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”.
Encouraging and inspiring
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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