by Christopher Hoenig and Patricia Wallington

Post 9/11: CIOs Must Create Empathy, Unity

Dec 01, 20016 mins
IT Leadership

The world is in turmoil. In the aftermath of Sept. 11, everything seems to have changed. Then again, it hasn’t. There’s still work to be done. You and your people must grapple with the tensions of loss, fear and uncertainty along with the normal stresses of an intensely competitive world.

Such times of crisis create big, thorny problems. Intense prejudice and raw hatred emerge where they never have before?especially in very diverse workplaces. Conflict is more frequent, and stress can smolder beneath the surface. This will exist side by side with strong nationalistic pride and renewed appreciation for friends and loved ones.

Such crises offer subtle, often profound opportunities for great leaders to increase understanding, strengthen bonds, intensify commitments to principles, raise awareness, discover talent and shape character. To that end, we have put together a primer that we hope you will find of some use in your day-to-day struggles throughout the coming weeks, months and years.

Set an Example

In times like these, your people will watch you more closely than they ever have before. It is vital that you are aware of what you are doing, saying and showing, and why. Even the smallest signs can be misread. To avoid that, make sure you

Know yourself. Examine your heart and mind for how you feel and what you think about the situation we’re in, the friends we have, the enemies we face, the wounds we’ve sustained and the sacrifices we’ll make. If you know how you feel you’ll be less likely to let it affect your leadership in an unknown way. Have your spouse or some objective third party do a mock interview to test your responses to questions employees might ask.

Take the high ground. Decide how you will establish the moral high ground for your people on behavior, principles, values and communication in the workplace. Understand the law and your company’s policy or overall approach. Then craft your message. Make it reflect the best of what our country has fought for in the past and strives for in the future.

Send clear signals. Make sure everyone understands that certain types of behavior (graciousness, tolerance, mutual support, open-mindedness and industry) will be celebrated and others (violence, hatred, prejudice, intolerance) will not be tolerated. Explain how undesirable behavior will be handled.

Open up and let down. Share your feelings and points of view in an open-ended way that encourages others to do so too. Take time to let people have fun and be distracted from what’s going on in the news. Surprise them with some playtime, and use these informal settings to listen and be heard.

Take time and reach out. Get the help you need and find ways to provide it to your people. Tap in to the professional resources of your company and your community?even the nation. Now is a good time to educate against the unconscious insensitivity that ignorance may generate.

All for One, One for All

Whether you have a large team dispersed around the world or a small group in one site, you’ve got to think about individuals?not just groups?to adequately provide leadership in times like these. People respond to crises personally, and those personal responses aggregate into group behavior. But it also works the other way around. Single individuals can cause huge problems or turn out to be catalysts that spread their spirit throughout the group. To encourage the latter, you should

Work the shop floor. Be more visible than usual, and spend more time just asking, listening and observing how people are feeling and what they’re saying. Listen for tension in the halls.

Identify hot spots. Try to quickly identify any teams, individuals or relationships that may be likely causes of trouble so that you can prevent instead of react. On the other side, also look for people who can make a real difference in helping everyone be at their best, and make sure they are visible.

Seek common ground. Find unity in diversity wherever you can. It may be a joint accomplishment, a shared birthday, a common loss or a mutual belief. Whatever it is, look for ways to help people feel a collective bond. One approach is to get people working together to help victims and their families.

Follow through. Build on the things you find and see where they lead. Squelch the dangerous situations completely. And when you see the sparks of inspiration and community, find a way to give them air and fuel so they burn brightly.

Lead the Business

As hard as it may be to focus, it is even more critical for you to provide business leadership during these extraordinary times. Whole industries have been affected. The desire for a successful company is one thing all employees can share, and you can use that as a unifying force.

Marshall your inner circle. Identify a small circle of people who represent the different elements of diversity in your organization and who possess the leadership potential you need in a time like this. Rely on them for advice, input and support in generating leadership at all levels.

Reevaluate the plan. Don’t assume you can just pick up where you left off and continue the same projects or programs. You may have to deal with significant recovery issues or severely degraded markets. Assess the current situation and identify the top priorities. Communicate revised goals, expectations and priorities clearly and often.

Reassure and celebrate. Don’t offer bland and superficial missives or clichŽd statements. Become informed about what is happening around the country, the world and your community so that you can offer credible reassurance. For instance, work with your company to create a central news source that everyone can tap in to. Meanwhile, don’t forget to celebrate important accomplishments.

Be inclusive. Be sure that everyone has a part to play in your plan. Identify the critical skills required, and tell everyone what role their individual efforts play in the company’s success. People are hungering to be a part of something positive.

Keep in touch. Don’t assume that just because something’s been taken care of it won’t flare up again, or that when something works one time it will work again. Things are moving quickly outside, and they will move quickly inside in response.

Be creative. Solving problems can be energizing. In times like these, ordinary people can achieve the extraordinary. Seize the opportunity, and make it happen.

By stepping up to this challenge, you can raise your leadership to a whole new level as well as contributing to a better workplace and a better world. We wish you all our best.