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Object lessons

Object lessons

Mary Ann Maxwell of Gartner says some of the greatest lessons that helped her reach the top of her profession were forged during the years before she went into ICT.

They say if you can remember the ‘60s, you weren’t really there. Mary Ann Maxwell was there and has recollections of those years. “I spent too much time in San Francisco,” she says, with a laugh. With flowers in her hair? “Exactly”.

Fast forward 40 years and Maxwell is group managing vice-president, executive programs for analyst firm Gartner based in Sydney. In between she has had a series of CIO roles in the US and in Australia, before moving to the analyst space.

This month, Maxwell is returning to the US, to join her family in Portland, Oregon. But, she explains, she is not yet ready to retire. “I realised I don’t really want to just move away from everything, completely at least, not right now.”

She will continue to work for Gartner, on “composite, different things”, though she does not yet have an exact title for her new role.

“I will be sort of, the experienced old lady at large”, says Maxwell, who moved down under as CIO of Westpac, then was working as an analyst at Meta when it merged with Gartner.

Her experiences during what she calls the “crazy time of the mid to late ‘60s” had a lasting impact on her.

“They made me more open to new ideas, a little more bold in standing behind things I believed in that were different than what the authorities said at that time, whether your boss or your government, whatever, believed in.

“Those are the kinds of things that serve you well, being really willing to stand up and say ‘I believe in something different to what you believe’. It doesn’t mean it is right or wrong, it just means we believe in different things. And I don’t have to believe what you believe in order to be effective in doing a job or a role, whatever it is.”

Relating this to her move to the United States, she says, “It is the freedom to explore and freedom to feel comfortable in doing something different that your parents may have done at your age. I think we are seeing that freedom starting to play out in the retiring Baby Boomer generation. The way they approach life, they are not just ready to go home and sit in the rocking chair.”

The pioneer group

Maxwell is part of the generation that produced the first group of chief information officers. She was one of the early technologists who moved to the business side and confesses this was prompted by the fact she was a “very bad programmer”.

“They had to get me out of programming because I wasn’t very good,” Maxwell says, “so they made me a manager.”

She made some decisions early on in her career that helped in her transition to ICT executive posts. After dropping out of university, getting married and then divorced, Maxwell went back to university. At that time, however, getting a technology degree meant an engineering degree, which did not interest her.

She majored in accounting instead. “I figured if you are going to stay in technology, understanding accounting was a good idea.”

Later, while working in the US as a CIO, she did an MBA, completing the course in two-and-a-half years. At the time she travelled frequently in her job and worked in the weekends on the group assignments for the MBA. The full-on schedule was made easier by the fact that she by then had a “great partner” who understood the demands of her work and studies.

Evolve or perish

Asked what has been the biggest shift in the CIO role, she says, “It is no longer a technical management role, it is a business management role.”

She reckons the change occurred towards the ‘90s, “when companies started to look at the people that were running their IT organisations and looked at them in the same view they had of the person running their manufacturing organisation or their finance organisation.

“Technology became so integrated into the business, it was such an important part of how one did business. They started looking at the [CIO] role differently.”

The challenge for some was in adapting to this shift. “They didn’t realise the business did not want to hear the technology acronyms. They wanted to say ‘I have a business problem’ and [for the CIO to say] ‘this is how I can help you solve it’.”

The CIO role, she notes, is evolving. “You have to recognise that what made you successful in the role yesterday, may not be what will make you successful tomorrow. You have to keep your willingness to learn, your willingness to evolve, your willingness to take on accountabilities. You have to be open to that.”

For contemporary CIOs grappling with the impact of the economic slowdown, she says there are three things they can do “right now”. But, she warns, they are not easy things to do.

The first is to make sure they are running the most efficient IT shops and be willing to make changes to do that.

The second is to look for opportunities to help the business find ways to be more efficient. And third, “Don’t completely retrench and hide behind the wall,” she says. “Look for opportunities where you can make reasonable investments now, which will help that growth cycle when it turns around.

“Keep some of the project work going and keep some activities going, which will actually help the company grow when we get out of this serious economic blip.”

An introspection

Maxwell does not have a ready answer when asked what was the most significant event in her years at ICT or what she would have done differently. After some deliberation, she recalls two significant moments.

She says her late husband — who joined her when she decided to move to Australia — had provided critical advice. When they were living in the US she was offered a job and she hesitated, thinking she was not qualified for it. “You are your own worst critic,” he told her. “If this company has approached you and talked to you, and knows what you can and can’t do and they think you can do it, why are you telling yourself you can’t?”

She accepted the job and, “It turned out beautifully,” she says. “I was creating fears in myself about something that I shouldn’t have been afraid of”.

The second was when the chairman of the company she was working for said he wanted to sit next to her during board meetings.

He told her, “It is such a pleasure to talk to a business person who knows technology.”

At that time, says Maxwell, she considered herself the head of technology. “That made me look at myself differently.”

Indeed, Maxwell has had a long career in a sector driven by constant change — but points out there is one aspect that remains constant.

“The technologies have changed dramatically and the way we can do work within the IT industry has changed dramatically. There are a lot of things that are very, very different from even a decade ago, but the one thing that isn’t different is that we work with people,” she says.

“People work for us. If you don’t pay attention to the people, it doesn’t matter how smart you are about business changes or technology changes.”

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Tags leadershipCIO roleGartnercareeranalystcio and ceobaby boomer

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