Continuous upskilling amidst rapid change: The challenge of growing your career in ICT

We talk to ICT leaders who consider their careers as being in an ongoing state of upgrade, just like the business technologies they work with.

“We are in a permanent state of upgrade. What used to be a vision for the next era is [now] a project for next year," declared Gartner senior vice president, Peter Sondergaard, at the recent Gartner Symposium/ITxpo in the Gold Coast.

He believes this environment of ongoing change is one of the key challenges CIOs face today.

We talk to a panel of ICT leaders who apply this perspective in their respective careers in an era of fast change.

Meet the panellists:

  • Anna Cleland, Chief Customer and Digital Officer, IAG New Zealand
  • Brett Hobbs, Group IT Manager, BCS Group
  • Hazel Jennings, Director, Dale Jennings Associates
  • David Kennedy, CIO, Transaction Services Group
  • Shayne Tong, ICT and digital leader and former CIO, Genesis
  • Bernard Seeto, Strategy and Architecture Manager, Southern Cross Health Society
  • Pete Yates, PMO, Operations, IT and Platforms, Spark New Zealand

I have been made redundant twice, it was an opportunity for both times.

Hazel Jennings

Hazel Jennings: Helping not for profit leaders build digital capabilities

For her master’s degree dissertation, Hazel Jennings looked at how successful professionals manage change.

“It is pretty clear if you are looking forward, you start to see patterns of change,” says Jennings, who took her master’s degree at Ashridge Management College in the UK (now part of the Hult International Business School). She was then managing the European HP-UX labs team spread across France, UK and Germany.

“A lot of successful people will react to that pattern by picking up a new skill, or focus on a particular specialty that is becoming important.

“People will react to a crisis by expanding their skill set if they are forward looking. They tend to do it naturally,” she says.

Jennings belongs to the second category - and demonstrated this clearly enough when she faced job setbacks.

“I am reasonably confident I can always find something to do,” says Jennings, who now runs a consultancy providing ICT and digital strategies to not for profit organisations.

“I have been made redundant twice, it was an opportunity for both times.”

The first was as the manager of the European UP-UX lab team in the United Kingdom. The lab was to be consolidated to the US office during the technology crunch at the turn of the century. She opted to take redundancy and migrated to New Zealand instead.

“That was incredibly positive.”

In New Zealand, Jennings worked at the University of Auckland and then the Royal New Zealand Foundation of the Blind. She left the ICT manager role at the charity following a restructuring and started her consultancy.

She has also helped appoint senior people in organisations that outsource their information technology.

“Even if they manage an outsourced IT, you need that depth of experience to get the risk profile right and get the governance right,” she explains.

She believes management of suppliers is not right if the person selling the technology or service is also the person “advising you to buy more”.

“It's like putting the fox in charge of the henhouse - things can get confused,” Jennings says with a smile.

Jennings also takes on interim CIO and C-suite roles for not for profits. She is currently the acting organisational support director for Greenpeace in New Zealand.

Her post at Greenpeace is akin to that of a chief operating officer. She explains the organisation has three operational directors reporting to the chief executive, former Green Party leader Russell Norman.

One director is in charge of programmes, the other leads fundraising campaigns and the third, her role, looks after organisational support.

“I head up finance, HR and IT, the whole back office.”

She says considering one’s career as an ongoing upgrade makes sense.

When she started her consultancy, Dale Jennings Associates, she found the area of governance quite critical as she was often dealing with boards.

“In a non-profit, it is often the board that makes the big decision on the recommendation of the chief executive or the GM.

“I realised is there is a huge range in boards’ maturity and their capability, and the way they look after the charity.”

Two years ago, Jennings “cleared the decks” and stepped down from her board positions. This included her role as national councillor for Auckland at the Institute of IT professionals.

She then completed a post graduate certification in governance from the University of Waikato.

She says the course was equivalent to a company director course. But it was a year of study culminating with a ‘capstone’ project, which allowed her to focus on strategy, legal and finance for the not for profit organisations.

The certificate allowed her to take up a chartered membership at the Institute of Directors and a new governance role as a Trustee of the Otara Waterways and Lakes Trust.

“I've got my double charter now - as a chartered IT professional and a chartered member of the IoD,” says Jennings.

“That puts me in a good position now that cyber is a top of agenda in a lot of boardrooms.”

Anna Cleland: Face the fear

Anna Cleland has a simple approach to building a career.

“You just have to think of yourself,” says Cleland, Chief Customer and Digital Officer for insurance company IAG New Zealand. “How do I invest in myself and grow myself?”

“You can do that in the company you are working for,” she says. “If you are keen and if you pay attention, you will have different opportunities that will come along and you take them.

“And sometimes, you have to be prepared to sacrifice, have less money, move sideways. But you have to be prepared to be open to doing roles you you would never have thought of doing.

If you only have got a technical depth, you are not being stretched from a leadership perspective.

