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Upsizing your career

Upsizing your career

Henry Shiner has pursued a career trajectory from McDonald's kitchen to its executive table (with a change of course in between). He tells how, using strategic planning, he rediscovered his professional spark.

How do you feel every morning when you park the car outside the front of your office? Aside from the usual irritants that come with battling peak-hour traffic, what does the prospect of another day at the coalface really mean to you? Ideally, of course, as a senior IT leader you should walk through the office with a spring in your step, enthused about the changes and improvements you can make to the business.

But, for many, this isn't the case. Plenty of chief information officers are in a rut of sorts and in need of a change. Until April last year, Henry Shiner was one of them.

Shiner was then CIO and head of strategic planning at newsprint manufacturer Norske Skog Australasia. He had been a successful executive at the company for more than a decade and had an important role in management reporting to the chief executive. He had been increasingly bothered, however, by the unmistakable tickle of grass growing under his feet.

Subtle changes to the structure of the company, which are immediately apparent to long-term staff, had started to annoy him and he had made a decision the year before to leave and move on.

Shiner believes, as CIO, he achieved a lot from a technology perspective over 11 years. In a conservative industry such as manufacturing, he says the company's technology platform was very advanced.

"I guess for me, personally, it was time to find a new challenge and move out of the industry - not because I was bored, but for the change," he says.

"The company itself was changing as well to become a lot more Eurocentric and controlled by head office in Oslo. There was a lot of procrastinating and passing around of decision-making."

His formerly progressive and influential role starting to resemble a service delivery function, so he decided to take matters into his own hands.

Months later, in April last year, he became the Australian chief information officer of fast-food giant McDonald's. It was not a natural leap from the manufacturing sector, but was a carefully plotted move by an executive who had put in plenty of hours to plan his own career path.

One of Shiner's core responsibilities at Norske Skog had been to take charge of strategic planning and so, rather than simply reading the job ads, he set himself the challenge of planning his move to a role that would stoke his professional fires again.

He says he sat down and mapped out a plan, factoring in all the things that needed to be done, all the buttons that needed to be pushed and all the networking that would be required.

"I also did little things like updating my resume," he says. "I hadn't been to a job interview for over a decade, so it needed to reflect all the processes I had been through."

Eventually, one of his contacts from a headhunting firm mentioned that the CIO role at McDonald's had come up, and it became apparent that it was the opening he was looking for.

Coincidentally, Shiner has a history with the golden arches. In his youth he had worked in Australia's first store in Yagoona, Sydney, moving up the management ranks during five years of service. In those early years, he worked alongside a youthful Guy Russo, who went on to become the regional chief executive officer of the group.

Shiner says the memory of the dynamic culture in the organisation had stayed with him and made him keen to return.

"McDonald's was where I learnt my sense of customer service and, as an executive, I wanted to be close to the customer," he says. "I wanted to be in a fast-cycle time-delivery operation in an innovative and competitive environment.

"It was also important to me to move to a big-brand company. I didn't want to be in a company that was obscure when people asked about us any more. I basically wanted bigger horizons."

He had a meeting with the recruitment specialist to figure out if the role would be right for him and then wrote to the company expressing an interest. He says his early meetings went well but he refrained from passing on his resume until he had a face-to-face meeting with McDonald's chief financial officer David Felthun .

McDonald's previous CIO, who was from a finance background, had not been part of the leadership team. The company was looking for a mindset change in its technology executive and Shiner fitted the bill.

"They wanted someone who was a business head, who developed people and developed a succession planning strategy," he says. "I had to take on board the fact that things were a bit here, there and everywhere in terms of a department and function. They wanted someone to pull it together and drive it all like a business as opposed to a technology house."

Shiner had been responsible for running business strategy in his previous role, and before that had been general manager at IT firm Honeywell.

He was offered the job at McDonald's and immediately set about defining a forward-looking strategic plan for his new department. He says he was struck by the culture of the organisation, which he describes as a pool of ideas and energy, and set about harnessing it from a business IT perspective to enable the company to be more productive and deliver on potential.

Since joining, Shiner has completed a review of the governance structure for IT and tackled enterprise-wide compliance responsibilities. He says a key part of the IT plan revolves around how business intelligence can be optimised. Real time reporting of business information that can be gathered from many sources, notably the computer cash registers, is becoming increasingly important in a cutthroat industry. "Technology has already become a weapon in the quick service food business," he says. "It's leveraging the competitive nature of the industry.

"In five years, the technology curve for restaurants has gone from next to nothing to being everywhere; everything is enabled by technology."

A simple example is McDonald's policy to prepare food only as it is being ordered to avoid waste and keep food fresh for customers. Business information reporting is also intended to analyse improvements to waiting times at the counter and the length of time cars take passing the drive-through windows, as well as improving inventory management yields.

Shiner says rolling out new technology is not a problem for employees in the stores. Whereas in some retail environments an upgrade of point-of-sale technology would provoke a minor mutiny, McDonald's staff are almost exclusively from the tech-raised age group that most CIOs do not expect to begin to invade their workforce for another five years.

"The crew we have are totally IT savvy," he says. "Seventeen- to 20-year-olds read everything online and use technology all the time in their personal lives. Their utilisation of the tools like the POS system comes totally naturally to them.

"Plus we leverage that, whether that's how we hire people through a web-based system or give them pay slips and rosters electronically. The young people of today don't want to be bothered with papers."

With his longer term plans starting to take shape, Shiner says he is delighted he made the effort to shake up his career and move out of his comfort zone. He acknowledges that it can be difficult for a CIO to change sectors, but advises others who may feel trapped in a niche to give themselves a significant amount of time to find the right opportunity.

"Devise a plan," he says. "All good CIOs should know about strategic planning, so develop one for yourself, looking at your strengths and market opportunities. We all know that technical skills are transferrable; the challenge is in convincing people of that, because it doesn't take a huge amount to learn the industry if you do enough research into the names, faces and innovations."

While Shiner doesn't necessarily believe his role at McDonald's is the culmination of his career, he says he expects to be there for at least the next five years. He says the idea of an overseas appointment down the track is appealing but he is firmly focused on his new job.

"I'm thoroughly energised by my job," he says. "I feel like I've just graduated and started a new career. It wasn't an easy role to get, but it's worth the effort.

"If you push all the right buttons in your career then fate will deliver you where you need to be, and that's what I think I've managed to do."

Sidebar: Plan your future

1. Define your core competencies. It is a highly competitive area and you need to understand what capabilities you have (use a capability matrix) and differentiate your offering. This is quite hard for most CIOs as they don't tend to analyse themselves too much - ideally work with an executive coach or an executive search consultant.

2. Domain experience. There are two routes here: Being a functional expert and a generalist is fine, but most of the top-flight CIOs build strong domain experience. Therefore, your career business plan should build on your experience in a defined vertical market.

3. Profile and networking. Once you have the potential career plan, you need to ensure that you are at the top of the list for potential employers or headhunters. There are numerous ways and organisations to help you do this - the best, of course, is through recommendations.

4. Non-exec. The other key area where you can build this plan is to get involved as a non-executive with two or three organisations. This increases your worth to future employers and also helps you to network at the pointy end of town.

5. Flexibility. Having a career plan is a good idea but like all plans you need to build in enough flexibility to be able to take a step in a new direction. In some cases this may be a short change to add experience that is new and challenging, followed by stepping back into the plan or, if necessary, changing direction completely.

Source : Paul Rush, CIO practice head, Talent2

Fairfax Business Media

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