Tech executives need new skills to lead in a remote world

Through the Covid-19 crisis, it has been technology leaders and their teams that have kept countless organisations working. Without their efforts – managing the shift to remote connectivity, the cloud and collaborative tools such as Zoom and Microsoft Teams – many businesses would quite simply have ground to a halt.

In many ways, therefore, these are “good days” for technology, despite the immense workload and pressure of the past frenetic months. This year’s Harvey Nash/KPMG CIO Survey, taking in the views of more than 4,200 CIOs and tech leaders across the world, finds that nearly two-thirds (62%) believe the pandemic has increased their influence.

This is unlikely to be a blip. Technology investment remains a priority for businesses across sectors, with our survey finding that, even if the recent surge in spending is sure to tail off, over half of respondents expect their budgets to rise in the next 12 months. Key areas are operational efficiency, customer engagement and enabling the workforce.

But with so much expected of technology, there is no doubt that CIOs and other senior tech leaders will be under pressure to deliver. And they will have to do so in a much more remote world than the past. Almost half of tech leaders expect to have the majority of the workforce predominantly working from home after Covid. This inevitably produces the need for a new style of leadership.

Leading at a distance

It’s something that businesses are already very cognisant of. Frequently now, when we take on a new search mandate for a senior tech figure, our client stresses the need for someone who is able to “lead at a distance”. This is not something that comes naturally to everyone. Indeed, in many ways it’s an attribute that you either have – or you don’t.

What makes a good remote leader? Like so many things, it comes down to communication. It’s an ability to maintain a sense of team even when you’re not in the same room. It’s about setting and vocalising the strategy and mapping out the road to achieve it in a way that builds a sense of team purpose, culture and inclusion.

Some remote leaders may set aside time for virtual team coffees and social catch-ups. Others may take a more free-style approach where they simply make the time to check in individually with team members and ask a very simple, but important, question: How are you?

One of the key attributes is genuinely caring about the team and recognising the importance of well-being in unusual times. Previous Harvey Nash research has shown that mental health issues are a growing concern in the tech industry.

The CIO Survey underlines this further, with three-quarters of CIOs saying they are concerned about the mental well-being of their team. The proportion that have a programme in place offering mental health support has grown since the Covid outbreak to 58%, from 41% prior to the pandemic – an encouraging development.

With location mattering less, remote working may also be a positive development for improving diversity – which has long been a challenge in the technology sector. Good remote leaders will be assessing the make-up of their teams and leveraging the opportunity to bring in the right talent while building a more inclusive, diverse team.

Spotlight on the leaders

It will be crucial for tech leaders to shape their teams to meet the new demands and challenges being posed in the wake of Covid-19. If teams can’t deliver, the spotlight will quickly fall on the leaders responsible for them.

We are already seeing signs that one of the shake-outs from the pandemic could be increased churn and movement at a senior level. Some organisations are asking themselves whether their CIO or other senior tech leaders are the right people for the new environment. This is especially the case in businesses where the evolution of tech has been rather static – something that new demands brought about by the pandemic may have highlighted.

Even before Covid-19, tenures among senior tech executives were on a trend of perhaps just four years (with the exception generally of large global organisations where “life expectancies” are longer). We expect this trend to continue and perhaps intensify.

Tech has never been more central to organisations’ strategic priorities. While this puts strong tech leaders in a great position, it also raises the stakes. New skills and approaches will be needed in this most unpredictable of times.


Neil Price is head of CIO practice at Harvey Nash Group. The 2020 Harvey Nash/KPMG CIO Survey was launched today. To register for the launch events, or for a copy of the report, click here.

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