Staying Focused in Tough Times

How to keep your cool even as the office heats up around you

Budget cuts. Layoffs. Doing more with less. Sound familiar? CIOs are suddenly tasked by management with putting out fires on multiple fronts as businesses struggle to survive amid the economy's smoking ruins. Oh, and don't forget little things like keeping the network up and the servers from crashing.

The mounting responsibilities and demands from C-level execs can be both personally distracting and professionally discouraging for some IT leaders, and CIOs are not alone: The nation's work-related worries jumped from 62 percent to 67 percent between April and October 2008, according to the American Psychological Association.

Yet now, more than ever, "focus is the name of the game," says Susan Cramm, founder and president of Valuedance, an executive coaching firm specializing in IT leadership, "especially when people and money are tight."

But finding your office Zen isn't easy these days. Drawing on past experiences, here's how some current and former CIOs have maintained focus in their role and within their department during a crisis.

"After the dotcom bubble burst in 2000, business was struggling and the workplace was pretty tense," recalls Les Duncan, then senior vice president and CIO at Joann Stores (he retired as Atmos Energy's VP and CIO in 2006).

To ease staff concerns, Duncan held regular meetings where he spoke directly about business conditions and highlighted the issues for that week or month (see "Your Crisis Agenda," Page 44). His staff knew how the company planned to weather the difficult times so they could focus on their work, he says. "This [transparency] also helped me to stay focused on what was really important—the success or failure of the business during hard times."

CIOs can be sucked into the mind-set of looming layoffs and project cancellations, just like any employee, says Direct Energy CIO Kumud Kalia. His method to combat this: Make time for you. "Spending time with my family is a good antidote for me—taking the kids to hockey, skiing with them, taking them to movies or playing on the Wii," he says. Duncan says he used to schedule time to walk or "play a good round of golf" to decompress.

Another method Duncan used to combat tense times is simple, yet effective: Get busy and stay busy. "I've worked at businesses where large numbers of employees were cut from the payroll," he says. "Most employees ran around huddling in small groups talking about the latest rumor, but my group and I were so busy and focused on delivering that we didn't have time to do that."

Cramm, Duncan and Kalia agree that positivity and flexibility is essential in staying on target at work. "Anticipate changes by checking in frequently with business decision makers and playing offense by killing projects that are going nowhere," advises Cramm.

Kalia tries to see opportunity in any major change. "It's a good time to offer assistance to colleagues and take on tasks that might normally be outside the CIO scope," he says. "This is not the time to hide in an IT silo, but the ideal time to step out of it" by creating space to innovate, which costs little and can result in growth.

Duncan, who has survived four brain hemorrhages and two brain surgeries, says that now, as in any crisis, "You've got to be able to look forward to better times."

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