In his first week on the job, Ron Hooton was blindfolded, took a train and got off at a stop five kilometres away, and then walked around the shops. He literally placed his life in the hands of his companion, a guide dog trained to help blind and low vision people navigate their way around the community.
The experience was just part of his induction as CEO of Vision Australia, the umbrella organisation providing services to blind and low vision people across the Tasman.
"It was a frightening experience, absolutely amazing to experience the confidence you gained from having a dog steering you from obstacles, stopping you at crossings, guiding you to seat on the train, using scenarios to show you where the button is to push to cross the road, a whole range of things," says Hooton, now based in Melbourne, the headquarters of Vision Australia. Hooton says there was another Vision Australia staff member with him, but "the dog was doing the work".
Instead of being terrified, Hooton says, the experience gave him confidence that should he ever be struck by blindness, there will be tools and techniques that will help him. On his third week on the job, he travelled to London to meet with the World Blind Union. The hotel was full of blind people, he says. "They were getting around pretty much as sighted people.
"It is the same at Vision Australia, where nearly a fifth of the staff are blind or have low vision.” That is a very large component of the workforce." He cites a female staff member who has low vision and she told him of her condition during their second meeting. "She was doing everything just as ably as a full-sighted person."
He also mentions the case of Andrew Follows, a photographer who is blind. He told Hooton, "When you are walking down the road with a camera over your shoulder and a guide dog, people look. They just don't get it." He smiles, "I am inspired by what I see."
Hooton moved to Melbourne in January to take on the CEO role at Vision Australia, after seven years as head of ProCare Health. It is a permanent move for him and his family.
"This is a sort of a midlife OE," says Hooton, who was the first CIO of the NZ Defence Force and held senior IT leadership roles across private and public sector organisations across New Zealand.
Like Sir Ralph Norris, Hooton is just among the handful of CIOs who have moved to the top role in the organisation. Hooton's career goes back 40 years, starting at Databank, where he was a computer operator. "I never went down the programming route," he says. "I was quite involved in the big systems, the big IBM mainframe systems."
He says this provided a great grounding for an IT career, and he stayed with Databank for 16 years. His later roles saw him take on greater technology and business management roles that included computer operations manager for National Provident Fund, computer operations manager -- then regional manager at Telecom; manager information technology and business strategy at the Western Bay Health in Tauranga; CIO at Countrywide Bank, before becoming the first CIO of the NZ Defence Force.
He held this role for just over four years, and then moved to ProCare Health as CEO. He is also a director of ChildFund New Zealand, which helps children in third world countries.
Related: Doctor in the house At ProCare Health, CEO Ron Hooton has a pharmacist as a CIO and a general practitioner in charge of innovation. So how did this arrangement come about?
Technology plays a major role in his current job. "For our organisation, technology takes another step beyond what you and I might think of technology being an enabler," says Hooton. "Mainstream technologies that are in today's world -- iPads and smartphones -- make it so much easier for people to get access to information -- a process that was complex years ago."
"For an organisation like ours where one of our real challenges is to get as much information into print as possible, mainstream technology makes a huge difference," he says. For instance, one device designed for blind people is the Daisy player where a CD is inserted and it does a talking book. He says he is proud that staff at Vision Australia have taken the Daisy player (produced by the Daisy Consortium which Vision Australia is a member of) apart and put a 3G card in it. One of the challenges for many blind people who are senior citizens is that they may not have the skills or desire to get involved in accessing the internet. "This device gives them all the information they could ever want more information they could listen to in a day through a device that is connected digitally through a 3G," says Hooton. "They don't need to know about any of the technology, it is updated every day." Career trajectory
While progressing to IT executive roles, Hooton also gained some management qualifications, completing his MBA at Massey University, and completing the certificate in company direction from the NZ Institute of Directors. The CIO of Defence role, with responsibility for a staff of over 200, was "wonderful and fantastically complex" job, he says. "There was a lot of diversity, it was a bit like being CEO of a small organisation," he says. "It was a bit like running your own business."
His first move to CEO was at ProCare Health, and for this he mined his experience at the Western Bay Health in Tauranga. "I was IT director there but then took on a whole range of other things like business strategy, negotiations for contracts and ran some service areas and that took me into the business world and allowed me to do my job as CIO a lot better."
He says ProCare Health had to take a "big call" in taking the "top geek in a defence force" and employ him as CEO. "It was a big call because the two jobs are quite different," he says. "The common thread, apart from the obvious technical skills, is leadership and being able to work with people and get things done within the organisation.”
He says this is also a theme of his move to Australia. The organisation provides a range of services, from training guide dogs, running blindness and low vision clinics and orientation and mobility training for people on how to get around. The organisation also runs a radio station and an employment service to help people with blindness and low vision get jobs.
The accidental CEO
"The move to CEO was accidental," says Hooton. "In some ways I wanted to get out of IT, to a small CEO or large COO role."
"I haven't come to Melbourne because I want to be CEO of a large organisation," he says. He "stumbled on the job" when he was giving a reference check for a friend who used to work at ProCare Health and the recruitment consultant told him he may be interested in working for Vision Australia based on his LinkedIn profile. He says the information pack on the job said the organisation was a "partnership" with the blind and low vision community.
"At that moment I was captured," he says. "It didn't matter where in the world it was going to be. I wanted to come and do this."
"I think all too often we make career decisions that are based around financial reward, prestige, those sorts of things. I am not terribly interested in that. I consider it an enormous privilege to come and lead this organisation. It does a social good for people, it is a great organisation, it is going to challenge me and I am really excited about it."
"Those are the real things that you need to think about in a career, what is going to excite your passion, not what is going to put a pay cheque on the table. If you get something that excites your passion, the pay cheque follows. "I wake up every morning just absolutely energised and can't wait to get to work. Not everybody can say that."
Sidebar:Choose a great mentor
Vision Australia CEO Ron Hooton reckons getting into IT was all in the family. His father, also named Ron, had an influence on his career. Another brother, Michael, is likewise in the same trade -- he is manager, information systems at Ramset New Zealand.
"Dad was in today's terms the CFO, but with responsibility for IT as well as the financial aspects of the business," says Hooton.In the early 1970s, the elder Hooton was responsible for bringing the first retail point of sale system into Australasia.Hooton says it was a huge project that delivered online credit checking, online credit card (in those days a Farmers card) processing and a host of store management features to Farmers. Hooton recalls at the time that bank credit cards were introduced in NZ, Farmers already had "a far superior system and more cardholders".
Hooton was also working at Farmers at this time, as a computer operator, and also at the Databank processing centre in Victoria Street, at night. He says the only organisation that "came close to the sophistication of the Farmers system" at the time was the ASB, which had online bank transaction processing, years ahead of the trading banks."I certainly would never have achieved what I have without the role model my father set for us all," says Hooton.
"He was an amazing leader of people and intellectually brilliant. "So if you are going to pick a role model, pick a great one!"
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Divina Paredes (@divinap) is editor of CIO New Zealand.
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