Anna Cleland, IAG New Zealand

“If you only have got a technical depth, you are not being stretched from a leadership perspective,” she says.

“You have got to put yourself into uncomfortable situations,” she says.

“You just have to be brave, have courage and says, ‘I have never worked in this industry before, but I am going to give it a go. I have some core skills that I can transfer and apply [to this role].’

“I am going to get into it, I am going to listen, I am going to ask questions and trust the people around me to help me.’

Then “build a great team and work with them to do amazing things."

“You almost have to be prepared to fail,” she adds. “You must be prepared to make some mistakes in that new place, in that new role, in that new industry because that is how you grow and you learn and you build this diversity in your background where you can apply yourself to so many more things.

“And then you build up a resilience.”

For Cleland, who stepped into the newly role at IAG eight months ago, this is the part of the backstory of how she progressed into leadership roles in the largest corporates on both sides of the Tasman.

Her previous roles included head of channel excellence at Westpac, and GM technology and digital (New Zealand and Australia Distribution) for Fletcher Building.

Her current role is a dual reporting line to the IAG NZ CEO and IAG Group Executive Digital and Technology, and she is a member of the New Zealand leadership team at the company.

Cleland has a degree in management of information systems, but the driver for her to take this career course was different.

“I wasn’t super passionate about technology, I was passionate about our businesses and I wanted to enable our business through technology,” she says.

She and her husband had started a rubbish waste collection business in Wellington. “We went from this startup to quite a big business, but we needed to learn how to do it.”

She remembers walking into the office of a big established company and asking for one of the owners to pitch their business.

“I have never done it before,” she says.

She explained that their company could deliver a two-hour turnaround every single time the site foreman rang them to order a bin on site. Word of their service spread to other companies and the business took off. They sold the business in 2012.

She recalls on weekends, she and her husband would work on the business, their young son in a car seat with them. She was also studying full time at the university and tutoring.

“You have got to enjoy what you are doing otherwise it is a hard slog,” she says of those days.

“All of that experience, all of those mistakes from being in business have helped me the way I am.”

Today, she says, “No matter how busy I am, I think that I will never be as busy as I was then.

“You just have to persevere,” she says. “Just keep charging yourself.”

Shayne Tong: ‘You never stop learning’

“I am very driven about delivering the now and what are the new and emerging trends, what is happening in the market? I always had a view of what is next, what is coming, where am I going next?”

Shayne Tong believes having this perspective has helped him, as he held a range of executive level and digital leadership roles across the globe over the past two decades.

Shayne Tong
Shayne Tong

What made you successful in one role and one level, does not make you successful in the next role. Being able to adapt and pivot to that is important.

Shayne Tong

.“You never stop learning. It is about formal and informal ways of keeping up to date with new and emerging trends, that is the key,” he says.

“It is also about trying to keep up to date and being able to pivot near adjacency skill sets. You can have very broad skills, but you can go deep into something,” he explains.

In his case, his range of skills is in change and transformation delivery and digital programmes.

“But it does not mean I do not have deep skills in operations, architecture and information security. Those are high-depth skills,” says Tong, who has worked across industries, from finance (ANZ Bank in Melbourne; and Goldman and Sachs, Deutsche Bank and Barclays in the UK); to manufacturing and construction (Fletcher Building) and utilities (Genesis Energy).

He says having an approach of continuous learning benefited him greatly when working in London.

There were plenty of roles to choose from, he states. “I always pushed myself to ensure the next role was always a step up from the role before, and I was able to accelerate my career very quickly.”

In New Zealand, you don’t have that volume of opportunities so you may have to go sideways for your next role. He says this is fine, “as long as you are driven, you know you are going to succeed in your next level role”.

“The other thing that is important throughout your career is realising what made you successful in one role and one level, does not make you successful in the next role. Being able to adapt and pivot to that is important.”

Next: 'Think differently, always'

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Pete Yates: Fight typecasting

Pete Yates started his career in the service provider space. “I realised I wanted to grow my skill base. I wanted to sit on the other side of the fence.

“I did not want to be just typecast into service provider mode. I wanted to cross over into the business side,” says Yates, who was then working for Telecom (now Spark). He then moved to the Auckland City Council as IT manager.

“When I was at the [Auckland City] Council I was constantly looking for areas where I could add value,” he says.

He was involved in the transition of the Auckland Council, which saw the amalgamation of the seven local councils in Auckland and the Auckland Regional Council.

“I put my hand up to be involved in that transition work, because I knew I will not get that opportunity to be involved in a transition exercise of that scale and size in New Zealand.”

It was a really good opportunity, he says, to get that experience, the size, budget wise and the immovable time frame, as the council was scheduled to start operating on 1 November, 2010.

“I know it is a big cliche, 'but the only constant is change',” says Yates, who is now head PMO, Operations, IT and Platforms at Spark, and blogs about digital culture and leadership.

