Communicating excellence

Communicating excellence

IT executives share their lessons in leadership gained from the boardroom, the bureaucracy, and the battlefield.

The panel: Lt Col Karyn Te Moana, staff officer command and control, communications, computers and electronic warfare capability management team, NZ Army

Brent Powell, general manager, business systems, Fletcher Distribution

Ron van de Riet, general manager, IT and business delivery, Kiwibank

Carol Abernethy, general manager technology and services, Ministry of Justice

BEFORE YOU ARE a leader, success is all about growing yourself. When you become a leader, success is all about others,"former General Electric CEO Jack Welch wrote in his book Winning.

The four IS executives in our special feature on leadership all performed exceptionally as they climbed the career ladder; as staff members who provided inputs that led to more efficiency and innovation in the companies they worked for, and as team members who worked well with co-workers and their leaders to deliver well-received project outcomes.

Once in charge, they knew that individual success, while important, can not be achieved without a good team.

Thus, common themes that emerged in the interviews with the four leaders were working with people, drawing out the best in them, and making sure their staff work in an environment that creates and encourages creativity, innovation and a passion to succeed.

All four say they were lucky to have worked in organisations that possessed good company cultures based around leadership. They keenly observed their mentors and executive peers for admirable qualities, and consciously avoided those they felt were ineffective.

In the pages that follow, you'll discover how all four have taken measured steps to become business leaders, and continue to 'upgrade' and learn more in the areas they find challenging.

IT on the frontline

Lt Col Karyn Te Moana, staff officer,command and control, communications, computers and electronic warfare capability management team, NZ Army

Lieutenant Colonel Karyn Te Moana reckons her most dangerous assignment was in East Timor. In 1999, Lt Col Te Moana, who now heads the communications, computers and electronic warfare capability management team of the NZ Army, was in the first landing of Kiwi troops in Dili.

They were surrounded by burning buildings, the militia were still firing, and the residents were hiding in the hills. "We really did rely on each other to watch each other's back,"she says. "We worked very long hours trying to set up places to live, secure the environment for the local people to come back down and start their lives again, [and] set up the communications system."

Dangerous as this deployment was, her toughest assignment came in 2001, when she commanded a Signal Squadron of 130 people. In the next two years she gave birth to her two sons. She worked right up until the day she gave birth to both boys, now aged three and four.

The unit was "physically very active"so the members were always out in the field, and doing physical training everyday. "This tested my leadership mettle, particularly setting an example, when [I was] heavily pregnant and physically very tired."She managed the situation by limiting her physical workload towards the end of her pregnancy. Until then, Lt Te Moana says she has not seen an army officer command a unit while pregnant.

She continued to push the boundaries, even shatter stereotypes, post-pregnancy. "When I returned to full-time work after having my children, I took it upon myself to ensure that I was fit enough to pass my fitness test to the same level that I demanded of the rest of my organisation,"says Lt Col Te Moana, who can now smile as she recalls those times.

"It is all about leading by example."The dictum, she says, is one of the 10 principles of leadership behaviour in the New Zealand Army. These principles have withstood the test of time and comprise "the best advice on leadership"she has ever received.

She expounds further, "Not asking your team to do anything you wouldn't do, that is a big quality in the military. You are expected to lead by example. The purest form of leadership is example and no aspect of leadership is more powerful. The leader should be willing to do what is required of the rest of the team, and to share the dangers and hardships with team members."

Her family expected her to become a teacher, and she would have taken this career path as had her mother and grandmother if she not joined the military.

After completing her one-year NZ Army Officer Training course, Lt Col Te Moana graduated into the Royal New Zealand Corps of Signals. She wanted to be an infantry officer but in the 1980s, women were not allowed into combat units, so she settled into being a Communications and Information Systems (CIS) officer.

Her job means she could be in the office one day and out in a helicopter on a field exercise or operations the following day.

The IS challenges she faces are also as varied and different. "We need to be self sufficient in military communications capabilities,"she explains. "We take our own radios, our own computers, our own satellite systems, our own servers."The whole IS team, including help desk operators and systems engineers, join the deployment. "Basically, you can't call back New Zealand and say, 'We have this problem, we can't log in. I forgot my password.' Everyone is there and you are dealing with users in the field. Our operators need to be proficient across a huge range of equipment."

She is married to Major Rob Te Moana, which means they have to "de-conflict"their work schedules at home. They match their calendars so only one of them is overseas at any time and request that they get "advance warning"for assignments that require travel.

But whether in the battlefield, in the Defence headquarters, or at an overseas post, Lt Col Te Moana says the toughest and most important leadership challenge is people. And the way to handle this, she says, is to "give good, clear direction, delegate responsibilities, provide resources and trust your people"

Mentoring excellence

Brent Powell, general manager, business systems, Fletcher Distribution

Brent Powell says there is a lot of discussion of what makes a great leader in books ("theoretical perfection"he terms it), but you can only choose your leadership style "after having the practical experience and seeing those skills in action and applying them".

