The setting was a roundtable discussion on corporate governance with chief information officers of public and private organisations and a lawyer from Kensington Swan.
One of the panellists, Marcel van den Assum - sporting a tweed jacket and a ready smile - strolled in. As if on cue, most of the people present interrupted their discussions to greet him, shake his hand, or introduce themselves.
The roundtable forum was one of van den Assum's final engagements as chief information officer of Fonterra. "I am the out-going Fonterra CIO. I am looking for a job in Wellington," he joked at the start of the discussion.
But to those present, van den Assum needed no title or position to cement himself as a leader in the IS arena. To his colleagues, his vast experience and self-effacing manner, despite the strategic IS roles he has held through the years, are enough.
It is not surprising then that when the MIS team deliberated on who would be profiled in this special feature on leadership, his name was high on the list.
MIS also invited six other noted IS executives from various sectors and backgrounds to share their views on leadership: Phil Brimacombe, chief information officer, Counties Manukau District health Board, Waitemata District Health Board and healthAlliance; Ron Hooton, chief information officer, New Zealand Defence Force; Pat O'Connell, chief of information technology, Carter Holt Harvey; Glenn Patrick, general manager business and technology solutions and services, Westpac; Mark Ratcliffe, chief information officer, Telecom New Zealand; and Stephen Whiteside, director, information technology systems and services, University of Auckland.
All seven have been involved in various aspects of IT for the past 20 to 30 years. They have witnessed how focus in the sector has shifted from mainly backroom technology operations to the imperative of working with the rest of the business units as organisations became more dependent on IT. Interestingly, all seven refer to the work they have done with their teams as their most significant achievements.
Building the IS team, they all say, can bring both "highs" and "lows" on the job. All point to the quality of their IS teams as a big factor in their success, and are vocal about it.
For Mary Ann Maxwell, Gartner's managing vice president executive programs, these statements from the seven IS leaders are not unexpected. "Two things come to mind when I think of leadership," she says, "experience and humility."
"This is not to say someone who is new in the profession can't be a leader," says Maxwell, who was Westpac CIO prior to moving to an analyst role, "but there is a degree of leadership that people respect when they know they are dealing with someone who has been there and done that."
Humility is another thing, she adds. "Again, people respect leaders who don't act like they always know it all. Humility is the best word that I have for it.
"I am very strong believer in a leader can't be a party of one. You have to make sure other people are both taking part in the leadership role and actually growing them into your role. Leaders grow their replacements."
Another revelation from the interviews is none of the IS leaders point to technology issues as their toughest management challenge. People issues take the lead. Not a few cite the "painful" task of breaking news of staff cuts during a reorganisation or restructuring.
As Stephen Whiteside of the University of Auckland says, "I've been involved in quite a few restructures in my career - which is inevitable if you have a continuous improvement focus. In doing the right thing for the business, sometimes there are casualties. This is never pleasant, but has to be done."
"It is a hard call," agrees van den Assum because often the reason is not due to poor performance, there could be culture or organisational issues involved.
"I find it quite disturbing that there are people out there that I know who are outstanding and they should be supported for taking risks as opposed to being castigated." But when one has to do these things, he says, it is good to be straight-forward and honest, and to sit down with the people involved and say, "Clearly this is not working out."
For leadership models, a number of them name people they have actually worked with. Ron Hooton of the New Zealand Defence Force says he got good leadership lessons from three past managers. One was the managing director of a bank with "fantastic" communication skills. "He was a reasonably charismatic guy but what matters is his ability to communicate and the outcome it brings."
Another taught him how to deal with warring factions in an organisation - bring the parties together and talk through the differences.
Another stressed to him the value of trust. "You have to trust your people and people will certainly surprise you by what they are able to achieve," says Hooton. Mark Ratcliffe of Telecom New Zealand looks not far from his current workplace for leadership models. "My boss and my colleagues are good leaders... I have plenty of good leaders in my team."
Notable too is the innovative work some of them have been doing to benefit their respective sectors and the IS community as a whole. For instance, Phil Brimacombe of healthAlliance is active in the CIO Forum with his counterparts in the other district health boards (DHBs).
