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From ICT to operations

Moving out of the CIO role into broader management can be a challenging, even at times "frightening" experience, says Glenn Patrick, for the past four years chief operating officer retail at the BNZ Bank. But it's a role that is "exciting" and gets him a lot closer to the customers than working in the IT space did.

Patrick was CIO for Westpac. Before that he worked for BNZ as head of IT sales and service from 1998 to 2000, "but it was effectively a CIO function".

"I was general manager global systems development for NAB from mid 2000 to August 2002. Then I was with Westpac from August 2002 till the end of 2005, as general manager, business technology solutions and services."

In his present position he oversees the operations of BNZ's retail bank. "Our operation extends to 180 stores; we have a contact centre, an online capability and across retail we have just over 2,500 people.

"I look after the operational capabilities of that business, making sure we are available to customers when we say we are and that we meet their needs."

From his perspective the move from CIO to COO, retail was a natural evolution. "I was looking for a broader role; one that gave me the ability to move into a new sphere of leadership that involved a business that had revenue -- income -- as well as costs," he says. "In a CIO role you're typically dealing with the cost side of the equation. In terms of growth opportunities, to actually be involved in a sales business was and still is very exciting; and it gets you a lot closer, ultimately, to your customers."

What parts of his CIO experience have been valuable in his work as a COO? "It might sound flippant, but I'd say every part," Patrick says. "The grounding I had as a CIO taught me first how to engage across wide and varied stakeholder communities; it taught me valuable listening skills and the ability to get on and deliver to an agreed roadmap or pathway."

Technology can be a very complex business, he says; responsibility for applying technology to business requirements teaches you to "traverse the complexity of the business, and to explain [the advantages of a technology exercise] to all your stakeholders with simplicity and relevance.

"I think you get the ability to strategise, put plans in place and initiatives to deliver on the strategy, then absolutely act. I think you do that not only within your technology team but across all the parts of the value chain in the organisation.

"My view is that [a CIO role] gives you a very good foundation as a leader; it gives you very good experience, and leadership capability. It means you're able to transition to wider roles."

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How would he define leadership?

"The essential characteristics are:

You have to have a passion for what you're doing; a fire in your belly. You have to be strongly committed and believe in what you're doing.

You need to find ways of engaging your team and taking them on the journey that you're on -- accepting that you will not have all the answers.

You need to truly understand your customers; understand what their needs are now and what they might be in the future, and have a vision and a strategy to deliver on those needs.

You need to ensure you are making a significant contribution, to whatever organisation and/or team you are part of.

"And the last thing I'd say is for all leaders, humility is a good trait. You have to recognise when you haven't got it right; to hold yourself to account for that; to be upfront about it, to learn from it and to move forward."

It's often said that the talents of a CIO are inadequately recognised by promotion to general senior management and board positions. Patrick, however, thinks this ceiling is breaking down, if indeed it ever really existed.

"I've seen a number [of former CIOs] go into different business roles in my time," he says. "I don't necessarily connect as I used to with the CIO fraternity now I'm in a broader role. But certainly in the last decade or so I've seen some CIOs come through.

"The very notable one is Ralph Norris. He's well-known because of his success [as CIO and then CEO at ASB Bank and its parent company Commonwealth Bank]; but that absolutely demonstrates to all CIOs that it's possible. You do now see CIOs take on different roles in organisations; you've seen CIOs be very successful in delivery of large and complex change-management projects. You have seen them move into COO or business-operational roles.

"Perhaps what you've seen less of is their moving into potentially sales-related roles," as Norris did. Patrick points out that another shining example of a chief executive with a thorough IT grounding is Rob Fyfe at Air New Zealand.

"He's another role model of someone who's able to make transition between business, technology and transformation roles and back into business roles," Patrick says.

A CIO position is just another business role and should be recognised as such, Patrick says. "Maybe the technology industry creates its own stigma around CIOs in that they aren't [seen as] business leaders. I would argue they are."

Do today's CIOs have enough influence on company plans? "I certainly think I did, when I was at Westpac and prior to that in BNZ in CIO roles. I was very fortunate; I was a member of the executive team; I had access to all parts of the business; I was certainly intimately involved with strategy."

He doesn't subscribe to the view that what a CIO does is undervalued. "I'd say when it comes to a company's ability to meet the needs of their customers, to grow their markets, to deliver on their strategy and technology, IT is a component and a very key enabler of it. That would be universal.

"I always felt I was part and parcel of helping develop [BNZ's and Westpac's] strategy; and that I was responsible for the delivery of the strategy and for the performance of my part of the business and the contribution it made to the wider bank and the way it affected and impacted on staff, customers and shareholders."

The position of the CIO in the organisational chart varies from one organisation to another, but this doesn't necessarily reflect a greater or lesser respect for the role, he says. "You see them at executive team levels; you see them at one down from executive team level -- sometime [reporting to] the CFO; you see them in shared services roles as well and from time to time in strategy-type roles.

"But I don't think where a CIO is positioned in the structure diminishes the importance of the role," he says.

What did Patrick find stretched his capability on moving from CIO to COO?

"I needed to come up to speed in understanding the mechanics of this business; where income was made; I had to have a deeper understanding of customers -- the true customer who pays the bill, who walks into our stores, calls into our contact centres or goes online. I needed to spend more time in customer-facing roles, truly understanding what staff were facing day-in day-out; how they were meeting the needs of customers, where there were barriers or frustrations.

"I think I could have done more of that as a CIO and I hope that's a message CIOs will take away from this; we should deeply engage with and understand what the real customer is experiencing daily. You can get a view [at second hand] from an internal stakeholder or partner, but you have to do your own due diligence and research in truly understanding the products and services you are delivering and how they affect the real customer. I could have done more of that."

In his present position he still has strong connections with the ICT function: "I have dealings with our BNZ technology people every day and I'd be the first to recognise their significant contribution to enabling the bank's strategy, and the customer experience, that we pride ourselves on delivering day in day out. The reality is we are implicitly reliant, as our customers are, on technology operating at its best constantly. Our business is more technologically enabled every day."

Naturally he still "understands that world reasonably well", he says.

His experience "enables me to ask relevant and pertinent questions; it allows me both to challenge and support given strategies and direction and I think that's very important, because through those roles you get the best outcome that you can for your customers," he says.

"I feel very fortunate in terms of my previous opportunities and career that I'm able to bring a large part of understanding of the technology sector to my current role."

I there anything he's thankful to have left behind? "No one enjoys the 3am call when a critical part of the system has gone out. That's one of the necessary functions of any CIO's job; when a mission-critical system is down you have to be front-and-centre in getting it back up as quickly as possible and limiting any customer impact.

"I can certainly remember having had my share of those calls over the years; I get less of them now. I won't say they've ever totally gone away; but getting less of them is a blessing."

More about: Air New Zealand, ASB Bank, BNZ, Commonwealth Bank, NAB, Technology, Westpac, Westpac
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