business … as well as the CEO/CFO.” In other words, you, the CIO, have to understand what is going on as well as the CEO and the CFO. Don’t wait for them to educate you; do it yourself.

What is the impact and opportunity on the company’s business and its future.

What are the right goals for IT. (Hint: if they’re not in line with the business’ goals, i.e., raising cash to stay alive, you probably need to take some time to reevaluate the situation—fast.)

“To be a partner to the CFO and the CEO (CIOs) have to show how they are going to create value to the company,” said Charan. This is nothing new to many CIOs, but, given what’s happening in the global economy there is a new impetus to get it right. “The economy is going to shrink. You haven’t seen anything yet. An IT (leader) who does not understand a company’s cash position is going to have a very tough time.”

Not to be confused with a company’s credit position; cash is King today and will remain so for the foreseeable future. Because of this, CIOs have to be thinking about ways to help their company’s cash position. Everything has to be very now-focused. Thinking long-term will only come after your company’s immediate survival is taken care of.

In his talk and well as during the interview, Charan, the Indian-born co-author of The Game Changer laid out the five traits all leaders must embrace today. While there are a multitude of leadership styles and methods, these particular five will allow you to weather the current storm. “The fundamentals of leadership have never changed,” he said. “When the times get tough, the tough get going. This is where we are.”

Inspiration – During hard times such as these, most of your staff will be feeling a combination of anxiety and fear. So, to inspire, you must be honest, authentic, credible … in a word trustworthy. Do not offer up platitudes, for example, that everyone’s jobs will be safe when you know it’s not true. “When people are in bunker mentality … the anxiety is real,” he said. “Be honest. When you do this, your integrity has to be solid.”

Realism with a Touch of Optimism – Don’t be all doom and gloom. It’s a hard balance to strike but you have to be realistic that things are not good but also optimistic that things will get better. Positive energy is what you are after. Hunker down and do the things you need to do today to survive, but be looking for opportunities for when things turn around and, most importantly, share those findings with the rest of your staff. “Let the people see some practical dreams,” said Charan.