"We decided that our strategic theme was collaboration," says Brimacombe, who meets with his counterparts across the country every quarter. "The key success factor was that it was not run by consultants, or by the ministry, or by DHBNZ. Instead, we organised the group ourselves. This gave us the buy-in and motivation to work together in a structured manner, and we made our own decisions on our agenda, composition and objectives."
Whiteside is involved in EDUCAUSE, a US-based organisation focusing on IT in higher education. He chaired the organising committee for EDUCAUSE Australasia 2005 held last April in Auckland. "This two-yearly conference is the only EDUCAUSE branded conference outside of the USA, and we drew quality speakers from around the world," he states.
All seven are likewise generous with their advice on managing a career in IS and beyond. They underscore the value of getting a broader view of the business, and never stopping learning.
All their insights on leadership bring to mind the words of Manfred Kets de Vries, director of Insead's Global Leadership Centre, in a recent interview with Harvard Business Review. He observes, "In my experience, the most effective leaders are able to both act and reflect, which prepares them to manage for the long term. These individuals not only run, they also take the time to ask themselves where they are going, and why."
Chief information officer
Counties Manukau District Health Board,
Waitemata District Health Board and health Alliance
Six months into his first chief information officer role and his initial foray into the health sector, Phil Brimacombe had a "career threatening experience".
"I was struggling to understand the scale and complexity of health, and I was under pressure to deal with a large number of issues related to hospital systems: Poor systems performance, poor IS service, many customer complaints, poor IS and business relationships," says Brimacombe, who had joined the Counties Manukau District Health Board.
His CEO was becoming "increasingly irritated" with his lack of momentum on integrated care, a key business strategy to improve the handover of care for a patient moving from their GP (primary care) to hospital (secondary care) and back again.
"I had been too much captured by today's hospital interests, and that my role was to focus on tomorrow's strategic goals. I needed to show some leadership in how IT was going to enable the integrated care strategy and deliver improved patient outcomes."
All the IS staff at that time had roles that focused on hospital systems. Brimacombe implemented a restructure in which a senior manager and half a dozen staff formed a new team dedicated to developing integrated care systems. This team was not to be distracted by hospital operational issues, and was focused on the future.
This team has evolved through several incarnations and different staff over the last five years, but it has produced innovation award winning systems, including the Kidslink immunisation and Wellchild system, and the Chronic Care diabetes disease management system.
"From my personal perspective, my toughest experience turned into the most satisfying one," says Brimacombe, who now holds the combined positions of CIO for Counties Manukau District Health Board (CMDHB), Waitemata District Health Board (WDHB) and healthAlliance, the shared services company owned by both DHBs.
He reckons the best advice he got was from Dave Clark, the CEO who hired him to South Auckland Health (which later became Counties Manukau DHB). It was, "Don't let the perfect get in the way of the good."
"I learnt that it is important to achieve something practical quickly, rather than take forever to develop a perfect system."
He and Clarke had attended a course which showed successful projects are delivered in a number of small, rapid, achievable steps. The presenter, he recalls, likened projects to dolphins, instead of one huge whale. From then on, another of our mantras was "dolphins not whales", states Brimacombe.
Another important lesson he learned when he first became IS manager is that the leader is a role in a team which has many other roles. "People with other roles in the team will have greater expertise and experience in certain areas than the leader, and as a leader, you need to be comfortable with that, accepting and respecting their abilities," he states. "Sometimes leadership is from behind, as well as out front, and at times, often in my case, 'A good leader steps back because another in the team can do a better job.'"
Brimacombe, who has a degree in modern languages, got into IT after being influenced by a friend who was already in the sector. His IS experience included stints at Foodtown, its parent company Progressive Enterprises and the Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank.
Interestingly, Brimacombe says he would have gone into human resources or law if he had not ventured into IT. "One of my bosses says that I seem more like an HR guy than an IT guy, and I find HR very interesting, which is just as well since IT seems to attract a disproportionate number of challenging HR issues."
Chief information officer
New Zealand Defence Force
"Leadership is not about command and control - who is in charge; it is about achieving results through people," Ron Hooton began a recent presentation at the Software Development Conference in Wellington.
