3 types of IT leaders emerge from the pandemic

Now's the time to develop your skill as an innovative anticipator – leading crisis response while setting the organization up for bigger wins, post-pandemic
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cio role 2021

“There has never been a better time to be a great leader, nor a worse time to be an average one.”

This quote, from MIT’s George Westerman, has never been more timely.

As I survey the IT landscape during this current crisis, tech leaders seem to be sorting themselves into three types:

  • Untrained, accidental leaders who may not keep their jobs for long after this pandemic ends
  • Effective managers who navigate through the here and now, thriving on the adrenaline
  • “Innovative anticipators,” who are leading the crisis response while setting their companies up for bigger wins, post-pandemic

The third (and smallest) group comprises the great leaders Westerman refers to. I’ve been fortunate enough to have worked with many such leaders, and I’m not surprised to see them rise to the occasion, bringing a specific set of skills and leadership principles to bear on today’s crisis.

Crucial CIO qualities start with courage

In my three decades of studying and collaborating with CIOs and IT leaders, I’ve learned that the best leaders have refined a set of traits and principles that differentiate them, their teams, and their companies. I call these the “seven C’s of leadership success:” Courage, Communication, Customer-centricity, Collaboration, Cultivate, Culture, and Change.

[ For more on digital leadership, read Digital transformation: 4 ways to plan for the post-pandemic normal. ]

While all seven principles are important, I’ll focus for now on four:

Courage: Courage is a choice, and top leaders choose to be out front, making tough calls and bold decisions and encouraging and rallying the troops. Having courage doesn’t mean you have no fear – in fact, fear is the common denominator of courage: No fear, no courage!

Communication: Clear, transparent communication, especially when the future is uncertain, makes a tremendous difference to your employees, executive leadership and board, partners, and customers.

Cultivating employee well-being and Customer-centricity: In this health crisis, wise leaders are making employee welfare a primary value (Cultivating) while concurrently focusing on customer relationships. Recognizing that their customers are also facing new challenges, great leaders listen and identify new ways to invest in these relationships for the long term. This balancing act will build employee loyalty while also gaining customer mindshare and market share.

A few days ago, I had the opportunity to talk with a leader who exemplifies these principles.

How one CIO looked ahead quickly

Kevin Haskew is one of those great leaders who is proving his mettle during this time. As CIO of Phoenix-based ON Semiconductor, Haskew is responsible for employees and locations across the Americas, Europe, and Asia. He came into this pandemic with a well-established business continuity plan and immediately put it into action, setting up a wartime “situation room” to manage daily challenges.

“This is not a time for niceties or delegation,” Haskew says. “You’ve got to get in there and lead this. You have to elevate your game and be an ‘innovative anticipator’ along multiple fronts.

“We think about scenarios, but they never happen as you expect,” he continues. “It’s not good enough to just respond tactically to the situation; you have to anticipate a few steps ahead.”

In the early hours of the crisis, Haskew was already looking ahead. He engaged a number of technology partners, knowing that hesitation can be crippling in a fast-changing crisis.

“We rushed in some orders to get extra equipment and bandwidth in place,” Haskew says. “Within a week of starting these conversations, that window of opportunity for available supplies and service closed, given sudden demand. You have to move very fast to be on top of this.”

Exemplifying courage and communication, Haskew made sure his 800-member team, as well as company executives, felt confident that he was in charge and understood that they would work together to manage the situation.

The sudden, company-wide shift to working from home is a primary example. “Our first focus was on giving everyone the ability to connect — and we did that,” Haskew says. “The next step is to make sure people are able to be collaborative and efficient. This included equipping 4,000 design engineers who need a lot of compute power to be productive from home.”

Kevin is applying his “innovative anticipator” mindset and muscle to the future as well: He is already thinking of how, post-crisis, he’ll fold new learnings into his five-year technology roadmap and the next iteration of the business continuity plan.

What steady leadership means now

Regarding the need for courageous leadership, I decided to talk to my good friend Bill Treasurer, who literally wrote the book on the subject: "Courage Goes to Work." He emphasized the value of experienced leadership in bringing a steady hand to a crisis.

“Leaders who have been around a while will have lived through Y2K, the dot-com collapse, the 2008 recession,” Treasurer notes. “They’ve seen big-dip moments. Yes, this one is unique, but a leader has to be able to maintain composure for less-experienced folks who might be freaking out.”

That steady hand involves more than making decisive strategic decisions. It also means understanding the human element that makes your team and business function. As the “chief encouragement officer” of Giant Leap Consulting, Treasurer is preparing his clients to succeed during this “courage moment.” He encourages self-care (for example, take a walk) so you can build a “courage reservoir” – and when you receive encouragement, be sure to pay it forward.

"This crisis is going to create the push and increase the appetite for all those digital initiatives that have the potential to drive competitive differentiation."

Treasurer also recognizes that this moment is going to be a driver of digital transformation. “This crisis is going to create the push and increase the appetite for all those digital initiatives that have the potential to drive competitive differentiation.”

Treasurer will speak more about the need for IT leaders to be both personally courageous while also inspiring more courageous behavior among those you're leading during an April 28 webinar. 

Building for what's next

ON Semiconductor’s Haskew already has his sights set on what’s next. “We will soon be entering the last phase of the situation room, where we will keep watch on longer-term action items, ensure our metrics are good, review lessons learned, and adjust the plan for next time.”

Haskew will then get back to his focus on Culture and Cultivate, two critical “C’s” for building and sustaining a high-performing, future-ready organization.

“I’m not ready to declare victory just yet, but one thing we have learned is just how critical relationships are with all stakeholders, including our employees, business partners, customers, and technology partners. I’m looking forward to getting back to earlier plans to invest in our people, to intentionally focus on upskilling and future-proofing the team.

“While I prefer others to do our marketing for us, I know that we have to do a better job of communicating our value, of painting a picture for the art of the possible, of leading the conversation versus responding. This is why we are doubling down with an emphasis on building stronger communication and consultation skills.”

There’s never been a better time to be a great leader. I hope you will follow Haskew’s lead and Treasurer’s advice for building future-ready leaders, team members, and companies.

[ Culture change is the hardest part of digital transformation. Get the digital transformation eBook: Teaching an elephant to dance. ]

Dan Roberts
Dan Roberts is CEO of Ouellette & Associates Consulting. In this role, Dan leads the firm that has been known since 1984 for “Developing the Human Side of Technology.” His team has helped more than 3,500 IT organizations build a world class culture, a high-performing workforce and a differentiated talent brand.


Obviously good leaders are important. But leaders come and go. Managerial systems, or "mechanisms" as Jim Collins calls the, last for decades. If the goal is to improve employee engagement and productivity, I suggest looking at companies that excel at both. Industry leaders like Southwest Airlines, Starbucks, Capital and many private companies economically engage their employees as trusted partners in the business, driving and participating in the profitable growth of the company. This puts more meaning into the 24 suggestions the article makes. Their engagement and profit results speak for themselves. These Forbes and Harvard Business Review articles provide more background: https://hbr.org/2018/01/more-than-a-paycheck http://www.forbes.com/sites/fotschcase/2016/05/31/engage-your-employees-in-making-money/