Eight qualities of a good leader during a recession

These qualities of a leader during a recession show how CIOs can guide their organization in tough times, making the right IT budget cuts and inspiring employees.

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When money is tight, employee layoffs loom and spirits are dwindling during a recession, CIOs and other IT executives must take the qualities of a good leader to another level.

These eight qualities of a leader, culled from CIOs and leadership experts, will guide you through good times and bad -- yet are especially pertinent today to keep your staff engaged and ensure that IT meets changing expectations in uncertain times.

The ability to inspire. "In times where fear and instability raise their heads, people need someone they can rally around and feel confident in," said Bruce Barnes, president of Dublin, Ohio-based consulting firm Bold Vision LLC and formerly a CIO at Nationwide Financial Services Inc. "Part of that is making yourself out to be that safe haven where people can go and feel better about what they're doing and contributing. Be the one that people want to follow. People want leaders, so give them one."

Jason Jennings, an author, speaker and consultant who has studied more than 100,000 companies in writing a series of books, including Hit the Ground Running: A Manual for New Leaders, agrees.

"Workers are looking for some degree of reassurance that things are, at some point in time, going to be OK," Jennings said. "What becomes the responsibility of a leader or manager during both good times and bad is that a great leader or manager helps provide a roadmap for how the worker can achieve a better tomorrow than today."

Communication skills (including listening). "You have to be a consistent, effective, frequent communicator, but it goes the other way, too -- you have to be a consummate listener," Barnes said. "Ask good questions, absorb what's being said and appreciate the issue that's being passed to you with the same level of passion and concern as that of the people doing the passing."

Jane Landon, CIO and deputy commissioner of finance for the city of New York, oversees 250 IT employees, as well as consultants. Her division has seen budget cuts this year of up to 15%, she said.

While it's a difficult time, it's also an opportunity to find short-term benefits to help the organization. CIOs need to communicate with their entire leadership team, Landon said, ensuring that those directives are passed down to the rest of the organization in a clear and concise manner.

"Your leadership team needs to be very involved in decisions so there's buy-in," Landon said. "We're asking everybody to do more with less."

Operational credibility in driving results. As the leader, the CIO must tell the truth, set expectations and execute on promises. "No one is going to take you seriously unless you can show you can perform," Barnes said.

This means striving to deliver results on projects more quickly than you may have been accustomed to in the past. "You cannot have two- and three-year projects in these recessive times," Barnes said. "The impact on the bottom line has to be shown within 12 months in order for that credibility to exist today."

The ability to prioritize. Leadership in a recession requires strong prioritization skills. "Right now, you have to be looking at the expense and capital side and prioritizing what can get done," Landon said. "Look at the organization as a whole and what will deliver the shortest-term results."

Examine your IT portfolio and determine which 20% of investments give 80% of the benefit, Landon said. Perhaps CIOs won't achieve the perfect results for which they often strive, "but you can still drive short-term benefits to help the organization," she said.

Creativity and flexibility (aka, the ability to embrace change). "Hopefully, in these recessive times, there better be a whole bag full of innovative activity," said Barnes -- and in many cases that means finding ways to cut expenses without layoffs. Landon said she can't simply let people go when the financial pictures gets murky, due to unionization, "so you have to be extra creative in how you deal with trimming your budget."

Jennings advocates creative scheduling and cutting executives' perks and pay before contemplating employee layoffs. The most productive companies, he said, are completely opposed to layoffs.

"They believe that layoffs are the worst things you could possibly do, and the last tool in the arsenal to pull out," he said. "If a company begins laying people off, the rest of the people stop worrying about their work and start worrying about themselves and their future." That leads to a noted drop in productivity in those who remain with the company.

In past recessions, Jennings said he has observed a pattern whereby companies lay off workers to please Wall Street, but when the economy rebounds, "the costs of recruiting and training the new hires is more than the savings that were realized in the layoffs," he said. They also lose the "tribal knowledge" of how things are done in the organization.

Flexibility is also key. "I consider myself an agent for change," Landon said. "My first exposure as a CIO to really hard times was in the early 2000s. I was amazed at myself at how I could use my creativity, which I used in the past to grow the business, and focus it on helping make the economic conditions easier on the business."

Especially in a recession, fighting change could lead to a "very short career," Landon said. "In these times, you almost have to embrace change, either positive or negative."

You cannot have two- and three-year projects in these recessive times. The impact on the bottom line has to be shown within 12 months in order for that credibility to exist today.

Bruce Barnes, president, Bold Vision LLC

The ability to be a "fish out of water" leader. Jennings identifies several traits that set conventional leaders apart from great leaders, whom he terms "fish out of water."

Conventional leaders cast themselves as larger than life and sure in their stances. They are secretive and avoid signs of weakness.

A fish-out-of-water leader, meanwhile, is humble and expresses self-doubt when appropriate. He is honest, and admits fault when necessary.

Unfortunately, many "conventional" business executives have made news in the past several months as corporate scandals and mammoth bailouts have grabbed headlines, Jennings said. And that's why leaders should aim for something different.

"'Fish out of water' is a good way to describe people who buck conventional wisdom and don't just go along," Jennings said.

The ability to position one's organization as a mecca for talent. "You can't go looking for people -- they have to come find you," Barnes said. "You need to have the ability to attract, develop and retain top talent."

Develop a world-class network of your top peers from the CIO sphere, as well as providers and others you've encountered in your business dealings. "Get the most out of the resources pool that surrounds you, whether it's your team, a potential hire, a CIO or the technology community," Barnes said.

"You're all in this mess together, and you're going to get out of it together," he said. "Getting out of this mess means understanding that the resources at our disposal are far bigger than we ever let ourselves imagine."

Consistency. Jennings said there is no imaginary toolbox labeled recession, but good techniques for good times and bad. "Why wait until the fire alarm is going off to do things differently?" he said.

Let us know what you think about the story; email editor@searchcio.com.

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