(Technology) Leadership for COVID-19
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(Technology) Leadership for COVID-19

Douglas Duncan, CIO, Columbia Insurance Group
Douglas Duncan, CIO, Columbia Insurance Group

Douglas Duncan, CIO, Columbia Insurance Group

What does COVID-19 have to do with technology? A few weeks ago many would have said very little outside of the HealthTech industry. Because this virus is effectively shutting down our face-to-face activities, technology is taking the forefront for how we mitigate the effect. Suddenly it seems, though in fact the changes have seeped into our business foundations for decades, we have both a crisis and the business work-arounds to mitigate it.

As I sit writing this, I am not watching my team in the Big 12 Tournament. Next week I will not be watching the NCAA tournament. I am not getting ready to fly to an industry conference, and I am not holding a face-to-face workshop to define a critical data architecture. Most certainly I am not conducting my business as usual and it is only looking to worsen for the coming weeks.

While for many this is inconvenient, for those affected and their families, for those with serious impacts to their life and health, for those who are separated from loved ones or whose livelihoods are hurt by this event, it is much more than that. It is a real and impactful life event and I offer my deepest sympathies and support.

But in comparison to all the other risks and threats we face, is the general reaction to the COVID-19 pandemic rational? Are these actions preventing the spread of the virus or are they only preventing future recriminations if no action had taken place? My personal reaction up to this point had been one of skepticism and optimism. Skeptical that this really merits all the media and political attention it has received. Optimistic that any day now people will see reason and things will become more normal. It does not take stock market updates or Oval Office announcements to know my optimism was misplaced.

Does this mean I was wrong in thinking this has been over-hyped? Perhaps so. However, I have come to realize it does not really matter. What is important is to recognize which way the current is flowing and act accordingly. Swim as hard as you want, but the tide will win in the end if you are not smart about setting your course.

 Swim as hard as you want, but the tide will win in the end if you are not smart about setting your course 

As CIO/CTO, as the leader of the technology of your organization, you must do what you were hired to do. You must lead. Leading does not just mean to ensure you have a Business Continuity Plan in place, adequately cross-trained staff, robust work-from-home capabilities, and a good communications plan. These preparations are the price of entry. No, what is most needed right now from a leader is calmness. Confidence. Assurance that no matter how strong the tide, how swift the current, how gusty the wind – you will navigate through the rough conditions. You need not guarantee you have all the answers to all the possible scenarios that come up. You do not and you will not. But you do need to provide the calm in the eye of the storm that keeps the team focused and the organization on track.

Projecting this type of calmness and confidence can be as simple as looking people in the eye and showing them you have a plan. That your organization is prepared. You should take the time to spell out the planning, explain how it is addressing the issues that you know of, and how you are prepared to assess and deal with the unexpected. Show that you have faith in your people and your organization. Do what leaders do anyway – talk with your people, listen to their concerns, show empathy, and follow-through on what you say.

Today we are in rough weather. Perhaps it is not as bad as we think, maybe it is worse. Whichever the case, we need to provide calm and thoughtful leadership to get through it and come out the other side.

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