V Vandhana Veerni is one of the many high-caliber IT Executives who will be facilitating group discussions at NCS Madison’s Virtual CIO & CISO Strategy Meeting on April 28, 2020, for executives in the Columbus area.

Vandhana is the Chief Information Officer at Columbus City Schools. Se will be leading a thought-provoking group discussion on CIO Leadership: Responding to COVID-19. Here is a preview of what she shared with us in a recent interview for her upcoming session.

“Never let any crisis go to waste, and never lose sight of how we can rally around a common purpose and still deliver world-class services despite the pandemic.”

What leadership capabilities does the CIO need to guide their organizations during the COVID-19 crisis?

A CIO leader during these tough times needs to have the following capabilities:

  • Innovative: new times calls for new, innovative measures to ensure efficiency and security
  • Courageous: not being afraid to make tough and quick decisions
  • Lead by example: walk the talk. Be willing to make the same sacrifices you ask of your staff.
  • Infinite patience: listen patiently as it is easy to overlook the emotional well-being of the team when you are working remotely and flying by the seat of your pants to make operations effective and efficient.
  • Collaboration: not only within the organization but outside the organization to build upon each other’s ideas and capabilities.
  • Bridge Builder: hindsight is 20/20. It is easy to get swayed by negativity and feelings of despondency that cripples you from either making decisions or assuming your decision is the right one because you are the SME. However, calling upon one’s bridge-building capabilities at this time is crucial for the success of the organization.
  • Communication: communicate, communicate, and communicate is the new mantra for COVID-19. However, just focusing on IT communications is not enough for the success of the organization. Ensuring across the organization there are a plethora of communication tools available to folks, tools that compliment each other and co-exist. Communication on issues that might impact all – like cybersecurity and phishing is also key. This is not the time to just focus on getting the work done, it is also the time to focus on getting the word out.
  • Avoid personal bias: you might have a personal bias for a toolset, or your team might prefer one tool over another for all the right reasons = standardization, security, feature set. But others across the organization might come in with other ideas. Instead of leaning on rationalization, lean on the overall focus at this time.

Add to this a smattering of the normal times leadership capabilities like integrity, forethought, strategic vision and a strong mission.

And above all, it is so easy to lose focus on the work-life balance of yourself and others when your services are required at lightning speed. So take care of the EQ of the team. Take care of yourself.


What role does the CIO play in maintaining the organizational purpose? Can you give an example from your organization?

The CIO plays a critical role in maintaining organizational purpose. Gone are the days when IT was providing a toolset that they thought the organization needed almost autocratically or being in a butler mode and saying whatever the business needed. Now in most organizations, IT has a seat at the table. With great power comes great responsibility. Furthering the organization’s purpose is critical even during regular operations, but in times of crisis, this becomes even more important. IT becomes an enabler of the business and sometimes IT is the business. More and more technological advances call for more and more capabilities from IT. What used to be game-changers are becoming table stakes now. And at times like this current pandemic, table stakes are even higher, and this responsibility should be dealt with a lot of caution and servant leadership by IT.

I work for an urban K-12 organization. Our organization’s goal is to maximize learning for our students when schools remained closed for a long time. Learning should not suffer. To ensure our students have the right tools and the right environment, we have distributed a district device to 51% of our students in 8 days and tracked it electronically so we can ensure returns next school year. We put outside access points in 50% of our 110 school buildings so children without access to broadband may use parking lots to complete online learning. We rolled out emails to 100% of our students (we did not have student email before) – that is 50,000 students. We set 50,000 students and 10,000 staff with WebEx to encourage classroom and teacher-student meetings. We are also putting together a repertoire of multiple toolsets that aid and complement each other so our students can be helped. All with one goal – to enable maximum learning for our students. All this since March 16 – in 2 weeks or less! So operating in lightning speed also becomes a new skill for a CIO to maintain organizational purpose.


What lessons have CIO’s learning from this unprecedented epidemic? And how has this crisis impacted their IT modernization?

The greatest lesson we can all carry forward is to never let any crisis go to waste. We all have learned how to operate differently, how to make decisions in lightning speed and how to work with internal and external stakeholders more effectively to achieve a common purpose. We have learned to lean in, lean on each other’s strengths and weaknesses, help each other across organizational borders and overcome so many legislative roadblocks. These times have taught us how inflexible we have become often hiding behind rules, standards, policies and procedures that we set for ourselves decades ago and somehow never had time to review them because we were firefighting. We have learned to become more strategic; we have learned to do more with less. We have learned to strategize differently. We have learned to get out of our silos and comfort zones and fight against issues plaguing any organization with a united front. Same leaders, same organization, the same set of guiding principles, same vision, same mission – just unprecedented times. What we should do is not lose the lessons we learned as we limp back to normal. Not to lose sight of how we can rally around and still deliver world-class services despite this pandemic.


What will the recovery look-like, and how can the CIO lead their organizational recovery?

Recovery is going to be long and there will be more hard decisions to make. Not just from an economical perspective, but also an operations perspective. The current euphoria to rally around and get things done will lead to multiple, disparate systems and toolsets for the CIO and IT organizations that they need to come back and rationalize and have those difficult discussions with the business line leaders and vendor partners. There have been several decisions made for quick and efficient operations that might increase the organization’s risk profile. Every decision, every process or skirting around the process calls, every purchase needs to be examined and rationalized. All this while you continue to deliver value to the organization. It is not difficult or complicated by any means, but it is going to be long and complex. And that is okay. We just need to be cognizant of that and as the furor settles down, focus on planning for recovery right now. We will be back in regular business soon. That is inevitable. So, it is prudent to plan for it right now.


What is one thing you would like the attendees of your discussion group to leave knowing?

One thing I want the discussion group to leave with is- This Too Shall Pass!!! And as we operate under this pandemic, we need to plan for the recovery and the new normal that is coming after this. No better time than now to begin the planning. Lean in on your council of elders, your peers within and outside the organization, your team!


What is one thing you would like the attendees of your discussion group to leave knowing?

The group’s sharing of the challenges faced by going remote in a hurry and the success stories in meeting those common challenges will be of great value. The measures taken and planned will help us set up our remote workforce to maintain productivity, customer satisfaction and brand reputation. Our coping with the pandemic is a work in progress.


Why have you decided to join us at the virtual 2020 Columbus CIO and CISO Strategy Meeting?

I have benefited heavily during my entire career from others like me who are going through the same challenges. I am going through or have experience overcoming them. I love to pay that forward and be the sounding board for others. What better way to share than joining meetings like this for kindred folks? That is why when Raida extended the invitation, I was thrilled to join.

We have limited spots available for the CIO & CISO Strategy Meeting for IT Executives in Columbus and its surrounding areas. If you are interested in joining the conversation on CIO Leadership: Responding to COVID-19  or any of the other great discussion groups available register here: https://www.tfaforms.com/4792662 or contact Jason Walter at jwalter@ncsmadison.com for more information.