Silver linings: 7 ways CIOs say IT has changed for good

IT will never be the same post-pandemic - and according to these CIOs, the changes included some good. Boston CIO of the Year winners share how rising to the challenges set them up for long-term success
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IT leadership lessons

For all of the business challenges the COVID-19 pandemic presented, it also came with a silver lining for IT leaders - it shattered previous notions of what was possible.

We had an opportunity to ask CIOs who recently won the 2021 Boston CIO of the Year ORBIE Awards what positive, lasting outcomes they will be taking away from the pandemic. The awards were presented by the Boston CIO Leadership Association, a professional community that annually recognizes CIOs for their excellence in technology leadership.

Here’s what they had to say - and how they will translate these positive changes into long-term success for IT.

1. Deepened trust among leadership team

Leadership CIO of the Year

Elizabeth Hackenson

Elizabeth Hackenson, CIO, Schneider Electric: The global IT team at Schneider Electric strengthened its bond as we enhanced collaboration tools overnight to support employees to work from home – and ensured our ERPs were robust to handle the changes coming in from plants and distribution centers across our supply chain. For over four months, we were on daily calls as an IT leadership team, learning from each other – and then taking those learnings to other parts of the world. By the time the pandemic reached Europe and the Americas, we were able to be proactive in our infrastructure upgrades and knew what to expect from the ERPs.

A crisis provides an opportunity for people to be at their best and we continue to see this. We implemented major programs remotely for the first time and, with the recent resurgence of COVID-19 in India, we immediately knew how to respond without the daily calls. At the core of this bonding was the newly found trust that we must continue to maintain.

[ Get answers to key digital transformation questions and lessons from top CIOs: Download our digital transformation cheat sheet. ]

2. Higher employee engagement

Super Global CIO of the Year

Shelia Anderson

Sheila Anderson, EVP & CIO, Corporate Functions, Liberty Mutual: I have never been more proud to be a part of Liberty Mutual. Throughout the pandemic, Liberty Mutual has gone above and beyond to put people first – from the health and well-being of employees to focusing on creating seamless employee experiences for our global team of 45,000 employees. This has helped employees feel connected throughout this longer-than-expected pandemic. Leaders continue to lead with empathy by understanding the unique challenges team members face, and work to create a sense of belonging. It has been so important to lead by example – to celebrate team and individual successes, and to show the team members that it is OK to take time out for mental health and to focus on your personal well-being. Providing team members with the support and flexibility needed to balance work and life during the pandemic has been critical.

The focus on engaging the organization has led to high employee engagement throughout the pandemic. Team members have expressed gratitude for our employee-first approach during this challenging time. The support, encouragement and flexibility has enabled team members to remain connected and maintain strong, productive relationships with their colleagues, even while balancing their lives outside of work. Team members feel more connected to Liberty Mutual’s values, they express that their work matters, and that their opinions are valued, all while continuing to deliver exceptional results for our customers. This is evidenced by Liberty Mutual’s recent recognition by IDG Insider Pro and Computerworld as one of the 2021 “100 Best Places to Work in IT.”

3. Collaboration beyond silos

Global CIO of the Year

Marjorie Boles

Marjorie Boles, Group CIO, Sappi Limited: A positive change was the unbridled collaboration and coming together – without traditional borders or silos – to solve the exceptional challenges the pandemic threw at us. COVID-19 triggered physical social distancing while at the same time it bolstered digital connectedness and accelerated a culture shift to a more flexible work model. There was a pervasive focus on the wellbeing of each individual, and an intentional effort to hear from each person, which further diversifies input and insights to solve problems. The Sappi team came together in this manner and continues to carry forward those positive elements of inclusive and optimistic collaboration to navigate each effort with confidence that we will have a thriving future ahead.

Sappi has a comprehensive change agenda to drive digital innovation at scale to bolster the company’s growth. The passion for progress, confidence in each other, and openness to change and diverse input paves the way for stronger outcomes to be achieved. Instead of simply surviving a catastrophic health crisis, the bright minds in the Sappi team are energized to fully focus on thriving – helping colleagues thrive by balancing demands and reaching their full potential, helping teams thrive by helping them successfully deliver strategic projects, helping the organization thrive by focusing the organization on innovation and growth and helping our customers and partners be successful. No one is slowing down. Now our energies are focused together on delivering change that will have a long term strategic impact – and with the confidence that together we can do anything we set our minds to.

