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Strategy for growth

Wendy Bussen, general manager corporate services, Auckland Regional Council, says CIOs who consciously expand their responsibilities outside ICT can move to high-profile leadership roles.

In her office overlooking a windswept and wet Auckland, Wendy Bussen firmly rejects the claim made by some in the industry that CIO means “Career Is Over”. “It’s only the start,” says Bussen, GM corporate services, Auckland Regional Council. “If you have been CIO of a large organisation, you bring your leadership skills. By the time you are a CIO, you are conversant with working strategically.”

Bussen is responsible for human resources, communications and marketing, operations, technology infrastructure, information services and the ARC call centre. Handling a $20 million budget and

responsibility for leading 147 of the council’s 607 staff, meant technology comprised a fifth of her role and the CIO reported to her.

Bussen had joined ARC from AUT University where, for nine years, she was director of information systems, relishing the diversity of people, projects and the challenges of a rapidly evolving organisation.

Bussen graduated with a mathematics degree from Waikato University and trained to be an insurance-industry actuary.

But after two years at National Mutual Insurance in Wellington, her OE resulted in a foray into technology where she helped set up a data centre in Britain for the Unilever group of companies. She also did some consultancy work.

When Bussen returned to New Zealand, she lectured on accounting information systems for Unitec. When the university installed a student management system Bussen was recruited to the project, which led her to become the manager of information systems.

She took time off when she started a family and on her return to the workforce in 1996 she moved to AUT University as director of information systems. She was working at AUT when she responded to an advertisement for her role at the Auckland Regional Council. “I could see it was going to give me a wider portfolio and create an opportunity to use my leadership skills, which I had gained as a director of IT, and apply them to a wider range of challenges,” she explains.

When Bussen joined ARC, the council was undergoing a restructuring and operations had to be re-engineered as well. She brought in a group manager of HR from Fonterra who used her expertise in frameworks, remuneration and performance management. Coupled with Bussen’s leadership and IT skills, the pair implemented an SAP HR module.

“My first imperative was to make sure I had the right team of group managers reporting to me. When I arrived, there were vacancies to fill and the only way you can achieve exceptional outcomes is to ensure you have the right skills on board,” she says.

A group manager of communications and marketing was also recruited to ensure the communication needs of the council were also met. At that, time the council was on the receiving end of some negative publicity due to planned rate increases.

“There was a lot for me to learn in a very short period of time. When you come in at a senior role, there are high expectations from your staff and the CEO, so the challenge is to hit the ground running at the same time as understanding the imperatives of the organisation, plus the external challenges impacting the organisation.

“That was a steep learning curve for me. At the end of the day, you have to set priorities, hone your delegation skills and you have to make sure that new initiatives underway are given the support they require to finish successfully,” she says.

A wider range of responsibilities also means changing your style to suit the various teams, as they all operate differently. It also means finding out what these teams do by asking a lot of questions. “You have to straddle concepts and the day-to-day realityof servicing the organisation. You have to be able to straddle those extremely quickly. You have to be realistic of what your team can achieve. You use your business acumen and commercial experience you built up as a CIO, a skill you take across to other functions.”

Bussen warns that people in these sort of roles risk burn-out, but says she avoided this by spending time in the regional parks, having a supportive family and ensuring there was always a meal ready when she got home. She employed a nanny to ensure her domestic life was kept in order.

“My recommendation to any working mother in a senior role is to have as much home help as you require,” she says.

In her three years at ARC, Bussen lists a raft of completed projects such as new recruitment practices, a shared services agreement with the Auckland Regional Transport Authority, developing a business continuity and disaster recovery plan for information technology, wireless technology projects for biosecurity and regional parks staff, developing the ARC call center with new technology and various council management initiatives.

Bussen says the role helped her learn more about herself, such as enjoying a challenging and innovative environment. This has led her to see a new challenge in some undisclosed innovative projects.

“It is inherent in a CIO that you deal with change management all the time and have a passion for innovation,” she says.

Bussen, who is moving this month to a new consultancy role, says she is proud of what she achieved at the ARC.

She says CIOs looking for such roles need to know their strengths and weaknesses. If you enjoy complexity and making changes, you will be fine. More time is spent on building relationships with peers and other bosses, and the roles involve less “doing and more looking after”. These roles also mean working more closely to the vision of the CEO and board; and the challenges of working with councillors which, she says, were offset by a feeling of “working for the public good”.

Bussen recommends CIOs apply for these roles. It’s a “great development path” that will help you become a CEO from the wider experience you gain, she says.

“I would encourage all CIOs to always be looking ahead and to be able to learn about other functions other than IT. When you are responsible for other functions, you naturally see opportunities where new systems will advance that function to move ahead or be more efficient, or do things in a quite different way. That’s one of the gifts you have, having been a CIO.”

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