That has certainly been the case for Powell, general manager business systems at Fletcher Distribution, who says he had the good fortune to enjoy the "luxury"of working with business leaders who served as vital role models on handling people and change management issues.

His leadership style, he says, was shaped both by the people that he worked with and the businesses he "worked on". He stresses the last two words, because he believes this change of perspective makes a big difference as you go up the management tier. "The goal for successful executives has to be their willingness and their ability and capability to work on the business and know it. If you are working in the business, you tend to be focused on just keeping things running."

Powell's IS career has led him to British Airways, Marks & Spencer (M&S), Farmers, Pacific Retail Group and now Fletcher Distribution. But it was in his 12-year-plus stint at retailer M&S that he picked up a lot of leadership lessons and pointers.

He cites his experience working with Neil Cameron, now global CIO for Unilever. "He created an environment where an individual could learn and grow,"says Powell. "His style and his approach were to provide honest feedback and he would give it straightaway. He would not embarrass you in front of others... He took you to one side and provided that day to day advice. He really taught me the ability to stop, think, put yourself in the recipients' shoes and look at it from that perspective."

Powell also worked with David Spikesley, who was in charge of operations and network for M&S. Powell describes him as a "willing teacher"who played a role in his development as a business leader.

"These guys were able to move across what you might see as boundaries but they turned out to not be boundaries at all because of their business skills. They spoke with confidence and inspired confidence in people that worked for them."

Today, he says, a lot of his successes are "the sum total of the people I worked with and who worked with me". He stresses, "I work with them, they don't work for me."

"Overall, what I try to do is get the team to have a 'can do culture'". And he sees the irony in this given PlaceMakers' well-known tagline!

Communication skills are vital. "You have to make sure you have open communications. It is not just about being able to talk bits and bytes, you need to go and understand them. It has to be at a conversational level. Equally, you have to be able to talk about supply chain decisions and challenges to your executive peers. And you have to do it confidently and in a manner that allows both parties to express themselves.

"I have met too many IT management people whose response to the business is, 'This is technology so you wouldn't understand.' And that doesn't work."

This is an insight he clearly took to heart when assigned to Hong Kong, taking charge of IT in Asia for M&S. He and two other expat managers decided they would learn to speak the local language. A local university staff member taught them Cantonese for an hour-and-a-half each day after work. This went on for about eight months, and made a lot of difference in his dealings with the staff and suppliers. "They were proud to be associated with someone who was prepared to take the effort"to learn the language.

But mastering the language was just one of the hurdles Powell had to undergo at that time. Prior to the move to Hong Kong, he was involved in largely operational roles for M&S. With his new post, though, he was propelled to become a strategically-focused manager working on the business. "That was it,"he says, "You are the top of the tree. You have all the directors sitting on the table looking at you, looking for decisive actions, strong answers, firm commitment."

Thus, he says, there are three things he would say to someone who wants to be a "business leader lucky enough to be responsible for IS".

First, don't be an IS leader, be a business leader. "Your ability to understand and to help others understand is what will make you a useful member of an executive team and a business leader."

The second is to treat people with respect and "it will come back to you in multiples".

The third involves relationships with suppliers. New Zealand is a very small environment, he says. "It worries me when I see suppliers and customers relationships that are being too close."

"You need to make sure you keep your suppliers at an appropriate arm's length,"he stresses.

"Work with suppliers who can display, provide and have active empathy for your business and enduring understanding of what your business problems are. Together as a partnership, you work on common business challenges but always, with integrity."

For himself, though, the best advice he got came not from management books or in the workplace, but right at home, from his parents who are now retired and living in Cambridge in the Waikato region. His father, an engineer, told him as a youngster, "There is no such thing as a practice run or a dress rehearsal. You only get one shot at things. Make sure you give it your best shot because no one will criticise you or knock you down for doing that."

Kiwi empowerment

Ron van de Riet, general manager, IT and business delivery, Kiwibank

For Ron van de Riet, there is a world of difference between being a manager, and a manager-slash-leader.

"Management to me is just dotting the i's and crossing the t's. Leadership is totally different but you have to be both,"says the general manager, IT and business delivery, at Kiwibank.

For van de Riet, leadership is principally about influencing change in two major areas: People and innovation.

The first involves developing a high performance and team culture. "For me leadership is picking the right people, for the right business, and the right teams for that business."It also means setting aside ego. "Hire people that complement and are better than yourself."

The second involves influencing change around innovation. "It is harnessing that creativity", even in banking, which some may see as an "old type"sector.

He says Kiwibank has shown one can be innovative and creative while being a low cost banker. "It is about using technology as one of the components to deliver that. But to do that, you need to be innovative and creative and you need to create that environment to be successful."

Leadership, he stresses, is imperative in a company and should be part of the corporate culture.

"You need to have it in your organisation because it is the brand that attracts the talent. If you don't have the leadership, you are never going attract the talent."