The subject was on leading teams and the chief information officer of the New Zealand Defence Force (NZDF) could not have chosen a more appropriate quote relating to his current challenges. NZDF, according to this year's MIS100, is the eighth largest IT user organisation in the country, with total screens of 8150.
Hooton was appointed to the post four years ago. He says while there have been many significant achievements for him since then, probably his most distinctive was creating the CIS (communications and information systems) organisation within Defence.
"I was NZDF's first CIO," he explains. "Not everyone supported the idea of a CIO and on day one there was only me in the Branch. Today we have a team of 225 and this will grow in the next 12 months to 265. CIS is very much part of the NZDF now as a centralised entity, where previously it was dispersed widely across the organisation."
He describes his leadership style as "getting results through aligning the needs of people with the needs of organisations".
"As a leader, I try to lead my people by giving good, clear direction, by delegating responsibilities, by trusting people and by providing lots of challenging tasks that give them a sense of satisfaction in achieving their work."
As for challenges in his current job, he says, "Restructuring is always challenging". In any organisational restructuring, there will be winners and losers, he adds. "The challenge really is how you go about rebuilding the team after going through the pain of restructuring.
It is a necessary thing for all organisations to be restructured periodically. It can be painful for organisations and it is really [about] how you recover your way out of that, how you rebuild the trust between yourself and the organisation."
Hooton, who has an MBA from Massey University, and is a member of the New Zealand Institute of Management, underscores the value of constant learning. "Any knowledge that you acquire has value," he says. "Everybody who is pursuing a professional career today must continue to learn and improve their skills whether that is in the work they do, and the challenges that they have within the organisation."
This message is vital to CIOs, whose role, he says, has undergone "critical changes" in the past 10 to 15 years, having moved "much, much more from being a technical role to being an absolute leadership role".
The contemporary CIO, he says, "is just as likely as any business manager to take a business case to a board of directors, implement change that may restructure the nature of how the business operates, or even introduce a new product in the market."
Another leadership imperative he stresses on, is hiring for diversity. "We live in a very diverse society. We have got to reflect that society," he says. "A lot of our creativity comes from different perspectives. A person turning up in a suit and tie may seem like everybody's cup of tea in terms of having corporate conformity. But often, your growth of ideas does not come from corporate conformity."
Hooton is emphatic that a key job for a leader is to create more leaders. As he pointed out during the Wellington conference, enthusiastic go-getters who are after your job "are not a threat because you are one yourself".
These team members, he says, will produce great results, keep you sharp and allow you to shift work to someone who cares. "Nurture and encourage them, your organisation will thank you!"
Chief of information technology
Carter Holt Harvey
Pat O'Connell began his IT career as a computer operator for a Caterpillar dealer in Christchurch in the mid-70s when PCs were unheard of. Assigned to the night shift, his responsibilities then were "pushing buttons and changing paper on the printer for an old mainframe operation". His technical background brought him to other areas of IT, working in programming, then for a supplier and at Telecom's infrastructure area.
It was, however, while working some eight years ago as a consultant with Ernst & Young that he realised his technical background was "a bit limiting". He got an MBA through the University of Southern Cross in Australia, where he focused on international finance. Thereafter, he says, his career "shifted" as he started "getting an appreciation away from technology and more into the business reasons for the technology and the business imperative for the technology".
He started working with Ernst & Young on a Y2K project at CHH and "sort of never left". He worked on a couple of other IT-related projects for CHH and was asked to be its CIO in early 2003.
Today, the forest products company is undergoing organisational changes, but for O'Connell, dealing with such events is all part and parcel of an IS leader's job. "You have got to be prepared for changes," he says. Whatever happens, "From the macro level, we are carrying on towards our vision of a fully integrated standardised infrastructure and ERP system.
"We try to be reasonably current with our systems. We are on a mission still of rationalisation and consolidation to reduce, to take advantage of technology to reduce our complexity and cost. We want to make our delivery of IT as fast and invisible, it should be something that is always on. I consider IT in some cases to be almost like a utility. You are expected to be there and if it is not, there is something seriously wrong somewhere."
