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The CIO’s moment: Leadership through the first wave of the coronavirus crisis

McKinsey 18 Mar 2020 12:00

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“All eyes are on me. And I’m trying to deal with exploding online loads, people working remotely, new cyberthreats. Every day it’s something new.”

That quote from a banking chief information officer (CIO) reflects some of the urgency and pressure tech leaders are feeling. CIOs are facing the greatest challenge of their careers. We are seeing infrastructure breakdowns, denial-of-service attacks, and sites going down because of traffic load. Even as companies grapple with the implications of the COVID-19 pandemic, it is already clear that CIOs are playing a central role in navigating the crisis.

The COVID-19 pandemic is first and foremost a human tragedy, and technology is on the front lines of this crisis. Many of the changes reshaping how we work and live—from employees working remotely to consumers shifting their shopping online—rely on technology. And because technology ties so much of every company together, CIOs have a unique view into what’s really going on and how to manage it.

2. Communicate confidently, consistently, and reliably. Uncertainty breeds fear and confusion. CIOs have to combat this reality by developing a crisis-communication program based on being transparent with both the C-suite and employees about what the current situation is and the steps being taken to address issues. Setting up regular briefings create a certain routine, which builds trust and con­fidence. Any delays to major deployments need to be planned for and communicated.

5. Be proactive on security. Threat actors are already stepping up cyberattacks to exploit confusion and uncertainty. We’ve seen attackers launch email-phishing campaigns posing as corporate help-desk teams asking workers to validate credentials using text (also known as “smishing”). In addition, remote working creates additional risks: employees may try to bypass security controls to get their job done remotely, unprecedented virtual-private-network (VPN) usage complicates security monitoring, and remote working may weaken deterrents against inside threats.

9. Stay focused on customers. Amid the frantic activity to ensure business continuity, it’s easy to lose track of customers. Customer behavior is shifting radically during this time, and in many situations, to digital channels. There will likely be a residual stickiness of these learned behaviors, as with the explosion of Chinese e-commerce following the severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS, epidemic.

We know that in many places things are likely to get worse before they get better, and there are still many unknowns. However, we also believe that for those CIOs who can manage and lead effectively, this can become their moment to shine.

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pharma companyconfusionAmericasAsiaEurope
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