A few years ago, Darin Brumby set out to prove a point about the role of a modern chief information officer. Earlier this year, he proved it in style, by being named Computing magazine’s IT Leader of the Year in Britain - an achievement in itself, but all the more noteworthy for a 42-year-old Tasmanian-born former naval officer like Brumby.
The fact that an Australian based in Scotland - Brumby is CIO of FirstGroup, Britain’s largest passenger transport firm - can achieve such heights is the new CIO paradigm, he declares. And now he has set out to tell the industry why that is.
FirstGroup is constructing a global headquarters in Aberdeen. But instead of looking forward to some time there, Brumby is looking down the barrel of a schedule that will involve not only frequent travel to Chicago, as FirstGroup completes the acquisition of US transport giant Laidlaw, but also a calendar peppered with speaking gigs.
Over the last 12 months, Brumby has addressed no fewer than 19 CIO conferences, from Monte Carlo, Prague and Portugal to a crowd of 4000 in Birmingham for communications giant BT’s annual global services conference. He has, in effect, become an evangelist for his fellow CIOs as they grapple with new challenges.
Behind Brumby’s role as an agent of change are his first experiences in the commercial world, after 16 years in the Royal Australian Navy, which took him to the first Gulf War and earned him the Australian Service Medal. In the forces, there were leaders to look up to, but Brumby found no equivalents when he joined the ranks of CIOs at companies such as Legal & General, Commonwealth Bank of Australia, Monster.com and TMP Worldwide.
He also found the CIO job was changing fast and facing many new demands.
“A lot of people are looking up and saying they don’t want to be CIOs any more,” he says. “The job is too tough. They are under great scrutiny to deliver. You’re expected to lead people to a better world, but if you get it wrong, you will hurt them.”
Brumby’s evangelism would be hollow without his achievements at FirstGroup.
When he joined the company in 2003, it had a turnover of £3 billion a year and 15,000 staff, 5000 of whom were IT users.
Once the acquisition of Laidlaw - which owns the Greyhound bus line and is the US’s largest operator of yellow school buses - is done this year, FirstGroup’s annual turnover will be closer to £5 billion, with 20,000 IT users and 1200 physical locations.
“But the IT staff and IT budget we had four years ago are the same,” Brumby says, “so you’ve got to say our strategy of getting higher value out of original investment has worked. The trick is not to exponentially grow your IT budget and IT empire, but to use it efficiently.”
Today’s CIO embraces risk
FirstGroup’s rise to the top of British transport has been fast, and reliant on a flexible IT strategy. “The concept of an 18-month [enterprise resource planning] rollout doesn’t work here,” Brumby says. “We’ve got to push everything forward all at once. Is it better to have two projects that take one year, or push 80 projects ahead all at once? I know which one I’d choose - the second is the one that will have the 80 per cent value-add.
“IT managers used to think risk was the remit of someone else. Not any more.”
The modern CIO, Brumby says, can no longer be the old-school master of the “black art” of IT management.
“CIOs used to do four-year IT strategies, where we’d put the blinkers on and drive it through,” he says. “Meanwhile, the company was changing around us. They might look like age-old problems, but everything’s changed. Even if it smells like something you’ve seen before, it’s not.”
Progressive CIOs, Brumby says, are beginning to learn a lot more about management than managers are learning about IT. And progressive chief executives are regarding IT as an enabler and a strategic innovator, rather than just a utility.
When Brumby joined the British transport sector, it seemed like one of the last of the classic risk-averse industries.
“For me, those are the leadership challenges,” he says. “We thought we were an organisation that ran buses and trains, but actually what we did all day were projects. There were more than 250 of them when I joined the company.
“But they didn’t recognise that project excellence was the key [that] would enable us to leapfrog our competitors. That’s important when you’re bidding for business, so we’ve become project-excellent.
“We had to change the culture to get that done. We’re taking projects now which we wouldn’t have considered four years ago. It’s not the same company I joined - the old adage, grow or die, really is still alive.”
Brumby agrees that the role of a CIO now shares certain leadership values with other roles - including CEOs and HR.
“To me, it’s not about strategy - it’s about culture,” he says. “Great companies have great cultures. I’m here to drive things forward, not to be constrained and have to adapt to bad culture. I’ve had the freedom to attack sacred cows, and I’ve loved it.
“CIOs tell you that they’re not invited to the boardroom table - did anyone ever say that the door was closed?”
Taking on the challenges of a modern CIO requires stamina and passion, Brumby says, as well as substantial leadership and change-management skills. “You need to recognise that your organisation is going to change,” he says. “That can be hard for CIOs, because all we’re taught is structure.”
And along with diplomacy and politics, a CIO still needs the old skills of domain expertise and business management.
“CIOs have to understand the business backwards and have a 40,000-foot view from ground zero,” he says.
“It’s an enormous responsibility, but if you’re at the top of your game, you can propel the company to places it never thought it could go.”
