Putting out fires may be part of the job description for every CTO, but effectively leading your team through crises and applying the difficult lessons learned to improve the organisation as a whole is a honed skill, according to a panel of CTOs here at InfoWorld's CTO Forum.
Several CTOs, including technology leaders at the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE), Texaco, and the US Department of Defense, exchanged tales of IT crisis management and offered words of advice to colleagues.
Fresh out of the trenches, Roger Burkhardt, senior vice president and CTO of the NYSE, shared his experience of handling a high-profile crisis when a software glitch brought trading on the NYSE to a screeching halt earlier this month.
With the eyes of the world watching, Burkhardt expressed the importance of cultivating in advance a solid plan for communication both to the CTO's internal team and the outside world.
"It was a big fishbowl effect with the media and the regulators -- we were making decisions while seeing it on TV," he said. "Having a plan for communication in the crisis is as important as how deal with crisis itself. A large part of leadership is communicating the business reasons for why we are doing things to the technical team."
If there is a silver lining to crisis, it can be found in the teamwork needed to survive and the cultural shifts that result, according to Dawn Meyerriecks, CTO at the Defense Information Systems Agency. She used the example of the Y2K crisis in which different government departments had to pull together to reach a hard deadline.
"In our Y2K crisis, different parts of the organisation got the idea of working together. Crisis helps change culture in cataclysmic ways instead of slowly," Meyerriecks said.
Additionally, emergency situations can bring out leadership skills, said Ronald Robinson, president of the technology division at Texaco.
"During a crisis you generate heroes and you can see leadership qualities that can only come out in crisis," he said.
As for advice, the panelists said it could be helpful to admit to problems early on, before a situation snowballs.
Lessons gleaned from crisis situations can eventually become a resource, said Burkhardt.
"You don't seek crisis but after you can use it as a resource to drive improvements going forward," he said. "So the reaction doesn't last just a few weeks; come back to it, keep it alive as a motivational case study."