One big question, nine answers from IT leaders – how has your team responded to the COVID-19 pandemic?

Geoff Scott Profile picture for user geoff.scott June 9, 2020
Nine IT leaders share how their teams have responded to the COVID-19 pandemic with ASUG CEO Geoff Scott, ahead of this month's ASUGForward event

2d question mark on gold/blue digital background © ranjith ravindran - shutterstock
(© ranjith ravindran - shutterstock)

Since the role was created back in the 1980s, one thing that IT leaders and CIOs have had to prepare for is change. To adapt to ever-churning business conditions, move forward with new technologies, and demonstrate progress most often in terms of evolutions rather than revolutions.

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought change unlike any other recent crisis. And CIOs are once again quickly having to shift their strategies.

As we approach the launch of our ASUGFORWARD virtual event — a focused week of content designed by IT leaders that will help IT organizations navigate our new reality — I asked nine IT leaders what they’ve learned about themselves, their roles, or their teams since early 2020, and how they were applying those learnings to their jobs.

You’ll see a lot of attention paid to what many consider soft skills — communicating among teams, building trust, and inspiring collaboration. But, to me, there’s nothing soft about the hard returns those who can deliver on these concepts will realize in times of crisis and, ultimately, when the crisis passes. Below are their responses.

Sharon Kaiser, CIO, New England Biolabs - Adaptability is everything

Since the March stay-at-home directive went into effect, I have been impressed and grateful for the adaptability of our New England Biolabs employees. The company has not missed a beat as we moved some personnel and shifted work to ramp up production to keep up with growth, while others are doing their jobs extremely well off-site. I have learned that it is important to stay in touch with people. I, and other company leaders, call random team members every day just to check in and see how they are doing. They appreciate the touchpoint, and it helps them to know that we care. And we all need to feel that way now, more than ever.

Andreas Liris, CIO, Maple Leaf Foods Inc – Get pertinent information to your teams

This is already well known, but it has been reinforced to me in this situation: People can operate successfully when they have all pertinent information. Timely and clear communication is imperative, and you must keep your teams connected. In a situation like this one we’re all in, you must go to more meetings (versus less), so you can keep in touch with how folks are holding up and how the teams are performing.

Next, I’ve seen that with strong and ingrained methodology standards, a seasoned team can perform effectively while being remote. I have always been a big proponent of teams in the same room, but I learned that our team can handle the strain of physical distance and still deliver results while removed from one another.

Lastly, I have learned that it is human nature in a foreign and new situation to accept delay. However, as IT leaders, it is important to keep our messaging the same: Nothing has changed for our delivery model — we must and will carry on. We just have to get creative.

Tony Caesar, Head of IT, Ericsson-MANA – Uncertainty calls for great leadership

To me, great leadership is key to getting through any situation that contains a large amount of uncertainty, variables, and extraordinary change, which is the exact situation we’re in now. Our employees — our people — look to their leaders to guide them through crisis. In my experience, leaders who are transparent about the issues and unknowns, and who exhibit empathy and humanity, are the ones who are able to help their people to remain optimistic about the future so that they can weather any storm that comes their way.

Dan Stuart, SVP of ITS, Southwire – Keeping users engaged is critical

To me, keeping your teams engaged is critical. For example, when having virtual meetings, I ask everyone to use their video cameras so that everyone can stay engaged and focused. We have found meetings are more personable and conversations are better when people can see each other. It’s a big change for a lot of people, but it’s been working for us.

We are also having daily 'stand-up meetings' to ensure leaders are staying connected with associates. This has been a great way to communicate updates on the company and make sure associates have what they need to work. Before, associates used to stop to talk with each other at desks, went to lunch with each other, or just grabbed a coffee to discuss daily activities. I see one of my main duties is to ensure our people are connected so that they can engage, be productive, and encourage continued teamwork — even when we aren’t in the same physical space.

James Johnson, VP and CIO, Carpenter Technology Corp – Employee safety and well-being is job one

The most important insight is something that I think about every day — during this time, it is my number-one job as a leader to ensure the safety and well-being of my employees. There is no more important mandate. In a business that is considered essential — and as such is continuing to operate — we have instituted a number of measures aimed at ensuring the highest level of safety, including creating a manual that we have shared publicly on how we 'work safe' during this time.

It is also critical to increase the level of communication with your employees. This includes having frequent check-ins — both one-and-one and collectively — to help minimize their feelings of isolation and to ensure they know that you, as a leader and representative of the company, care about them. I am humbled to lead during this time.