A CIO role is not for the cautious, he says. “The job is getting more demanding, not less. CEOs and customers are demanding so much more. These are tough jobs, but rightly so - because they are very revolutionary. You have to take a position, and back it up. It’s not about consensus agreement.
Plus, track records mean little. “If I joined a new company tomorrow,” Brumby says, “they would want to know what I will do in the next four years, not the last four.’’
How to contribute more
Brumby believes that CIOs could be adding a lot more to their companies - and in turn contributing to their own personal fulfilment. He says the CIO role can be one of the most rewarding in the business and is keen to stress his ability to influence up, down and across an organisation’s agenda.
Brumby’s goal has been getting CIOs to think there are strong values to adhere to, but that they must also be aware of risks.
“You need to get active. Find a coach. Take time to think. If you’re good with yourself, you’re good with others, too. “It’s OK to be a little scared, but that’s not something that CIOs are comfortable with. They worry if someone sees unguarded behaviour. But if you can’t fail at some point, what’s the attraction?”
A good mentor or coach, Brumby says, is someone who will help bring out your strengths. “Sometimes you can find someone in your organisation - not always in a more senior position, either,” he says. “But you want dialogue. We’re all switched on all the time - you need to find 30 minutes a day for critical self-assessment, to get selfish and further your own development. It’s like going to the gym.”
The end result, though, will be more CIOs in Brumby’s position. Information officers are, he says, increasingly finding new freedom to choose where they work in the world, and in the industrial sector. “That’s incredible freedom in the modern world. Not only is it professionally helpful, it’s also personally incredibly rewarding.”
Brumby emphasises that people are crucial to a CIO career - mentors, colleagues and customers. “I’ve joined most companies because there were three or four people I really wanted to work with,” he says.
“You have to be authentic and strong. It’s relationships that get you through the hard times, and avoiding negative things like backstabbing and passive resistance.”
It’s equally important to develop the skills of your front bench in IT.
“The churn rate in these roles is high,” Brumby says. “It’s your turn to do a good job, and then it’s time to move on. You need to think about your departure well before you’re in the departure lounge.
“It’s critical to have a succession plan from day one. Look at your inherited talent pool - a good mix of age and experience is important to have on your front bench.”
Brumby’s achievements in the last decade have put him in the enviable position of being able to choose his next challenge.
“Maybe it will be a non-IT role, I don’t know,” he says. “It would be something transformational.
“But I’d be just as confident doing a full sea change. Perhaps it would be assisting other companies to become successful, or ... running a B&B somewhere.
“But whatever I was doing five years ago, I wouldn’t have foreseen being here at FirstGroup. There is no role in the CIO world that I can’t do. Ask yourself, ‘Do I want to go for it?’ Don’t let the door open for someone else. It’s not a practice run - be impulsive and do it.”
Tips for the expat CIO
Darin Brumby’s first experience working abroad was not in the corporate sector, but as an officer with the Royal Australian Navy, based in the Persian Gulf. His first international role as CIO started when he became European CIO for recruitment giant TMP Worldwide.
Thinking globally, he says, is crucial for the modern CIO. He is keen to encourage ambitious Australian information officers to experience living and working abroad. “Unless you are prepared to relocate globally, you will limit your opportunities,” he says. “You have to understand that your company will become a global company.”
It’s not so much a desire to leave Australia, as a desire to lead, he says. “For me, it’s about finding the people you want to work with, and leaving a mark - on people, an industry sector, or a country.”
In June this year, Brumby earned another accolade. A panel of his peers selected him as one of silicon.com’s top 50 chief information officers.
The award panel described him as “ambitious and energetic, clear and focused, with a matter-of-fact style - like an Australian cricketer”.
Brumby is fond of the comparison. “[Australia has] a work hard, play hard culture,” he says. “That has helped, particularly in organisations where there is a need for someone to cut through the BS.”
Australia’s IT sector also has a raft of talent that isn’t well known abroad. “There is no boundary to the limits of Australians’ ambitions. Many good Australian software companies are making a mark internationally. Distance is no longer a barrier and nor is the time zone. Technology has taken the impediments away.
“There is a huge opportunity for Australia to say that we have a level of talent, in R&D and IT companies, which could be exploited.”
But Brumby still calls Australia home and his message to Australian-based CIOs who share his international ambitions is that a global CIO career is open to anyone.
“Many haven’t experienced the global village, and it’s very rewarding,” he says. “We’ve been to more than 50 countries now. The kids grow up oriented to the good and bad of the world.
“If you have that approach, you don’t sit around on weekends.”
Brumby also gives credit for his international success to the willingness of his “incredibly supportive” wife and family - they have four children - to move with him. “You need that. I have a life partner who is prepared to share and take a risk. Behind me there is a great woman, and a network of family and friends. The family that travels together, stays together.
“It’s only one long-haul flight for us to go to Australia, and that’s not a problem for us, because it’s home,” he says.
© Fairfax Business Media
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