In the saddle

In the saddle

Change is a constant for Deidre Butler, who has just taken the reins of Christchurch City Council's IT department. She discusses with Darren Greenwood how a people-centred approach is vital to a winning IT strategy both in the state and private sectors.

Deidre Butler believes the theory of horse whispering can provide good practices for leadership development. "You need to take time and get to understand the horse, their unique character and nature," says the newly appointed chief information officer of the Christchurch City Council (CCC) and an accomplished horse rider.

"You need to show the horse that they can trust you and look to you as an alpha leader - that you know where you are going so even in the scariest circumstances, they will be calm and level headed around you.

"You do not do that by bullying, force or being demanding - you need to understand what you are doing and why, and lead forward confidently, being empathetic and in tune with the horse every step of the way."

In October last year, Butler came down to Christchurch as a consultant when the city council's former IT services manager, Phil Wright, left for other pastures. Her role included taking the reins of the 80-strong information management, communications and technology unit, plus advising and leading on IT as the council took a new direction.

The Wellingtonian has worked in IT for nearly 20 years, starting in the UK while on her OE, and enjoying the industry's flexibility that allows a lifestyle of travelling and working.

Butler was due to head back to the capital this year to manage the IT of a major government department but a sudden change in "personal circumstances" led her to considering leaving Wellington. And once Christchurch City Council found out, it made an offer too good to refuse.

Now, with a lifestyle block close to the Cathedral City, Butler, her children and their three horses hope to settle down in the self-styled 'Silicon Plains', whose motto was once "Yes, you Canterbury" - a slogan no doubt reflecting Butler's "can do" attitude.

Bright lights - big OE

Leaving Lower Hutt at 19 for the bright lights of London, Butler, like many Kiwis, found herself doing contract work, which increasingly meant IT, and learning on the job. "I don't have a degree, but I have had some damn good jobs, which have taught me more in practice than I have gained from academic learning," she says.

These include being CIO at the Ministry of Health and becoming the first CIO at the Department of Courts. Her initial work experiences included a diversity of contracts for London oil firms, banks and even casinos.

"I try and immerse myself in the business, in the organisation and try and understand as much as I can, and from this, truly understand the value that I can bring in leading my group and their activities in support," says Butler.

Working for the Kerr-McGee oil company, which suffered "shockwaves" from losing top staff in a North Sea oil rig disaster, taught Butler "why an organisation is not just IT".

While in London, Butler gained further management experience by creating

Come Clean with two other women, which became one of the first successful computer room specialist cleaning companies.

Butler returned to New Zealand in 1991, unsure of whether to stay. She helped Pitman Moore Animal Health Company set up a Unix manufacturing system. Needing some time to think about where to from there, she headed to the USA to be a leadership counsellor for CAMP America in upstate New York.

Pitman Moore kept a job open so Butler returned, and stayed with the firm for five years. Her role grew as the firm expanded and was taken over several times. Later, as MIS manager for the ANZ region, Butler spent equal time between Australia and New Zealand.

Into public service

By 1997, Butler wanted a new challenge, so she became manager of IT at the Ministry of Health.

Initially, she was wary of moving into the public sector, but was convinced health offered challenge under "an inspirational leader".

"It was probably the best move I could have made," says Butler.

During her time in health, the organisation moved from a ministry to a government department, with the Health Funding Authority merging into the ministry and helping district boards get established.

"The constant challenge for my group was to support operational activity across a broad range of services and sizeable policy functions, and deal with a sector going through significant change. We also set up a third party shared service model - where functions in the wider health sector could go to us or the private sector," she explains.

Her five years in the public sector led to the 2001 Ria McBride Award. She spent the $15,000 prize studying advanced strategic leadership and advanced management concepts at Oxford University, England.

Butler returned to New Zealand in 2002, to become the first CIO at the Department of Courts. There, projects included implementing a case management system called CMS and dealing with a new Collect system following the departure of Accenture from New Zealand. But after 10 months, the department merged with the Department of Justice, the work was put on hold and Butler was made redundant.

Butler went into consulting on her own, carrying out supply chain work for Wrightson and offering strategic advice to major vendors, before coming to Christchurch in October.

Here, Butler sees how information management and technology can help council CEO Lesley McTurk drive a new "customer-centric" vision across the organisation.

"To be a CIO where there is such a clear, strong vision from the top, supported by a culture of empowerment and an executive actually walking the talk, where I can really demonstrate my leadership and capabilities, is incredibly refreshing," she says.

Christchurch City Council has five major IT projects underway: The GEMS local government system is at the end of its life; and projects due for renewal include asset management, business, financial and KPI warehousing and reporting, electronic document management and reviewing web strategy and delivery.