4. New approach to talent recruitment

Large Enterprise CIO of the Year

Tara Long

Tara Long, Head of MMUS Technology, Mass Mutual: There were so many challenging circumstances during this past year with the pandemic, yet one of the many positive outcomes was how our organization led with empathy, resiliency, and adaptability. When we switched almost instantly to remote work, our sense of teamwork and collaboration fostered an environment in which we quickly adapted and responded to that change. We found new ways to work together to meet our business objectives, while still being empathetic to the various needs of everyone’s personal situations during the pandemic.

Talent recruitment also evolved into a more open-minded approach to remote work situations in order to attract new employees who desire a flexible work arrangement. We witnessed new norms for work-life integration and a deep appreciation as well as empathy for the various situations in each of our lives. I was incredibly proud to see the power of collaboration while working remotely while also getting to know one another on a deeper level and leaning on each other for help when needed, which created special bonds of support.

The core MassMutual competencies of resiliency, flexibility, and adaptability were highly demonstrated by our entire organization this past year, allowing us to shine and position ourselves for success. From the start of the pandemic, we leveraged these competencies and our fortitude to successfully solve business challenges and meet our goals and objectives. The demand for digital experiences and customers’ expectations for seamless digital offerings continues to increase, and MassMutual’s digital and technology advancements and digital-first mindset allow us to offer more modern tools at lower costs and provide an overall better customer experience. The uncertainty of the past year was certainly challenging; however, we delivered significant IT initiatives, which ultimately allowed the company to grow our base of participating policyowners and deliver long term profitability. We also made significant progress on our strategic objectives, which align with our goal to transform and grow in a digital world.

5. Elevated importance of technology

Enterprise CIO of the Year

Eric Lindgren

Eric Lindgren, SVP & CIO, Bright Horizons: The rapid onset of temporary workplace closures and the change we saw in how education and care were provided during the height of the pandemic were a test for ourselves and all of our clients. It was also a test of the capability of our technology platforms and IT organization with the necessity to scale and change more rapidly than anything we previously experienced. For Bright Horizons, this change validated our strategy of building solutions and products that have an ability to support changing client needs and increasing demand for our services.

In the case of Bright Horizons, we have doubled down on our investments in technology and the further growth of our IT organization. We have seen how technology can be a differentiator for our company and the value our clients place on our ability to deliver quality education and care. Our willingness to invest in transformative projects, grow our world class IT organization, and partner with leading technology firms has never been stronger.

6. Increased visibility of IT initiatives

Corporate CIO of the Year

Bridget Collins

Bridget Collins, SVP & CIO, Cerence: One positive change has been an investment in an abundance of communication within IT and across our business partners. While this existed prior to the pandemic, there was a deliberate increase as teams and regions started working remotely to ensure that people felt informed, included, and that we were meeting their needs to ensure productivity not only continued, but increased.

Even though we were virtual, our team made a deliberate transition to become more visible – ensuring regular touchpoints at all levels of the organization. We focused on rapidly deploying technical solutions to increase productivity, but also many communication efforts such as Drop-in sessions, Tech Round-Up Newsletters, and a series of “Day in the Life” initiatives to hear first-hand what our customers were challenged with on a daily basis. This helped us prioritize and deploy the right solutions and information to keep our teams productive and motivated.

Our team demonstrated incredible dedication, adaptability, and responsiveness, accelerating the work toward building a trusting relationship with our customers and business partners. This has opened the door to faster innovation and deployment of new solutions than ever before.

7. Enabled IT to get closer to the customer

Healthcare CIO of the Year

Gregory Wolf

Gregory Wolf, CIO, UMass Medical School: The COVID-19 pandemic changed the depth of IT’s relationship with our customers at UMass Medical School. Prior to the pandemic, my IT department engaged with customers mainly within the walls of the school on predictable business topics (education, research, healthcare, etc.). The pandemic didn’t simply extend the walls of the Medical School to our employees’ homes. It opened doors for IT to help in ways we never dreamt possible.

IT now enhances students’ learning experience through expanded teaching modalities such as Independent Learning Modules. We promote discussions around Diversity and Inclusion and other topics by managing convenient and interactive forums. We teach our customers, particularly the mature workforce, how to best secure their home networks and accounts. This enhanced customer relationship positions my IT team as a trusted advisor on any topic. This trust, a wonderful byproduct of the pandemic, establishes IT as an influencer as well as a provider for UMass Medical School.

[ Get exercises and approaches that make disparate teams stronger. Read the digital transformation ebook: Transformation Takes Practice. ]

Carla Rudder is a community manager and program manager for The Enterprisers Project. She enjoys bringing new authors into the community and helping them craft articles that showcase their voice and deliver novel, actionable insights for readers.