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Driving for change

Driving for change

Garry Collings is one of a handful of New Zealand CIOs who leapt to top executive posts in both the ICT user & vendor spaces

Garry Collings says it is "miserably wrong" for people not to view the CIO as someone who can readily transition to a general management role.

"It is a real paradigm shift for people to believe that an IT/CIO calibre kind of guy can run a business," says Collings, general manager of logistics company Toll United.

"There are a lot of real CIOs out there that are capable," says Collings, whose past roles include being CIO of Toll New Zealand, the parent company of Toll United, and Mainfreight. "The one thing that IT gives you is grounding to running a business. What better way to understand how a business operates than to write an IT product for them, because you must know every facet of the business."

His advice to CIOs who want to take the step up to general manager roles and even CEO? "As soon as possible, get people to view you as a leader and a provider of business solutions, not a technology guru."

"One of the biggest pains of being a CIO is everybody thinks you can fix everything. So when people come and ask you to fix something, the worst, you can ever do is fix it -- what you need to do is put them through to a member of your team that can assist them."

He says the CIO can then use this opportunity for another type of conversation. "Seize the opportunity to talk to them and say, 'I have got Peter working on it right now. By the way, what is your biggest business challenge right now?' Seize the opportunity for them to believe they can talk to you about general business situations."

It is advice Collings says he should have taken during his time as an ICT executive. "I shied away from that in the early days because I didn't think people would take me seriously. Whereas the reality is that you do know a lot about their business, otherwise you couldn't design, build and run those systems that support the business processes."

The secret, he says, is to regularly deal with all the business managers. "A big part of your role should be sitting down with them, asking, 'What is happening, what is wrong, what is broken, what needs fixing? What are you going to do in the next 12 months?' I reckon 40 percent of your time should be spent in the business with executive peers. Get them to understand that you are a business manager and a leader of people. They will take you seriously.

"You need to front up to the business because you as the CIO are a fairly substantial cost to their business. So start demonstrating some value, demonstrate some savings where necessary, demonstrate where they have current issues and where you think an IT solution will help them with it.

"Have the courage to perhaps accept that something that is an integral part of the IT infrastructure maybe isn't needed. Ask yourself, are you being anally retentive about something that is not truly necessary?"

The strategic route

Collings had a strong background as an ICT executive. In 2004, he was named CIO of the Year for his work at Toll New Zealand. He also has an MBA from the University of Waikato.

When he left Toll in 2005 after four years, he sought out consultancy roles that used both his skills as an ICT executive and training as a general manager. Working as a consultant for Diligo and his own company @large, he worked on a lot of verticals.

At Diligo, headed by Glenn Myers, former CIO of the New Zealand Racing Board, Collings worked for about four months at Vector on a contract negotiation on the formation of a joint venture. He dealt with the IT components of all the contracts between Siemens and Vector when the two companies established Advanced Metering Services Ltd. He also helped with the restructure at Mighty River Power.

He was also country manager of IT vendor NetApp for two years. "All those very different consulting jobs enabled me to strengthen my general management capabilities and to demonstrate that I was quite versatile."

But it was at his old company that he found his opportunity to spread his wings as a general manager.

In 2008, Toll New Zealand sold its ferry and rail business back to the government to what became KiwiRail and was basically left without an IT infrastructure. He was asked to help the team led by Allister Lowe, Toll Group IT manager, to rebuild the system. Toll had a year to disengage from Kiwirail, which under the terms of the sale was to be their services provider during that period.

"When the Toll offer came along, I saw that as an opportunity to demonstrate lessons learned over 15 years in general freight. And yes, demonstrate that I built it the first time which means, I can build it faster the second time."

Faced with what Collings calls an 'immovable' and 'challenging' timeframe, the group partnered with a range of providers like TelstraClear, Fujitsu and Eagle to complete the project on schedule. The project involved moving to a new service desk, migrating 550 desktops from Citrix to Sun Virtual Desktop infrastructure, design and install a new IP telephony system, and virtualise more than 75 servers.

It was towards the end of the contract that Toll United, the company's business operation in the Northland, was looking for a general manager.

People were quite surprised when he put his hand up for the role, says Collings. "Interestingly enough, when they took the time to seriously think about it, most people said ultimately 'that makes sense'. This guy knows every facet of our business, he has been involved in our business over a number of years, has been involved in transport from the mid-90s."

Toll United serves the Northland region, but as he explains, it is a different model from Toll's general freight business. Their operations include fuel deliveries, harvest crews cutting down trees in the forests, logging trucks, relocations for companies and delivery for retail products in the Far North. The company has an international pack operation in Auckland where they transport product from Kaitaia and then pack it into 12-metre containers, and then transport the containers to the port for shipping to China and other countries across the region. There is no single competitor, says Collings. "There are different competitors for each one of those businesses."

He was confident he could handle the redoubtable task, having taken deliberate steps to become a general business leader and move on from pure ICT leadership roles. This began, he says, when he started his MBA, which he completed in 1999 while working full-time as CIO of Mainfreight.

"Instead of being a technologist, I was focused on business-solving problems, and so if I could make IT assist the solving of the business issue, I did and people inside the business started to see me differently. They no longer saw me as the gadget guy, as can you fix my computer guy. They saw me as this guy who is 'look, we have got this problem can you assist or do you have any ideas?' And it is not necessarily an IT project."

"The disappointment is it has taken a decade for me to grow those skills and start getting noticed and demonstrate capability, and it involved two or three jobs along the way."

But if there is one thing he would have done more when he was CIO, it was spending more time on harnessing his finance skills and with the finance team. "Much like you fix business problems inside an operation with IT, I believe you can do it with finance as well by understanding what their drivers are, understanding what their metrics are, what are their KPIs."

Giving back

An area that Collings has not held back on, even during his pre-CIO days, was involvement in mentoring young professionals within and outside IT, or for colleagues wishing to advance to other positions or sectors. "I have never done them for profit because I get just as much from them," he says, and at one time he was mentoring four individuals. "I am a firm believer [that] if someone else has traversed the road, at least they can share that information with you. People need to fall over and bloody their nose because you learn better. But it doesn't alter the fact that we could give them a map, as opposed to just letting them loose."

The mentoring could last up to two years. "I just meet people for two or three sessions. In a lot of cases, every couple of months. We meet even just for a coffee and a chat, [discussing] what have you been doing? How is it going? Is there anything you are struggling with?"

For the past two years, Collings has been one of the judges for the CIO of the Year. So what does he look for in the candidates? "My focus has always been about identifying the leader with a strategic focus and spends most of the time in the business," he says. "It is about managing and leading a team of technologists."

Summarising the lessons he learned along the way, he says some key components keep coming back for today's CIOs. "Demonstrate that you are a leader of people," he admonishes.

"Because you run a big team, demonstrate that you are capable of managing and leading them. There is a difference -- a big difference -- between a manager and a leader. Anybody can manage a process, to lead is quite different."

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