Tech career gave Sir Ralph Norris the edge

Tech career gave Sir Ralph Norris the edge

Experience in low level IT, and high level IT-management directly influenced Sir Ralph Norris' award-filled career

Sir Ralph Norris, whose IT career led to one of the most high-profile CEO roles in Australasia, credits his years as a CIO with giving him the edge in business. Norris retired as CEO of the Commonwealth Bank of Australia in 2011 and was last week awarded the inaugural CIO Lifetime Contribution Award at a special ceremony in Auckland. It is the latest in a string of awards, the pinnacle of which was the knighthood he received in 2009.

His career began as a computer programmer at the ASB in 1969, where he rose to become CIO in 1986 before being appointed CEO in 1991. He left the bank in 2002 to become CEO of Air New Zealand, and from there was head hunted for the Commonwealth Bank of Australia role.

Norris says his CIO background made the transition to CEO relatively easy. “In my day we were actually replacing all of the manual machine based systems with computer systems, so in doing that you actually got to understand the business end to end,” he says.

“And as a result, I think that gave me a good insight into how to do things better and more efficiently and at the same time I got the opportunity to manage small teams through to bigger teams and so I think my leadership and management skills were honed through that process.”

As CEO of what became Australasia’s largest bank under his watch, Norris always ensured he chaired the executive review committee on major IT projects.

“My tech CIO background made me more inquisitive as a chief executive. I would probably ask more difficult questions of my business unit heads and of my technology people,” he says.

“I’ve always been of the view that the CIO should report to the CEO. In too many organisations you find the CIO reporting to the CFO. At CBA I made sure the CIO reported directly to me.”

CBA had a reputation of being a “oldy worldy” bank when Norris began, but by the end of his tenure he says it was acknowledged by the Customer Service Institute of Australia as having the best customer service, and this was in part due to systems put in place by Norris.

It wasn’t all plain sailing. Norris came under heavy public criticism for lifting home loan rates in 2010 above the official Reserve Bank rise, after posting large profits.

He says that while the media and politicians took aim at him personally, “surprisingly enough I didn’t get a lot of direct negative feedback from customers. In the end I saw it as largely a manufactured public beat-up.”

During that time there was even a fake Twitter account which, before it was forced to change, appropriated his name and photo. But should the CEO tweet for real?

“The CEO probably needs to be removed from being involved in public tweeting type situation. I think the organisation needs to have a consistency of process in dealing with that. We obviously dealt with that through a social media monitoring group within the marketing function,” he says.

“Internally you might run blogs and things of that nature, it’s good that the CEO should be interacting in an internal social media sense within the organisation. That’s something that is very important these days.”

Norris is now serving on the boards of Fonterra and Origin Energy in Australia, and he says an announcement that he will join another New Zealand board is pending.

He has, for the meantime however, ruled out a move into politics. “I’m interested in politics as an observer but not as a participant. I’ve had opportunities in the past to become involved in politics and I’ve always turned the opportunity down and I don’t see any reason why I would change that view.”

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