The CIOs of tomorrow

Networked organisations strive for agility and capability to respond to rapid changes while laying the foundations for long-term growth. Shouldn't this be your mantra when managing your career in IT and beyond?

These days it has almost become a mantra for networked organisations to be nimble, ready to adjust to the ever changing needs of the marketplace and stakeholders, while ensuring the foundations for long-term growth. But how about transposing this philosophy to another area close to the hearts and minds of today's contemporary IS executives - their career?

"Only you can be responsible for your career," admonishes Garth Biggs, HiGrowth Project executive director. "You need to be in control of your career. You need to be deciding what you are and where you are."

Biggs knows whereof he speaks. He has spent the last 35 years in the ICT industry. He started as a 22-year-old programmer and has had CIO stints in the retail and airline industries. He is also a member of the select club of New Zealand CIOs who have moved to a CEO role in a major company (Biggs was CEO of Gen-i prior to the Telecom takeover).

Garth and a group of top IT executives recently shared their insights on how to become "the CIOs of tomorrow" during the first MIS Careers Fair at the Wellington Convention Centre.

His primary advice for today's IS professionals?

"Think about what you need to do to maintain your value throughout your career."

IS professionals, he says, should take time to sit down and ask themselves what they have done in the last six months that has added something to their resume. They should also think about what they would be doing in the next half year that could be added to their resume.

"If you can't answer those questions or if the answer is nothing, you need to start thinking about what you are doing in that organisation."

A static resume does not mean it is time to move on. "But think about the value of what you are doing in terms of what it's doing for you in the marketplace."

Specialists and generalists

Mark Ratcliffe, Telecom New Zealand CIO, says basically there are two career choices - being a specialist or a generalist. Some people are happy doing specialist functions and getting a deeper understanding of their craft, while there are others like him he prefer to be a generalist.

"I wanted to shape things that I was involved in, I didn't want to just be a technical specialist, given my limited ability to be technical at all," says Ratcliffe.

But one thing that he learned from his career is that all his job experiences, which included working in a forklift truck distribution company ("not a very sexy business") and pubs in the UK, provided valuable skills that are helping him until today.

In the first job, for instance, he learned about how distribution and parts businesses work when manufacturing is done overseas. He augmented his income with work in pubs which he reckons is a good place to learn about customer service.

At the university, Ratcliffe became involved in the student union which in those days ran business like bars and cafes.

In this environment, he learned about advocacy, negotiation and people skills. In the late 1980s, he and his Kiwi wife arrived in New Zealand and he worked as the Wellington branch manager for Data Group.

"I'd had a very limited IT experience, but I managed to get a job running an IT business in Wellington. I learned a whole bunch of stuff there and a lot of it holds true with a lot of the things I have to do with the Gen-i organisation today. It hasn't actually changed that much, just the scale. The same sort of principles apply."

When Ratcliffe moved to Telecom, he took on a variety of roles that included disposing off million of dollars worth of inventory, setting up and running the credit control organisation within the Telecom regional operating company ("You can move from finance to being CIO.").

He says the CIO job at Telecom is a "chief job" just as there is a chief financial officer who is responsible for finance. "We really just have an executive team of seven or eight people and we've got titles that would indicate that we were specialist in something, but we've all got a mixture of business unit responsibilities and some kind of functional job."

He also recently became involved with mergers and acquisitions. "I'm heavily involved in strategy work, so there's a whole range of opportunities. Once you get to that chief level and people who have sat on executive teams will tell you, is that you are expected to contribute beyond your specialist subject. If you can't, then you're not really worth your place at the table.

"The experiences that you pick up, you have to take those forward in terms of the next role and look for things beyond your own specialist skill if you want to succeed."

Ratcliffe also has an interesting pointer for preparing CVs - if you are into team sports, make sure to put that in.

"The stuff that you learn playing in team sports does equip you well for business. It doesn't necessarily make you a great leader, but it means that you are always a good team member."<p/>

Tertiary education is important too, and not because he thinks one necessarily needs the qualification. <p/>

"But the whole process that you go through there, the experiences that you get, the chance to meet with people and interact with people in disciplines beyond your own is vitally important."

Also, keep in mind that not all progression in an organisation has to be upwards. "Take the opportunity for multiple roles," he states. "Take some risks, move sideways across organisations into roles that you think you can do."

