Talking points

Talking points

What is the best leadership advice you have received?

“You can’t be an expert in everything.” Vivian Chandra, ICT and database manager, Amnesty International

What you need as a good leader or a good manager is to surround yourself with the skills you are missing and trust your staff.

Vivian Chandra, ICT and database manager at Amnesty International New Zealand, can not remember who gave her this advice early on in her career, but it is something she keeps in mind.

“If you identify in yourself a weakness or just something that you are not particularly strong in, find those skills in your staff and trust that they are doing it right,” says Chandra.

Chandra says recent developments at her job validated this insight. Working for a charity organisation means money is tight, she says. However, just before her former boss the then CEO Patrick Holmes, left Amnesty to head the Royal NZ Coastguard Service, she was able to convince to let her get an assistant.

She hired someone whose role included a focus on digital communications. “She has got real eye for data and analytics and that has just helped out the digital communications strategy by leaps and bounds that I can never do or have time to learn,” says Chandra.

“The true essence of working as a team is understanding you can’t be an expert in everything,” says Chandra, whose team has expanded to three, including an IT intern.

Likewise she believes it is important to acknowledge people’s contributions to the team’s success. “You can achieve more than if you try to do everything on your own,” she says. “Play to your strengths and that will get you far.”

“Race to the future or become irrelevant.”

Andre Mendes, chief information officer/chief technology officer, Broadcasting Board of Governors

As he makes decisions in a sector whose hallmark is constant change, Andre Mendes says these words of a mentor Dr Axel Goetz, chief science officer, Real Age, always come to mind.

In the mid-80s, the two were working at General Health. Goetz, who was senior vice president of research and development, told Mendes, then a senior systems analyst, “What is, won’t be. Long run, what will be cannot be understood today, not within our frameworks, not within our self-imposed limitations.”

Now, Mendes says he will tell anybody who will listen to him the following: “The time between being an iconoclast and becoming a dinosaur is ever shorter unless you make it your life goal to remain relevant in the face of inexorable, double exponential transformation.

“It is no longer the Darwinian ‘adapt or die’,” he says, “but rather ‘Race to the future or become irrelevant long before you have ever imagined that being possible. What is, won’t be, tomorrow!’”

"Give more than you get.”

John Deane, group IT manager, The Comfort Group

Early in his career, a senior executive offered John Deane valuable insights on networking and relationships in business. “It is difficult for an individual to succeed long-term alone, so a strong network is vital to support a successful career,” he told Deane, now group IT manager at Australasian company The Comfort Group, and former CTO at PricewaterhouseCoopers. “Networks are based on relationships and enduring relationships are based on trust. So, treat people as you would have them treat you and give more than you get.”

Deane says his father also said the same thing, but in a different context. “Best advice I ever had!”

"When you identify issues, list options for resolution.”

Hannes Van Zyl, CIO, Kordia

For Hannes Van Zyl, raising an issue about something — without suggesting ways to resolve it, is anathema. “When you identify issues/problems, please list your options for resolution, rather than dump the issues/problems on my door,” says the Kordia CIO. “If I needed anyone to identify problems/issues, I could have employed the guys who sweep the streets.”

Van Zyl has been advocating this approach to his staff throughout his career.

“It is very easy to ‘dump’ your issues on your boss, it takes much more effort and thought to work out possible solutions and then present these,” says Van Zyl, who has led IT teams at Transfield Services and Carter Holt Harvey. “It is quite amazing to see it work out in practice — once the staff get the idea.”

“Be a star, whatever your role.”

Michael Whitehead, CEO, Wherescape

“Make every post a winning post,” says Michael Whitehead, CEO of Wherescape. “It doesn’t matter what you are doing, what job it is, how junior it is, how silly it is. You can be a star.”

He says there are stars in any industry. “There are top software developers there are top sales people, there are top McDonalds people that serve fries. You can be the best at that and if you are, you will get noticed and it just opens up all these doors and opportunities.”

Whitehead once hired a person who was “absolutely perfect, on paper”.

The catch? “He was always looking for the next big thing… and the next big thing,” says Whitehead, still shaking his head years later as he recalls the experience.

“While he worked for us, he was always on the lookout for opportunities,” says Whitehead.

He adds that he felt like he was talking to someone at a party who was “looking over your shoulder, thinking, is there someone better that I should be talking to?”

At that time, Whitehead also hired another person who was “just good but applied himself to it”. This employee got a lot of “fantastic job offers” when he left the company.

The first employee could not believe why he was not getting those opportunities. “I am better than him, I am doing all these things,” he told Whitehead.

So when Michael set up Wherescape, he looked out for people like the second employee, creating opportunities for them to shine. He says whenever he and the other executives assign a task, “We don’t make a big song and dance about it but we notice, absolutely, if the job is done well.”

“Invest upfront in training.”

Nats Subramanian, IT manager, Truck Investments

“In IT management, success is measured by the level of acceptance of technology by the users,” says Nats Subramanian, who is based in Palmerston North as IT manager of Truck Investments, part of the Sime Darby Motor Group. He says the top insight he has received came from a consultancy team member he worked with in the infrastructure team for a large SAP implementation at a petrochemical company in India. It was: “Invest upfront in training, because the technology is only as good as the users.”

Clichéd as it may sound, Subramanian has kept this in mind as he has worked as a project manager over the years. Right at the beginning of any project, he says he convinces the key stakeholders that training should be given due consideration. “That has proved to be a critical factor in my project successes.”

Another great piece of advice came from his boss at one of India’s largest telecommunications company who advocated continued learning and stepping out one’s comfort zone. Subramanian was a network specialist then and managing a team of network engineers. “He threw me the challenge of building the company’s DR and business continuity centre,” he recalls. “I had to learn new tricks — fire retardant walls and doors, gas-based fire suppression systems, motion-based video surveillance, raised floors, humidity control and air conditioning, redundant power supply — the list was endless.”

He says it was an amazing experience, and they finished the project on time. He was appointed manager, DR and BCP, responsible for running the centre. “My confidence skyrocketed.”

Early last year, Subramanian met with Garry Collings, GM of Toll NZ, for a series of mentoring sessions. “He encouraged me take a step back, put my aspirations and goals on a paper, along with timelines attached. With the kind of pace and pressure we encounter in our working lives, we tend to lose ourselves as individuals. The exercise I went through with Garry [a former CIO] helped me re-evaluating myself and bringing the focus back to my career.”

He admits that while all the advice he cites is basic, he finds the words of his former boss at Click Clack, Barry Shanhun, to be true: “Common sense is not common practice.”

“Walk into a room as if you own the place.”

Geraldine McBride, president, North American region, SAP

Geraldine McBride has risen to the top in an industry that is vastly under-represented by females, particularly in the executive suite. “It is a great shame that there are not enough women in senior roles,” says the Kiwi-born McBride, who is now president, North American region, SAP.

For McBride, a greater issue is encouraging diversity across teams. “I look at diversity as a bigger topic than just purely women,” she says. This means different management styles, ethnicities and generations. This way, she says, “You get the power of the team.”

So what worked for her? “It is about being good about what you do and being really clear about what you want.”

She remembers a key advice from her mother: “Walk into a room as if you own the place.”

“Never feel scared because you don’t think you know everything,” she says. “Always ask because if you don’t ask, you don’t get. The worst that somebody can say to you is ‘no’, and nine times out of 10, they will say ‘yes’.

“Put yourself forward if you think you can do something.”

“You need to be aware of where you are good at, be aware of what you are not good at, [and] be honest with yourself.”

Divina Paredes (@divinap) is editor of CIO New Zealand.

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