Butler took a step back to see how these projects fit in with the council vision, looking at the bigger picture, analysing business requirements, noting some technology overlaps.

She recommended changes in governance processes, structure and resourcing, architecture and strategy.

Butler was to give council a "detailed roadmap" for the IM/IT department in February for her successor to deal with, but will now see through this work herself.

Butler backs McTurk's vision and strategies, adding she has been involved in good and bad restructures. When an organisation restructures, a CIO has to decide whether he or she believes in the changes, and whether to stay and support the changes. There too, she says, is the deciding factor of how well the changes are implemented, something CIOs do not control.

"I never look at a restructure or realignment as a way to get rid of people. It is a change that has occurred for a reason. If people are unfortunate to be made redundant, first and foremost is saying their role is redundant and seeing if they can be redeployed.

I have had some people say they would like to take the money and run and that is fine. I have always strived to achieve a win-win through any restructure I have led," she says.

A 'people person'

Indeed, 'win-wins' in the workplace seem to sum up Butler's career so far.

Former colleagues speak of an enthusiastic leader, who gets things done by working with people rather than against them.

Ministry of Health chief internal auditor Steve Brazier recalls a "very bright, very cheerful, very innovative, good lateral thinker" who "could really deliver on big projects".

Staff were "very loyal" to Butler who knew how to explain complex IT stuff to managers, he says. She managed people effectively and much of the IT team Butler built at health still remains, he adds.

Shirley Smith, acting general manager, finance and performance, at the Department of Internal Affairs, worked with Butler at Health and Courts. She describes Butler as a very communicative leader who works co-operatively with people across many disciplines, seeing the strategic direction.

"Always very positive, she builds up good team spirit and always looks for solutions rather than pointing out problems. I think her real strength is she is able to communicate a vision to other people involved in a project; she brings people with her,"says Smith.

Emotional intelligence

Butler says she sees a CIO's role as strategic, extending to management, business processes, as well as technology, requiring strong and visionary management and leadership capabilities.

Such knowledge extends to emotional intelligence (EI), which she admits women tend to have more than men, "But other than that, I don't get into boy's club stuff."

EI is a factor in how Butler recruits, using a non-traditional psychometric assessment of candidates that looks at not just technical skills, but their style of working, getting a measure of their psyche, getting a team-fit or complementary team-fit at the outset.

And whether working in the private or the public sector, similar principles apply.

After experiencing both sides of the fence, Butler says there is very little difference between the two in organisation, vision, strategy and outcomes.

The state sector is good in having large and diverse agencies, so you are part of a bigger picture, she says. Her years in Wellington, therefore, saw Butler collaborating across other government departments, not just her own, and being seconded to government departments in Britain and Australia.

As president of GOVIS (Government Information Systems Managers Forum), Butler widened its scope from just technology to include information management, service and support, management and leadership and general e-service issues.

"It's a load of rubbish that the public sector isn't as capable as the private sector.

The 'gliding on' view of the public sector is still there because people don't understand the complexity of the issues," she says, adding the public sector also handles the affairs of state, that the private sector does not.

However, Butler accepts IT leaders in private firms must be more sensitive of the bottom line every month because projects may be pulled in uncertain times.

"In the private sector, you have the added parrot of how the business is going. In the public sector, you don't have that parrot on your shoulder. You know what money there is for a project, you know what money there is for the financial year," she says.

Now firmly in the local government saddle, Butler is using her Wellington experience as she reframes the breadth and scope of the council's IT department. The "roadmap" has been delivered and in the next few months the "mandate" of the department will be settled to be in line with the new direction of the council.

Furthermore, Butler has been spending time in the capital with the E-Government Unit to see how to expand e-government processes in the Christchurch City Council. She is re-establishing links with government and other public sector CIOs, looking at matters the council should be aware of.

"It's very opportunistic, where we can leverage the workings and analyses and international research. It will be an ongoing piece of work, making sure our IM/IT architecture leads forward in ensuring full support of the business needs and opportunities now and into the future."

Rate your challenges

When interviewing IT directors, MIS asks them to rate the challenges of managing a project. Here, Christchurch City Council CIO Deidre Butler rates her challenges in running and restructuring IT at the local government level.

Most challenging

Strategy and planning

Selecting vendors

Keeping projects on time and on budget

Getting support of board and CEO

Getting support of other company stakeholders

Managing vendors

Finding and motivating the right staff

Managing emergencies

Least challenging

Top management tips

The most important thing, says Deidre Butler, is to ensure you have a strategy as "your planning leads from this".

Communication, she says, is paramount. "Communicate clearly (to the board and CEO), align to organisation vision and strategy and excite them of the opportunities and possibilities! IT executives should 'have conversations' with other company stakeholders and should communicate with vendors what you expect of them and how you wish them to interact with you and your business."

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