The highs in his current post, he says, are the "hugely interesting and diverse bunch of systems and people we work with". As for the lows, O'Connell pauses a bit and says, "I think it is probably a certain amount of frustration at not being able to achieve a vision as quickly as I would like. That is not a criticism of anybody or anything. These things take a long time to move. Even if everyone says, 'Yes, [it's] go now,' you can't build Rome in a day."
As he observes, "There always seem to be a conflict between what the IT people want to do and what the business people will allow them to do."
But, he points out, "We have to be careful we don't try and push IT as the solution down everybody's throat. We have got to find what the business solution is and how we will support it."
From his diverse experience in the technical and business sides of IT, he has these pointers: "Try to get a wide knowledge across technologies and processes and disciplines. Try and build a team around you with specialisation in those areas. When I say specialisation, I mean deep knowledge, not just silos of knowledge. But you also should also have some of the generalist knowledge".
He also underscores the importance of having a diverse team. "In fact you should always try to recruit people who are better than you because they make you look good," he says.
Definitely, he says, he still finds the sector still exciting and interesting. "I really enjoy the IT industry, it is something I have always worked in."
Still, he reminisces about the time 30 years ago when "there was a mystery associated with IT".
"We even used to believe it, it made us feel good," he says. "It is all gone now.
It has gone from mysterious to the complex... the unwarranted complexity, the complexity by reputation, to the complexity by nature."
General manager, business and technology solutions and services Westpac
"Businesses go through different cycles. You have to accept as a leader, every day is not going to be your best day. I am going to have some tough times and I guess it is actually how you respond to those tough times that matters," says Glenn Patrick, general manager business and technology solutions and services at Westpac.
Several years ago, Patrick experienced one of those 'tough times', when the organisation he was working with was grappling with a huge staff turnover - up to 80 per cent annually. "We had a few key individuals that left the organisation, people got unsettled by that." There was a very buoyant labour market at that time, which he says, accelerated the attrition. It was also the toughest management challenge he has ever faced. "When you are facing a crisis, that really does bring your leadership to the fore," he explains.
"We had to take reasonably swift and reasonable action to turn that around in the course of six months. We went out very honestly to discuss the issues. As leaders we had to spend more time with our people, discuss the issues and get their feedback on how they thought the issues could be addressed. We had to bring that together in a plan that worked for our people and our business partners. We had to get buy-in for that plan right across the organisation. It wasn't good enough to just get buy in from the IT team, you buy-in right across."
He says to get this buy-in, the management team used a "multitude of different channels" ranging from large group meetings to informal chats over coffee or a drink. "We canvassed a lot of feedback against the plan, went about implementing the plan and it ended up being very successful."
He says the best advice he ever received on leadership is, "To surround yourself by very good people... You learn so much from people, from experiences, and why they do things a certain way. There is no substitute for having the best people."
A leader should never ever feel threatened that you have people who actually want your job, he adds. "You have to focus on the outcomes you are wanting to achieve. What you need is the critical mass of your team fired up to deliver your strategic mission and vision with plans to achieve this."
Part of it is giving people opportunity to grow. At the time of the interview, for instance, Patrick was "sitting in the CIO role" as former CIO Ross Hughson has taken the same position at Inland Revenue Department. The replacement process may take more than two months. "I am lucky enough to be doing everything at the moment," he says with a laugh. But this set-up is necessary, "because we have a number of things we want to complete right now. We don't want to lose momentum on those."
A member of his team is stepping up to do his general manager role. "It is a great opportunity for them to show the succession planning and development we put into the individual... That you can actually rise to the occasion and show you are capable."
He says the most significant achievement in his IS career is what is happening now at Westpac. "When I started at Westpac, we had a long way to go in terms of our employee commitments, our business partners and customer satisfaction. There was a lot more we could do to improve shareholder returns... Three years on, we have our highest ever employee commitment. We have a high business partner satisfaction. We have, to date, our best shareholder returns and our people are absolutely engaged and understand their responsibilities when it comes to corporate and social responsibilities."
He likens the situation to an athlete reaping the rewards of an intensive but appropriate training. "They peak for the critical races, they don't peak every race." Westpac, he says, is in that state now, hitting its goals for the short, medium and long-term.
