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IT's a Mad, Mad, Mad World

IT's a Mad, Mad, Mad World

No doubt about it, there are many hazards along the path of an IS executive career. CIOs who have been there offer advice on how to avoid the pitfalls and cultivate effective survival strategiesSuccess is a relatively easily achieved state to achieve: it requires equal parts confidence and ignorance, Mark Twain wrote. However, although confidence is a valuable asset for any executive to have, ignorance spells disaster for them in the modern economy. The CIO who wishes to survive and prosper in today's fast-moving world would do well to ignore Twain. Although he or she will require confidence, the successful chief information officer also needs communications skills; relationship management know-how; must be abreast of modern management techniques; understand technology's implications; have a vision; be able to intellectually engage with a problem and solve it swiftly and pragmatically; must understand business economics; successfully juggle a personal life to avoid early burnout and emotional fatigue, and occasionally be called on as a corporate rainmaker -- bringing in new business on the back of new information systems and technologies. CIOs are the closest thing there is to alchemists in the 20th century. But alchemists who engage with the corporation, rather than retreat to a laboratory. One thing over which top chief information officers and head hunters agree is that the CIO who wants to wear a white coat, build empires and retreat behind technology's walls will not survive in successful businesses.

"Who the hell wants an empire?" asks John Loebenstein, chief general manger of IT for St George Bank. Loebenstein has been a prominent member of the CIO community during the 1990s. In 1991 he successfully negotiated an outsourcing deal with US firm PMSC to handle all of FAI's IT, then still considered a maverick strategy. He's now two years through a 30-month plan to integrate the information systems of St George and Advance Bank, under the close scrutiny of both the business and technical press. He believes that empire building has no place in information systems. "Too many people put self before corporation. I'm not talking blind loyalty; but if you get behind the corporate train, and the corporate train then goes somewhere, you [and your career] can go for the ride too." Jim Delooze, an eight-year veteran of law firm Phillips Fox as IT director, agrees. But he stresses that however good the CIO is, unless there is commitment to information systems within the other ranks of management the CIO's, success will be thwarted. "The reason I've stayed here is that there is a commitment to information technology," he says. "CIOs won't survive and prosper unless they have the commitment from other areas."And that includes the board. Loebenstein admits that "I'm blessed here with a very supportive board. Boards are not technical people. One of the great mistakes that CIOs make is they come along with acronyms, and gobbledegook and crap and build a wall around themselves. "That's very harmful," Lobenstein says. "You've got to translate and put technology in lay terms. You build up trust by stripping [IT] of its mystique and admitting where there are difficulties." And the latter is important, because once an idea has been sold to the board, it then has to survive the business managers who will actually have to use the systems put in place. This is evident to Gail Burke, executive director with responsibility for information systems at Macquarie Bank. "We have a wonderful board who is very knowledgeable and supportive of the IT function. The real pressure comes from the business heads, because we operate on a principle of close to full cost recovery. It is very, very tough and exceedingly character-building. I have loads of character."Kevin Charman, principal of recruitment firm Olmec, believes such proximity to the actual business is critical for any successful CIO. "One danger for CIOs is that they become administration managers. You've got to stay really close to the business and understand what the business wants from IT," he warns. Charman claims that is why outsourcers can be a real threat to the longevity of a CIO.

"You probably shouldn't outsource if you want to survive," he argues. But if outsourcing is better for the business, the CIO must outsource in order to deliver the best solution for the business. This is a catch-22 that can only be escaped by a CIO carving out a much more strategic than administrative niche in the corporation. St George's John Loebenstein survived for four years after arranging FAI's outsourcing deal. He believes that outsourcing is no threat to a CIO's success, as long as the CIO has the right mix of business skills and doesn't want to simply administer an IT shop. A more vigorous threat than outsourcing companies, argues Julie Perigo, is the new breed of executives about to enter their 40s. Perigo is principal of the Advanced Technology Practice at headhunting firm Korn Ferry. "The best CIOs I know are internal educators. This is such a transition generation of CIOs -- they have had to educate their peers and their boards about what a CIO is," she says.