Mark LeClair, CIO GE Current (a Daintree Company) – Focus on the elements you can control

The most important piece of advice I’ve learned is to focus on what you can control — and try to not to pay any attention to that which is out of your control. In other words, do as much as you can to focus on the value-add and eliminate the non-value add. It’s easier said than done, I know. In your professional life, you must take this time to make your brand and customer experience the best you ever imagined it to be. In your personal life, you must make the time to take care of yourself, your family, your friends. The right focus will get you and your teams through any challenge that comes your way.

Ron Gilson, VP and CIO, Johnsonville LLC – Prioritize mission-critical projects

There are lots of learnings that my company has realized during the past several months, and we’re now using those learnings to help us chart our future. The first involves communication, specifically transparency, and frequency. How do we efficiently reach our members (our employees) with regular and transparent communication post-COVID-19? We communicated with much more frequency and with far more transparency during the past two months than we had previously. In turn, our members told us they appreciated and valued the additional communication.

The second one involves project focus and speed. The pandemic forced us to focus on the critical priorities and projects. We often have a hard time saying no within Johnsonville, so we have a lot of projects constantly in flight. Again, our members appreciated the clarity and focus. We also were able to deliver key initiatives more quickly by only focusing on the critical few — definitely a 'less is more' approach.

The last relates to flexible work. What is the right plan to re-engage our office members that best balances personal productivity with team productivity? Many of our members have found working from home to be more productive and conducive to a better work-life balance. With great change comes opportunity to step back and reassess what’s really working and what isn’t, and then make your processes better moving forward. The journey never stops.

Rajeev Kapur, VP of Commercial Transformation, Kimberly-Clark Corp. – Understand the customer impact

Post-COVID-19, there will be a new normal that will look very different than what we remember. There is no going back to the same way we worked before—that much is clear. Therefore, we need to understand and optimize these new experiences as we connect with our consumers, customers, suppliers, and, most importantly, with our employees. Now is the time to embed an innovative and resilient mindset into all of our organizational cultures to create opportunities and emerge stronger than before. We can’t wait another moment to get started.

Benjamin Williams, VP and CIO, Chesapeake Energy – Develop new cultural norms

The insight I've taken away from the COVID-19 pandemic experience so far is that changes in the world seem to be coming at us at an ever-increasing rate, and we must develop cultural norms that will keep up with that pace of change — both in our personal lives as well as in our businesses.

I believe that the most important thing we can do in today's world is to develop belief systems that recognize that the way we achieve our desired outcomes may have to constantly change in order to take advantage of the ever-changing context around us. In other words, the 'new norm' will be 'continuous change'.

In my own work and in my organization, I have developed systems of collaboration and communication to encourage us to constantly look outward for what’s changing that we need to consider adopting. We will be creating opportunities for our employees to learn about these technologies or concepts at a grassroots level, so that the team all moves forward together. All of this change can stress people to their limits. Developing a culture that puts change as the norm — and doesn’t allow us to settle in too much — will hopefully provide for a sound way of avoiding that stress. What doesn't change is the long-term good that we want to do as individual human beings and as a team.

Tara Gambill, Senior Director of Enterprise Systems, MOD Pizza – Trust is everything

To me, this has been an essential reminder that trust is the keystone. Trust embodies cooperation, communication, and collaboration, which are all essential in managing all day, every day. While companies continue to adapt people, processes, and technology to the changing landscape, trust is the one thing upon which they all depend. Moreover, it’s critical to realize that trust is not a 'set-it-and-forget-it' exercise; it must be constantly nurtured.

I apply this at MOD Pizza by keeping consistent, open communication with my team and our 'team of teams', and by providing multiple options and channels for folks to offer or collect ideas, give feedback — and sometimes even virtual hugs — on any issue that needs it.

Final thoughts from ASUG

I believe there are many meaningful takeaways in these quotes, and I appreciate the members of the ASUG Board of Directors for taking the time to share their thoughts.

If I could sum up the lessons for fellow IT leaders, here’s what I’d say: Be sure to ask a lot of questions of your employees, customers, and partners; listen to their responses carefully; and use that feedback to provide the necessary leadership, focus, and authentic communications to your team and entire organization.

You’ll get more of this unique and helpful customer-driven insight, SAP knowledge-sharing, and insights from IT leaders at ASUGFORWARD, June 22–25. For more information and to register, visit our ASUGFORWARD website.

Editor's note: after publication, we added a view from Kimberly-Clark Corp, so there is now a bonus IT leader view, which brings the count up to ten.

A grey colored placeholder image