Chief information officer
Telecom New Zealand
Humility is one trait Mark Ratcliffe looks for in a leader, like the New Zealander who first conquered Mount Everest, but remains down to earth. "I like the sort of humility that Edmund Hillary brings to occasions," says the chief information officer of Telecom New Zealand.
For Ratcliffe, a leader should also be ready to stand in the front line for the team. For this model, he points to All Blacks captain Tana Umaga. "He has put himself out in an environment, he is prepared to take a risk. By stepping forward into leadership, you are by necessity putting yourself out in an arena where you can get shot. Unless you are willing to put yourself out and take risks, you will not be a leader. You will just be a manager."
Ratcliffe says by doing so, a leader can make mistakes. "You've got to be prepared to accept you will make mistakes, [and] not stress about it. Learn from them. You can't have your cake and eat it with leadership. It will come with a cost, because anything that's worth having comes at some kind of cost."
He describes himself as a private person who tends to keep a relatively low profile. "I'd rather let my boss (CEO Theresa Gattung), my colleagues and my team [get the accolades] if they are doing a good job. That is enough for me."
"My job as a leader is to assemble the team," he explains. "I don't actually do much of the work. To my mind it is inappropriate for me to take much of the credit for the individual projects because I don't do the individual projects."
His team also takes centre place as he describes his leadership style: "I hire good people, I give them reasonably clear outcomes on what we want to achieve, I allow them to do it in their own way to some extent. I am quite happy with a high degree of diversity of style. Having appointed them, I am there to support them and advice them, not direct them."
Chris Quin, general manager Gen-i, attests to this. "I get enormous value from Mark's IT leadership and executive experience in guiding the development of our propositions to customers and building our new merged business. Mark has had to deal with the same strategic and execution challenges that many of our customers have."
UK-born Ratcliffe, who has a BA in accountancy and commerce, became Telecom CIO in November 2000, from general manager voice and data. "I am a senior IT leader but I would not regard myself as an IT person from a technology point of view. I have never been a computer programmer. I think of myself as a service industry person." He quips, "You should ask my family about my confidence about fixing the PC at home."
For aspiring CIOs, he says, "I don't think you can get there on one set of skills. You have to learn non-IT skills and how to speak in non-IT speak. You've got to be able to communicate with people, you have got to want to able to lead and to achieve outcomes through other people rather than do things yourself." It is also about making some hard choices.
"If you want to be a senior leader in an organisation, you have to be prepared to give up things, in a sort of no regrets way. Because, being a senior leader in an organisation, there is a time element to how much time each year that is going to take. And it is not a 40-hour week by any stretch of imagination."
Ratcliffe has a practical approach to achieving work/life balance. "I like to exercise, I like to spend time with people who have nothing to do with what I do at work. I like to have a strong separation between 'work Mark' and 'home Mark'. I think it is important to give yourself 100 per cent to what you are doing. When you are at work, it is 100 per cent work. When you are not at work, it is 100 per cent not at work."
Marcel van den Assum
Former chief information officer
To projects that involve re-engineering and working with teams across continents, Marcel van den Assum may as well say, 'bring them on'.
"I don't shy away from big challenges," he says. "The more challenging it is, and the more people saying it can't be done, the better."
Van den Assum definitely did not run out of challenges when he led the IS operations at Fonterra for four years. He was the dairy company's first chief information officer and led the integration of three independent IS operations with a global reach. This integration, according to van den Assum, is "certainly right up there" in his achievements.
"The integration of different organisations, teams, systems and processes is very satisfying. It is all about your bringing together a top-performing organisation."
Van den Assum left Fonterra early this year but is no less busy. Nor has he slowed down in pursuit of other challenges in the IS field. "I am talking to quite a number of people about a governance type of position. I would like to touch on a number of organisations and really help drive the IS revolution. We really need to keep the pressure on.
"Probably my biggest disappointment is that there is such a lot of waste in terms of IS resources, and less about people. It is more to do with looking at technology around you, how underutilised it really is, and the potential that exists."
"If you go back to the industrial revolution of 130 years ago, it took a hundred years to bed-in fundamental industrial principles, ranging from the utilities around the industrial revolution - electricity and what have you - through to mass production and concepts of mass production and quality management.