Working with a good team is very vital in progressing one's career. "Hire people who are smarter than you," says Ratcliffe. "You can't learn from people who haven't got anything to bring. Get people to come work for you that bring stuff to the table that you don't have."

He also advises avoiding working for a boss whose career is identical to yours as the experience would be "very frustrating".

"Try to work for bosses who appreciate what you do, understand it, but have absolutely no desire to get involved in your job whatsoever, that is quite critically important," says Ratcliffe who states he has no problems in this area of his career.

Ratcliffe says if there were things he would do a little differently, it would be to have had "a deeper understanding of the theory of business before I started in business". He would have been more confident about making choices, decisions and recommendations.

"I would encourage you to start, if you want to get ahead and move beyond just being a technician, to actually understand some business theory. It's not actually that complicated, it's largely common sense, but it will give you more confidence."

The information revolution

Marcel van den Assum, former Fonterra CIO, says IT skills are going to become mainstream and fundamental to any number of business leadership positions. "It will be a prerequisite to leading organisations, whether they be public or private sector."

He suggests maintaining a "T-shaped capability" which means having a generalist perspective across a wide range of activities while maintaining a specialist capability. This, he says, is true in the case of Ratcliffe who as a member of the leadership team at Telecom, has a generalist capability at that level, but is a specialist in terms of the team that he leads directly. You can extrapolate this out to any number of levels, he says,

"But certainly the days of middle management are long gone and it's vitally important that a specialist dimension is maintained regardless of how broad your perspective has become."

Van den Assum says one issue for networked organisations is that much of management context in today's organisations is rooted in the industrial age - e.g. time and motion analysis, activity-based costing, mass production and assembly lines.

"But the industrial revolution is over," he states. "It was 130 years ago when it started and it's held us in good stead going forward, but it's gone past its use by date.

"We do not want to continue to apply industrial principles to the information age. We are the soldiers of the information revolution, we are moving into a new era." This revolution, he says, is just 30 years old and will require different skills for its leaders.

This means there is a need to get to know a lot of concepts. For instance, the balance sheet as an industrial concept tends to be pretty "hard wired," relating to bricks and mortars and fixed assets.

In the information age, data that will be absolutely vital to business leadership will be measured and recognised as assets on the balance sheet. There are a number of organisations and countries like Sweden that are now deliberately managing their balance sheet by transferring those intangibles to hard measured assets.

Another skill that is vital to facilitate the information revolution is an "outcomes focus", says van den Assum.

"It's all about results. What are we trying to achieve? Less focus on inputs, less focus on what makes up the various components of the solution, more focus on the output."

Organisations will be viewed from a value chain perspective compared to the silos under the old industrial model. "An outcomes focus requires you as IS and IT leaders to take a cross-functional pan organisational view, a value chain view," he explains.

"It is about consciously deciding where value is created and where it's not created, so you need to have the ability to challenge the business. Are we creating unique competitive advantage in performing this function or this part of the process, or are we not? Is it something that is run of the mill and everybody else is doing it? Can we acquire it? You focus your investment on those parts of the value chain where you achieve unique advantage, where you can beat the competition."

Concepts such as process ownership will become far more important. Process owners, he adds, will be the leaders in the business, not the person running manufacturing or supply chain or the customer relationship function. "Organisations will be run by those that understand the cross functional process implications."

Another important skill is "collaboration", the ability to engage multiple people or organisations in a collective value chain. "You're going to see far more distributed teamwork. There's a need to take on board cultural diversity, cross geographic activities and much of this is occurring today. Certainly from a New Zealand point of view, these are absolutely vital characteristics that we must develop if we're looking to take our capabilities offshore in an export sense. If we can't collaborate on a global basis we're going to be in real strife."

The diversity issue

Corina Bruce, New Zealand Defence Force deputy director of CIS programs, provides the dual perspective of being a woman in an IT leadership role and in the Armed Forces.

She took the IT course at that time, a bachelor of science degree, at the University of Canterbury. There were 50 students - seven were women and four of them were Asians which meant they left for their home countries after graduation.

Bruce says she joined the Navy in order to do something different from what 90 per cent of her classmates would be doing - writing Cobol programs on payroll systems and stock control.

It was, she says, a "great opportunity" to join the Navy because this meant working in a small new organisation, the IT department, within a large traditional one. Then she found out she would be the only woman in the workplace.

