I was quite open to our CIO. 'I think you have an incredibly hard job.'
Rise to the C-suite
Ward started as a technologist - but not in information technology. He completed an aeronautical trade as a member of the Royal New Zealand Air Force.
“When you look at the technical disciplines around aircraft, the specifications that you operate in, they are very precise,” he states. “A lot of my disciplines come from the aeronautical side” of my training.
He was with the Air Force for 14 years, where he became a commissioned officer and worked in logistics and supply chain under Stewart Bailey.
Ward’s career took him into banking with Westpac, where he stayed for three years. He started as commercial manager, governance and service delivery, and became head of business management.
He credits his stint at Westpac at providing him with the resilience to work under a heavy load and to juggle critical priorities.
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“Banking is a very pressured organisation and the demands are quite heavy,” he explains. “There is a big focus on security and the customer. A highly competitive shareholder return is something that is continually on your mind [and] where you are ranked in the banking surveys.
“You know how to prioritise your time. What it does, it gears you up for other transformations because you work in very politically charged environments,” he says. “You are also in the midst of technical complex environments and you can not afford to fail because your shareholder return is there.”
Ward then moved to IRD. Underpinned with a marketing degree from Massey University, IRD sponsored his master of public administration through Monash and Victoria University.
“That really put a different proposition together on how you view government and how decisions are made.”
Understanding the machinery of government is critical in any executive role, he says.
“Like any company, there are always rules and guidelines to support effective decision making," he states. "Understanding this in government is key and I would suggest that those companies wishing to deal with government have an appreciation of this."
He says having a marketing background was important. “You can draw on your backgrounds and your experiences, not just to solely look at IT but put it in a language that people can really understand.”
“Your brand, your people, your products and services are all considerations. Just like supply chain, [it is about] understanding pass off points and how a company ought to operate.
This combination of skills provided him the impetus to move to business management roles.
“What that enabled me to look at, is knowing how technically things operate, then knowing the supply chain that operates that and putting a business lens on it. How do we fund this, how do we plan the balance sheet, how do we optimise our costs?”
When he joined IRD from Westpac, he saw it as a move to another financial institution.
“The disciplines are similar,” he adds. “You can bring that commercial experience over to IRD.”
His first role at IRD was as an IT Business Manager, then he progressed to GM Strategy and Business Engagement and GM IT Operations and Services, then CTO. Ward was reporting to Tim Occleshaw, who is now Government CTO and deputy CEO at the Department of Internal Affairs.
Working with IRD CEO Naomi Ferguson instilled in him the culture for the executive team to “operate at a very high level”.
“The IRD is a unified semi-autonomous body without a board. As CTO you are an executive part of a board that also has functional responsibility,” he says. “That environment prepared me considerably to be able to operate at a CEO level.”
When Ward was with IRD, he was also international co-chair of a 26-nation working party on the ISO Standards for IT Governance. “There were about a dozen or so Chairs and we would meet annually to work through where to take IT governance related standards (service delivery, architecture, testing and the various other domains of IT).
“It was a really rewarding experience,” he says, as he was able to talk directly with people who were developing ITIL directly. A key outcome was being part of the Group who released the ISO 38500 standard and being published on Vendor Governance Models.
Working with a multinational group, “just builds up your experience around operating at an international level, bringing multi-cultural environments together, being able to manage ambiguity, and to better manage uncertainty.”
Working closely with Greg James and Arlene White on IRD’s transformation, Myles at IRD worked on the multi-year, multi-stage change management programme to modernise Zealand’s tax service. The goal is to make it simpler and faster for Kiwis to pay taxes and provide more certainty that they will receive their entitlements.
The business transformation project included, among others, building secure digital services and increasing interoperability with other agencies/third parties. “This was a true business-led transformation and can be used as a template for great planning,” says Ward.
“That really provided a good foundation on how to articulate technology in a layperson’s term, and how to use technology for a true business enabler,” he states. We were able to put a business lens on how to use ICT.”
All these provided a solid grounding for the CEO role at healthAlliance, “given the large proportion of our business is delivering ICT services”.
He is in regular contact with his former colleagues and bosses from over the years. He believes it is important to keep in constant touch with a network, whatever one’s role in the organisation.
“Make sure you are using that network and you share your experience,” he says. “CEOs and senior execs are all under the same pressure. It is knowing that the opportunities are there to discuss with other people how they are managing similar issues.”
He had a similar network of CIOs and CTOs when he was with Westpac and IRD.
‘Push your limits’
Ward shares a basic career advice for business technology professionals.
“Harness opportunities, push your limits and get the broadest experiences.”
“When I look at the future of IT, a CIO needs a different tool belt. The technology is the technology. It is how you use it to disrupt, to solve business problems, and explain it in a way that boards and stakeholders can understand. Technology needs to be seen and articulated as a value as opposed to a cost. Key skills are around commercial management, financial management, and business management. It is also about being able to step into the shoes of your customer,” says Ward.
“It is a very commercial orientated world out there,” he adds. “You have to manage vendors in the right way, extract value for the business and be able to talk to the board.”
Having these skills and perspective means “you can branch out beyond CIO level”.
At healthAlliance, he asks the CIO to directly present to the board, just like the CFO.
He says it is important for CEOs to mentor their CIO to take on this role.
Knowing how the board wants to hear it, you can help the CIO tailor the message, he says. “I would strongly recommend a CIO branch out and get those additional skills.”
Does this mean then having a former CTO as CEO is easier for the CIO?
Ward smiles and says, “I was quite open to our CIO [Kevin Robinson].'I think you have an incredibly hard job.'”
On the flip side, he says, “What it has enabled me to do is to be realistic about what is achievable by the CIO and ensure that realistic time frames are put in and the checks and balances are reinforced. Being able to understand the technology and business enables me to also do the translation at times.
“Sometimes the CEO might want to deliver a lot quicker, but knowing how things really operate, you can have that deep discussion about setting priorities and making sure there are realistic outcomes.
“That takes the pressure off the CIO because he does not feel alone,” he states.
“Technology can be quite a complicated and threatening language to some people. Having a CEO that understands that, enables the CIO to be able to have some active discussions around their frustrations,” he says.
“It is a good circuit breaker.”
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Join the CIO New Zealand group on LinkedIn. The group is open to CIOs, IT Directors, COOs, CTOs and senior IT managers.