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Amid the current global pandemic, CIOs must step up and demonstrate empathetic but decisive business leadership, writes Paul Cottey, CIO of Water Street Healthcare Partners.

For me, "novel" has always meant new and interesting, not new and scary.

The novel coronavirus, however, is new and scary. Regardless of the ultimate arc that the virus takes in the US, we IT leaders have to step up and demonstrate our business leadership. It does not take a crystal ball to know that the near-term impacts of the coronavirus are going to require cost-cutting, resetting priorities, and flexibility.

What is an IT leader with no more answers than anyone else supposed to do?

1. Take care of yourself

First and foremost, you have to take care of yourself and your family. If you are concerned about your family, you are not going to be able to be concerned about others. If you are sick, you can't help others. If you are not modeling the behaviors you are asking people to model, you are not going to be credible. 

Establish a routine. Get up as you would for work. Follow your morning routine of getting ready, and then “go to work." Whether that is a corner of the kitchen table or a separate space, go to work each day. Don't try to live on black coffee and adrenaline. Take breaks as necessary along the way, but stay engaged. This is not a 9 to 5 situation.

2. Communicate

Although Mark Twain said, “It is better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak and remove all doubt,” in this case, not speaking does more harm than honestly communicating what you know. Start out by testing the communication channels. Remind people about how to get technical help. Team up with your HR people and remind your team members how they can get personal help. Talk about the business continuity work you have already done and project as much confidence as you can.

Set up a cadence of communication so you are not answering the same questions over and over again to different people. If there is an overall management meeting (probably now a phone call), be a part of the standing agenda. If you have an intranet, get a banner section for the latest IT updates. If you communicate to everyone via email, get to the point in the first paragraph and then embellish on it. Don't make people work too hard to understand what you are trying to convey.

Don't underestimate the value of "small talk." Socializing and chatting may not occur around the proverbial water cooler right now, but you can reach out to reconnect with people using texts, short emails, or quick phone calls. People are generally social, and even the most introverted people will (eventually) miss human contact.

Above all, and especially when the news is not good, you have to communicate clearly and openly. Deep down, your people know you do not have all the answers, but they want you to project confidence that there is AN answer. Not every company will make it through this novel situation, and none will make it through unchanged.

3. Prepare to make decisions

By this point in time, your CEO and CFO are probably refocusing all spend, including IT. This is where your in-depth knowledge of your environment, your projects, and your team are invaluable. Get out your 2020 plans and your 2019 actuals and be prepared to get to make some tough decisions.

Capabilities

Make a list of the IT capabilities that matter and take steps to protect them. Does your company live and breath in email? Then concentrate on that. Is your focus patient communication? Shore up those capabilities. Do you need to have uninterrupted access to an ERP, to a portal, to a CRM system, to the phones? Determine what is most important to your company.

Projects

Don't wait to be asked to divide projects into required and optional. Just do it, or when you are asked to make this division, you will be behind. Expect the optional projects to be stopped with a restart date of "to be determined." If some optional projects are so close to completion that it would not make sense to stop them, then get them done now.

Further divide the required projects into deferrable and non-deferrable. Not everything that is required is required NOW. You were probably ahead of any externally-dictated deadlines like end of life situations, because that is how you are, but if you need to operate closer to the edge, this is the time to do it.

4. Focus on people

Vendors are people too. Pull any relevant contracts to understand what impact your changes are going to have on your projects and on your vendors. I actually have accelerated some work with vendors because they have the capacity to start sooner and I do need the work done. As counter-intuitive as that may be, if you have the cash flow, and they have the resources, start sooner. Check with your CFO, however, to make sure that you will be paying bills as usual. If you won't be, have that conversation with your vendors before you short- or slow-pay them.

The hardest task you will undertake is if, after going through your projects and working with your vendors, you still have to cut more costs. In that case, you are going to have to look to lay off, furlough, cut hours, or let go staff.  I'll let HR and lawyers talk about the differences between those options, but the bottom line is that you are going to have to decide who is going to continue to work with you on the payroll and who is not.

Start with the (relatively) easy decisions:  Were you going to hire new people? Don't. Are there marginal performers still on the team? Part ways with them. Are there people who were 100% dedicated to projects which no longer are going to happen? Let them go, at least for now.

Cutting future spend is not the same as cutting current spending, and most of us do not carry so-called "C players" on our team, so you are probably still going to come up short on cutting costs. Also, you need to remember that letting someone go today probably doesn't reflect on the company's costs until a month or two later because severance, accrued PTO, and other outlays have a tail. Making these decisions will bother you, because these are YOUR people. Be empathetic, but make the decisions. Your company needs to survive for there to be a chance to re-employ these people later.

5. Plan for the comeback

This novel situation is going to end eventually. At some point, businesses are going to ramp back up and you will be required to move beyond the "must do's" again. Your hints that that is underway will be that shelter in place requirements will be lifted, that offices will reopen, and that your users will start to ask about "nice to have" things again. Plan for that turning back on. 

There is going to be a deluge of requests for new IT capabilities once the world gets going again. You will have cut the budgets you would normally have used and let the people go who would normally react with you. Start planning for how you are going to ramp back up.

Don't forget that you probably loaned out equipment and relaxed some requirements and you need to wrangle your equipment back into the office and re-engage your prior discipline around operations. 

Do your best. Be well.

Novel normal social distancing elevator

 

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