"One of the first things I learned in that environment was that if you can find the win-win solution, if you can find a way to make things better for yourself and also the organisation that you're working with, go for it, suggest it. Nine times out of 10, you're actually making it easier for your boss and they are just looking for that opportunity to actually move forward and have the load taken off their shoulders."

She had moved up in the organisation, taking on a range of IT responsibilities, like operational software, which include navigation systems, command control and communications. By that time, the crew was 30 per cent female. "We probably didn't realise that we were the beginnings of the equal opportunity employer for the Navy, because we actually had about a half and half ratio (of men and women) within our IT area."

She wore overalls and worked everyday with people who were probably old enough to be her father and who had never worked for a woman before. This experience, she says, "increased my respect for people who are the subject matter experts. No matter what field you're working in, be it IT or in an engineering field, people learn with experience.

"You can have the generalists and you can have those subject matter experts, the technologists. Certainly if you're going to go into the generalist stream, respect the advice that they give you because they are saving you a lot of work. They're the ones that have the opportunity to face the deluge of change that's coming through for us and sift it out and advise you and you can keep your mind on wider, more holistic perspectives."

Work-life balance

Bruce says there are lots of women in the industry, particularly at lower levels. However, their decision to stay in the industry is affected by the career path choices that go along with it.

"We work our people hard, especially project workers, and women are predominantly getting to that level where they're expected to put in long hard hours at the very time where relationships within their families are very important. That's one of the reasons why some women are leaving the industry and not coming back to it." She says this is something managers and supervisors should be a "bit more conscious of".

Women in Technology founder Carol Lee Andersen concurs. "We're trying to make sure those people are well supported," she says, observing that women in IT comprise around 22 per cent of the workforce. But those in leadership positions comprise 3 to 4 per cent.

She adds work-life balance is not an issue exclusive to women. The general principles of leadership and navigating your career apply to both sexes. "So we're not about bits and bytes. We're about setting new standards, about promoting healthy work environments and lobbying the government to create this new economy where we are going to get the talent from."

"We are going forward," Bruce points out, "but we have to support these women to allow them to learn the craft and opportunity of leadership getting into those executive positions."

Bruce says she is not saying women should be promoted because of gender because that will set people up for failure. "But when people are ready, irrespective of their gender, you need to support them, just in the same way you would support any other colleague and make sure that everybody else supports them in the same way as well, because team players make the best workers."

Her suggestion for female IS professionals is "go for it", whether they want to become a technologist, a generalist, a part of the executive team or a knowledge worker.

"It is not so much a gender issue about what career to take up because the message has definitely got through that women are actually clever enough to do things like IT. The problem is how we make it attractive to them as a career choice."

Your customers' moccasins

Glenn Patrick, former Westpac general manager business and technology solutions and services, looks at IT and how it is going to fulfil obligations and outcomes for customers. "We don't have jobs without customers," he stresses.

At the same time, IT's impact on the customer is pervasive. "What we do in every way and the way we do it, impacts on customers. Yet, how often do we actually stop and think about that? How often do we just follow a process for the sake of following a process, without thinking about the outcomes of the customers?"

He suggests IS professionals to always think like a customer. "We actually need to walk a mile in their moccasins.

"Be very passionate about your customers, be very passionate about delivering the right experience, the right outcomes, the right products. Never lose sight that you turn up at work day in day out because your customers are actually purchasing something from you."

For the IT leader, this means giving the team the right tools to better serve the customer, and to align people, processes and systems. For the customers, this means giving them the right self-service tools and having the flexibility to respond when customer needs change.

Says Patrick, "The reality is, when we don't change as quickly as the market then we do go out of business, and the reason we go out of business is because our customers go elsewhere, and there are very few industries today where customers don't have choice. Let me assure you, they exercise their choice."

Never stop learning

Warwick Wright, State Services Commission CIO, echoes the sentiments of Patrick about the need to have a customer service focus.

This perspective is drawn from Wright's wide experience in the industry, starting at the service bureau at IBM. His stint there allowed him to do two things: To become very customer focused because it was a very competitive market and the customers were their life blood, and also work across a lot of industries.

"One of the amazing things about this industry is that you never stop learning," he says. "There's no way you can be an expert."<p/>"We all think of ourselves as business people first. We're there to solve business problems, the technology is just a tool to help us and I think if you go in with that mindset you're a long way towards building a career."