But the emerging generation of CIOs has the benefit of someone having already conducted that education process, is often better versed in management practices, and has a keen hands-on understanding of technology. It's a threat, says Perigo. "When I'm looking at the up and coming CIO types, they had the vision in their 20s to do technology. They had the vision to do an MBA. They are really the people to watch," Perigo says, adding: "Anyone age 35 and below should be thinking of doing an MBA. Within the next decade it will be an absolute prerequisite."Kevin Charman is less convinced of the MBA mandate, but does agree that "there are young, ambitious people coming up, who are much closer to the technology".

He adds: "There's been an absolute changing of the guard in front of my eyes over the past 24 months." One of the new breed to emerge during that period is Peter Holland, general manager of Information Systems at Toyota Australia.

Holland had previously spent five years running human resources for Toyota and came as a relative cleanskin to computing. "I have a focus more on keeping abreast of general business trends," Holland acknowledges. "Not the technocrat type stuff." He believes the business focus has been to his advantage. "I have a general understanding of the business. I have a broad range of contacts -- and in my group I am able to communicate the strategy and the vision," he says.

"Leading an IT group is no different to leading any other [business] group." Even so, Holland acknowledges that there are times when "I feel a little exposed and don't understand all the technicalities". Certainly, he would like the opportunity to put himself through more training courses; but as many CIOs will attest, there often simply isn't the time.

Education and information seem to be two key survival techniques used by the modern CIO. Korn Ferry's most recent survey of Australian CIOs found that 10 per cent had an MBA, and a quarter had a different postgraduate qualification.

Perigo warns quite chillingly that most CIOs of 45 or older "are reaching their use-by date". They need to reinvent themselves. Burke is convinced of the need for ongoing management education. "I have done three 'big' courses since I have been at Macquarie. A two-week FX dealing course; a two-week, live-in Harvard postgraduate course; 10-week general management training program at IMD in Lausanne, Switzerland," she says. "Does one need to go on courses? Yes, I believe so; but they must be carefully selected, given the constraints on any CIO's time." And as Toyota's Holland attests, time is perhaps the scarcest commodity in a CIO's life. Burke, a single mother, admits to outsourcing pretty much everything at home. "The pizza delivery man once asked my eldest son whether I ever cooked anything," she quips.

Unlike male CIOs, some of whom may enjoy full-time support at home in the form of a wife, a female CIO will often have domestic commitments to juggle also.

Linda Dewar, head of Operations and Technology Group for the ANZ Bank, got a wake-up call regarding priorities when her youngest son was born prematurely.

This came at a time when she had believed herself indispensable to her then employer. The business continued and the baby thrived. Now in a very senior role at the bank, Dewar has negotiated a four-day week in order to be able to spend time with her two children on the weekends. After a period of regular 60-65-hour weeks, Dewar noticed one child's behaviour patterns had altered.

Eventually she worked out that her long hours during the week, and frantic chores at the weekend, leaving little time to just be with the family, were to blame. She now spends Friday taking the children to and from school and attending to family needs. Then on Friday night she receives a bag with that day's in-tray and e-mails, which she fits in during the weekend, which is still largely devoted to family time. Sanity has been restored, she says. Although Dewar is adamant that neither her salary nor remuneration prospects have been diminished by the four-day week, she acknowledges the snide comments of some co-workers early on in the piece.

However it is achieved, a supportive personal life is important. Recruiters acknowledge the fact; but as Charman notes, "In Australia it's very difficult to dig into people's lives. You often look into those things when you're doing references." Perigo says: "I think still, a lot of CIOs have the wife at home if they're the executive type." But she admits to being surprised at how many CIOs are one of half of an executive marital partnership. Loebenstein describes his wife as his rock, and a "supportive and calming influence on me". When the St George integration project kicked off, Loebenstein sat with his wife, son and daughter and warned them that the next 30 months would represent "bloody intense work". He even sat the family dogs with them. "They had to understand why I might kick them," he says. Twenty months through, Loebenstein is starting to see some light at the end of the tunnel; but he still manages only an occasional visit to see his son's weekend cricket or rugby games. "Sometimes I do resent the work," he admits, but sees it in some measure as a learning experience for his children -- who see what can be achieved through hard work.

For CIOs the learning experience lasts a lifetime. For successful CIOs, so does the hard work.