So from an information revolution perspective, we're in the relatively early stages and is partly to do with utilisation of technology assets."
Van den Assum says his stints in both IT customer and vendor companies provided him valuable lessons in managing projects. "They are complementary experiences. In a vendor community, you obviously need to sell or promote services or give a value proposition. The same thing applies if you are working as a CIO inside a customer company. You need to sell and promote value within the organisation."
As a general manager for Unisys, he worked with the Land Transport Safety Authority on the design, implementation and management of the new drivers' licence system and motor vehicle register. "That was very satisfying because that was a fundamental change of the way processes and systems work." He also helped set up the Pacific Asia Centre of Excellence for Unisys in Sydney. "We set that up from scratch, it was a complete blank piece of paper, and we helped developed the strategy and get the team on board."
The toughest experiences in his IS career, he says, always involved working with people with "different perspectives". "None of these were typical IS issues. They had more to do with getting buy-in and understanding the way the processes were evolving and changing. Probably the toughest is not the technical challenge. It is the engagement, culture, buy-in and change." He advises: "Forget about the technology. You really need to focus on the business, have the right team in place.
And make sure you have a mechanism to maintain your energy level."
"You need to talk to people who will keep you energised, motivated; people who are positive." They could be members of your team, a colleague at work or outside, and family whom you could meet for coffee when things are hard. "They get excited about what you are doing and when you leave, you think 'I feel incredibly energised. I am right for another three months.'"
Director, information technology systems and services
University of Auckland
"There is a lot of intelligence here. You've got to blend that intelligence with some practical common sense and hard-nosed delivery."
That's Stephen Whiteside describing the advantages - and nuances - of his job as director, ITSS (information technology systems and services) of the University of Auckland.
Whiteside heads the IS operations of the largest IT user organisation in New Zealand. The university, currently with 12,910 computer screens, has taken the top slot in the annual MIS100 listing for the past two years, primarily due to its adding 1000 computer screens every year during that period. But, as Whiteside puts it, "One has to bear in mind, we may have the most number of screens but this doesn't mean we spend the most."
Whiteside, however, knows how to tap the vast capabilities of a vibrant community that is the University of Auckland and deliver IS differently from what most New Zealand organisations are used to. "Universities are unusual in New Zealand in that we work in a federal environment as opposed to a centralised environment," he states. At the University of Auckland, his co-providers in IS could be considered large businesses in their own right. The faculty of science, for instance, runs some 3000 PCs.
He recognises that the faculties are co-providers and may have an innovation and capability in areas that ITSS doesn't have. For instance, the university's wireless strategy was faculty-led. The pilots were designed and developed primarily by faculty at the business school and computer science. "We played a role there in coordinating the standards and defining the security policies and practices around wireless. We ended up having a good blend of using the faculty's innovation and using the central IT group not to innovate but to assist in consistent deployment."
Whiteside came into the university after eight years as chief information officer of the Canterbury District Health Board. In his past four years at the university, he says his greatest achievement is the formation of the university's information management strategy. "The reason I am proud of that strategy is that it really is looking at improving the capability of harnessing the university's capacity and innovation."
Whiteside relates the university did not have such a strategy when he came in. The university had conducted a review and wanted to have a central IT group with a CIO type position. "Previous to that, IT had grown in an unstructured way with pockets of innovation and pockets of neglect. And so in many respects, I spent the majority of my first year rolling my sleeves up. One of the first things we had to look at was to build up the central IT group ITSS."
He says one of the important lessons he learned in his IS career, is: "In order to understand how to exploit IT, you have to have a good understanding of business first. Then you need to understand how to execute. That way, you can listen to the senior executives, understand what they and the business need, and be realistic about the cost and capability of delivery."
At the University of Auckland, this means actively cultivating a deeper perspective of changes in the sector. "In the last 10 years, the university has gone through quite a transition from being a government-funded institution where people go to get degrees through to an institution where only about 35 per cent of our funding is from government, and where our research revenue is expanding significantly and is really a core part of the business."
Long-term, Whiteside sees himself moving to a general management role. "I'm primarily a businessman," he says, "the main business tool at the moment happens to be the exploitation of technology."