He transposes this view to a wider context. "We need more success stories in New Zealand, whether in IT or whatever. We need to be positive about it and not [be] knocking it, and to give it a go because otherwise people will just leave New Zealand. And that, to me, is a leadership issue."

Kiwibank, which is owned by New Zealand Post, has been "a real success story", he

says. "The brand is so successful that I have no problem getting talent, because it is getting to be a brand people want to

work with."

He likens the bank's success to TradeMe. "It has a similar culture, the same type of flat management, no bureaucracy. It is all about people who are passionate about what they do."

Van de Riet says he has been lucky he has worked in organisations "with good culture around leadership". But his interest in leadership is not about individual successes anymore. "The most appropriate leader today is one who can lead others to lead themselves."

Hierarchal business models and cultures

are changing to innovative models that require a broader skill set, he says. "What I want is self leadership. What I am looking for are people that will adapt out of their comfort zone. They have to be self leaders and they have to like change."

A leader, he says, has to understand people's needs and this is very important as "four different generations with different needs"now converge at the workplace.

The way to leadership could be hard work. "Leadership is not a natural thing for a lot of people and it does take a lot of time. For some people it is easy; for some, it is not."

He says the best advice he can give is to look to someone whom you really admire. Watch how he or she does it, learn how to do it and get coaching if you need to. And that is advice that he certainly applied as he moved on to more strategic posts in his career.

Eleven years ago, van de Riet described himself as a "technical person"who was asked to head the IT team at BNZ Finance. "It was challenging… to become a leader of the group as opposed to be part of the group and what you have to do to do that."But he says he was lucky he was able to "get a lot of help", which included attending a leadership course.

His next challenge came years later, when he moved to Kiwibank. It meant "starting off with a small team to one that is now a very large organisation and trying to adapt or keep the dynamics of a small company culture in a big organisation".

He says Kiwibank is achieving this goal, which is why one advice he would give is: "Work in a place that's got that [leadership] culture. That's your fundamental."

Collaborate for success

Carol Abernethy, general manager technology and services, Ministry of Justice

Two years ago when Carol Abernethy joined the Ministry of Justice as general manager technology and services, she discovered a significant advantage in working for the public sector.

Public sector executives, she says, have this fantastic opportunity to confer with their peers in other agencies about the projects they are working on and learn from each other's experiences.

Abernethy hadn't considered this before joining the public sector. In her 30-year career in IT she has worked for a range of organisations here and in the UK including Mobil Oil, NZ Apple & Pear Marketing Board, AMP, Price Waterhouse and Unisys.

In the private sector, she says, "If I were sitting in AXA and I knew that AMP had done something special and different, I can't say, 'Hi, can I come in and have a look?'"

Abernethy is a member of CIO Forum, an informal group of government IS executives that meet every six weeks to discuss common issues and concerns. "It is a very collegial, collaborative environment where we are all supportive of each other."

For Abernethy, who describes herself as "quite a collaborative person"when it comes to leadership style, this is a welcome development. "I often look to seek opinions and ideas from other people before I make some sort of determination in terms of what the outcome might be,"she says. "I do that in a way that everybody ultimately gets to win as a consequence of whatever that outcome might be."

Abernethy says another aspect she is keen on, is making sure she has a clear and firm definition of the direction the unit she is responsible for is heading and for her team to have a clear understanding of what that is. Thus, they will be able to pick the issues that will "truly make a difference".

Building a strong team and encouraging and inspiring them are crucial to any leader's success. "It is about recognising you get results through your people,"she says. "People generally want to work to do a good job if there is something there that you are building towards that they feel is far better than where they are now or extends to what they are doing now. It is incredibly important to give people something they can be inspired by."

While she looks to work colleagues for some leadership pointers and inspiration, her ideas were shaped by the Four Quadrant Leadership program that she attended in the early '80s. "It really taught me the value of relationships that you have with people around you and how important they are. And also making sure that [when] dealing with people, you understand there are times you must change the leadership style to suit the situation.

She recalls her toughest assignment, when she took charge of outsourcing back-office processing that would potentially affect up to 20 people. She took immediate steps to put a "mitigation strategy"in place over the next 18 months. In the end, four people were affected, and other staff were placed in different roles within the organisation.

"If we hadn't managed it well like that, it could have been a very difficult situation for many people and of course you are always mindful of the disruptions you cause to the individual, their family lives and their associations with people."

During the process she made sure there was a strong communications plan so people were aware why they were doing this and the upcoming impact. "It reinforces you do generally have to look after your people,"she says of her most important lesson from the experience.

"Someone said to me once, you need to be mindful when you are dealing with people, to be supportive and emphatic because the person you are talking to is someone else's mother, father or brother who someone else looks up to. It is really important to respect the dignity of people."

Abernethy says it is vital to have a "pressure valve"release. She reveals one of her "release mechanisms"is seriously working out in the gym for an hour, three to four times a week. For her, these pursuits are not luxuries. "The sort of work where we find ourselves in the IT industry, is really fast paced. With that in mind, it really is important to pace yourself so you can be here in the long-term."

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