Relax -- Just Do

It About 10 years ago Jim Delooze started surfing. Real waves. At 41 he's the first to admit that the boards are getting longer and the hair is getting greyer, but he believes that it's hugely important to have an out -- a focus on something other than the job. As IT director for law firm Phillips Fox, Delooze was no stranger to surfing the Net and indeed had surfed the ocean as a young man. "But never for relaxation," he says. Now Delooze, who lives near the beach, regularly takes to the waves to escape the long hours he puts in on the job. "You do need that. You need to turn off." For John Loebenstein, chief general manager of IT at St George Bank, the pace since the bank merged with Advance has been frantic -- and turning off hasn't been easy. In two years he's taken off just two weeks, and readily admits to seven-day weeks and long, long hours being the norm. But he, too, believes in the importance of some sort of release in order to retain a clear perspective. He recently met up with a boyhood friend in Seattle and went up to the Washington mountains for two days' salmon fishing . But fishing expeditions are rare, thanks to the relentless demands of the office. Loebenstein's more regular escape is to the theatre or to dance -- a far remove from the corporate stage he generally treads.

Gail Burke, Macquarie Bank executive director with responsibility for information systems, also enjoys the performing arts. And again, like Loebenstein, she finds it hard to get away regularly, believing there is little lasting benefit from a break less than a week. She readily acknowledges the need to take weekends off regularly. "But I don't very often. I do need to get away, but for more than a week. I love to travel and try and have at least two weeks overseas every year; then some really relaxing beach family holidays as well, like Port Douglas, Byron or Noosa. "I get my release from exercising both on my own and with my personal trainer who is also my dietician, nutritionist and psychologist," she says. -- B HeadThe Eyes Have It A couple of hours after a chat Paul Izbicki phoned back. "I didn't come across as entirely mad did I?" he asked. The initial interview had been conducted on mobile phone as he raced for the Manly jet cat, and now Izbicki was concerned he'd left the wrong impression. It's a professional hazard when you're an image consultant. But Izbicki (who shies from the term image consultant, preferring to be described as an "influence consultant") hadn't "come across as mad" at all. In the chief information officer's world, communications skills and personal style are increasingly important. The CIO swathed in beige cardigan, resplendent with pocket protector, dandruff and jabbering technical gobbledegook, is a corporate dinosaur. Today's top CIOs are slick, smart, confident, groomed -- and have learned that if image isn't exactly all, it can help swing a deal. "Verbal and non-verbal communications skills are important if you're going to be making an address to the board," Izbicki says. "From my experience, the biggest one is eye contact. When you work it out according to all the research, only 7 per cent of the impact comes from words, 53 per cent is from body language, and 40 per cent from the credibility you've already built up."Out of the 53 per cent of body language, Izbicki claims 65 per cent of the impact comes from eye contact. This, he warns, doesn't mean staring down the board but establishing a rapport. "I was working with the CEO of one very large organisation," Izbicki says. "Before we worked with him, every time he got up to make a presentation the share price of the company dropped. His eye contact and body language were so bad that no one was taking account of the words." Izbicki believes it's one area most executives need reminding about. His other tips for successful communication and maximum impact are to conduct thorough audience analysis before making a pitch -- and to determine both the level of interest and understanding. He also recommends that in any presentation, you tell the audience what you're going to tell them before you actually do tell them.

And if the grey cardigan has had its day, how important are clothes in the corporation? "Dress is very important," Izbicki says. "As a rule of thumb: if in doubt, always dress one level above." So if it's shirt sleeves, don a jacket. And for men -- a good tie sends out clear signals to everyone in the room. Look at Howard in the [pre-election] debate. A gold tie, a clean crisp suit, a white shirt. He was solid." Presumably beneath Beazley's bulk lurked a pocket protector. -- B HeadTips for Surviving the Board -Develop a rapport - Modify body language and eye contact- Communicate in lay terms- Give non technical examples - Explain the downside where there is one - Understand the businessTips for Surviving Technology - Read widely - Learn from suppliers' in-house strategies - Attend specific technology seminars - Use the Internet for information - Avoid empire building- Outsource when it makes strategic sense - Avoid becoming a systems administratorTips for Surviving at Home- Outsource domestic tasks- Marry a supportive partner - Communicate with the entire family - Take time off -- the office will still be there - Explore flexible work practices - Consider telecommuting - Go surfing

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