Also, learn from your mistakes. "Most of the things I know have been because I've made mistakes and vowed not to do it again."

Another "big trap" is assuming things. "The things I've really stumbled on have been when I've assumed that I know something because I've done it before and it will be the same this time. As soon as you do that, you're really setting yourself up to make a mistake. Just because you've done one of these sorts of things before doesn't mean you can waltz in and do it in your head."

Developing tomorrow's leaders

Ross Hughson, Inland Revenue Department CIO, underscores the importance of a CIO's responsibility in helping the development of the next generation of IS leaders from your own team.

"As a leader in your organisation, you have to be able to demonstrate that vision for the organisation. Work with the candidate who is looking for the role and understand what they're trying to achieve. It's about melding those two together, so making sure you can provide the vision and the environment for that person to flourish, and if you can convince the person that that's going to happen, they're going to come on board. It's not just about money, it's about the environment, about how they can make a difference and add value."

Nigel Prince, New Zealand Post CIO, says it is something that you work with your direct reports, individually, and working out exactly where their career and objectives are. "That may not be within the pure IT function, it may be taking the opportunity and growing and widening the skills within the business.

"Within IT we've got a unique strategic advantage across other parts of the business, of seeing right across the end to end of the business. We have that benefit of understanding the end from marketing, sales operations, through to credit management, around the whole business process. We can add much more value out there in the business units, and so the opportunity is growing, not only for career succession into my role, but also career succession into senior management roles across the total IT, or across the total organisation of New Zealand."

Prince says being in IT involves working in a changing dynamic environment. One has to continually manage the team and when working with them, check out the opportunities that potentially could be created and opened up for them. "There's no silver bullet, it's something that you just have to continually manage and if you've got open communication lines with your people and you're working with them. And create those opportunities."

Peter Revell, GM solutions delivery at Gen-i, says, "Throwing responsibility at people is the thing that really helps them to grow and develop."

Gen-i, he says, has a graduate recruitment program where new staff are given "accelerated experience" over 12 months in order to "get them to a productive point as quick as possible".

Stephen Whiteside, University of Auckland ITSS director, says, "People are your greatest asset and at times of skill shortages it's actually really important to hold on to them. One of the best ways to hold onto them is that they can actually see that they are actually developing their careers and growing."

"We look very strongly at our development review process," he says, "we are looking constructively about how we are developing people. In some cases, we are developing people to move to another organisation. If you are not encouraging and growing your people, you're not really in business."

The key, says Pat O'Connell, chief of information technology at Carter Holt Harvey, is "contextual intelligence" - understanding the situation and taking the opportunity.

After all, leadership in IT can take a lot of forms. "It can be whatever you want," says O'Connell. "You could be a web designer, a Java programmer, a project manager. You can seize on something that you can do and you can show others that you can do and you can take them with you.

"You can strive through your leadership to make IT that competitive weapon that organisations need, the competitive weapon that adds value to organisations. Don't treat it as how much IT costs us as a percentage of revenue. Think of it as how much it adds as a percentage of revenue."

A redoubtable mission, no doubt, but the IS leaders who spoke at the Wellington Convention Centre showed it can be done. They served as valuable mentors - if only for a day - to a group of IS professionals from whose ranks will emerge the next-generation CIOs in New Zealand and beyond.

In the panel

The IS leaders who provided the pointers for becoming "the CIOs of tomorrow" during the first MIS NZ Careers Fair:

Marcel van den Assum, former Fonterra CIO

Garth Biggs, executive director, HiGrowth Project

Commander Corina Bruce, deputy director of CIS programs, New Zealand Defence Force

Grant Burley, director, absoluteIT

Garry Collings, GM, NetApp

Carol Lee Andersen, founder, Women in Technology

Scott Houston, business development manager, New Zealand Supercomputing Centre

Ross Hughson, CIO, Inland Revenue Department

Pat O'Connell, chief of information technology, Carter Holt Harvey

Glenn Patrick, former general manager business and technology solutions and services, Westpac

Nigel Prince, CIO, NZ Post

Mark Ratcliffe, CIO, Telecom NZ

Peter Revell, GM solutions delivery, Gen-i

Stephen Whiteside, ITSS director, University of Auckland

Warwick Wright, CIO, State Services Commission