“If you are not comfortable with change in the organisation, it is going to be very hard for people to catch up or to stay on the job. They will struggle in industries that are looking to transform themselves.”

Yates says having a good professional network and attending major industry events are important, “to open one’s horizons”.

That is where you can learn about things that are happening in other organisations and industries, he states.

Are you a good communicator? Can you talk to people and deal with difficult situations?

His move to Foster Moore as GM technology services (CIO) for instance, was prompted by his realisation that, "software applications are where companies were really adding value and differentiating themselves.”

This, he says, is being demonstrated by Kiwi companies going global, like Xero, Orion Health, EROAD and Vend.

So while he was tasked to look after the internal IT team at Foster Moore, he grew the team and also looked at the development environment and DevOps.

“You have to pick up those opportunities to grow your skills.”

The move to Spark Ventures, meanwhile, offered the chance of starting something from scratch or a complete rebuild.

“Most people inherit IT,” he says on joining the division of Spark, which was allowed to function like an incubator and a startup.

“You had to set up all the environment and have process and people ready for that growth you build for now, but be able to scale for later.”

"I brought in my own team, built up the processes and the technology," he says.

Beyond the build, “we also created strategy from the start and implemented initiatives for the team and the group. It was a fast pace of change as well. That was a cool thing.”

Yates says he also enjoyed the startup environment as well, as the work also enabled him to get in touch with the vibrant startup community in New Zealand.

His advice? “If you are interested in the software side, get a good case in the software delivery space. If you are looking at, say, AWS, get a good background, understand how it works under the hood and look to gain skills in the programing scripting space.

“Technology can be so big, if you look at it that way. But try to narrow it down based on what you would like to do or the environment you would like to work in."

He notes new graduates are very reliant on technology and social media, but this should not be to the detriment of developing “softer skills” like communications.

You need to build relationships outside your immediate sphere, he says.

“There might be a business case that needs to be done...Are you a good communicator? Can you talk to people and deal with difficult situations?”

Brett Hobbs: Be open to new ideas

Brett Hobbs says he makes sure to dedicate a significant time to do research on what the industry he is involved in is doing, where it is going, how various systems fit the business and how they can bring those pieces together.

What’s important is “taking time for reviewing the industry, what is actually happening with it, and in technology,” says Hobbs, Group IT Manager for BCS Group.

“Spending time in strategising and looking at your business and working with leaders in your business and areas where they overlap, that is of utmost importance,” he says. “It is more important more than anything else I do."

BCS Group provides logistics hardware, automation controls and software solutions for the aviation and logistics sector.

Hobbs started as an IT support engineer, moving on to become IT engineer and then infrastructure manager, and then progressed to group IT director.

Talk to other companies in similar verticals and outside your sector.

Brett Hobbs, BCS Group

When BCS was acquired by Daifuku Group, the global leader in materials handling, Hobbs found himself travelling to the head office in Japan, as he became involved in overarching ICT throughout the group.

This introspection is also part of vendor management.

“Traditionally a lot of the vendors build products around what they think people need,” he says. "What does the product do, where is the market going? What does the business actually need? There is never a perfect overlap.

"It is spending quite a bit of time myself just looking at who the players are in the market, where it is going and looking at which pieces do we need to realign the business to follow industry standard."”

He also keeps abreast of industry trends by talking to other companies in similar verticals and outside their sector, like healthcare.

He says charities present businesses with insights on how to manage issues like BYOD.

“They have interesting challenges because a lot of the time they are more financially restricted. They also have very high levels of volunteers, which means you can’t think about challenges like everyone gets a corporate device,” says Hobbs, speaking from experience as a volunteer for some of these groups.

“You have to be flexible because 60 per cent of the workforce is volunteers and they want to bring their own phones and laptops. We need to ensure that it is seamless for them, as it would be for a full-time employee.”

“It just opens you to ideas.”

Are there any complexities in my systems or processes that I can kill or reverse? Is there anything that I am doing, which is not actually adding value to the business?

David Kennedy, Transaction Services Group

David Kennedy: Think differently, always

“Along my career, I have always been striving for personal progression,” says David Kennedy, CIO at Transaction Services Group.

Part of this ethos is also the ongoing necessity to think differently always.

But in order to do this, “make sure you have a team around you that you know can think differently,” he states.

It is something he applies in his global CIO role, as TSG operates six business units as autonomous companies across New Zealand, Australia, the United States and the UK.

He says the organisation has distilled six words to encompass this goal: ‘Think Big’, ‘Kill Complexity’ and ‘Create Time’.

"It is important to distill your strategy into some very clean words and it took me six months to come up with those six words," he says. “We went through lots and lots of permutations before I felt comfortable with them.”

The first, he says, is about releasing the shackles of what you think is possible. “Have ideas that you may or may not be able to do.”

IT managers also have to think as a group. At TSG, for instance, they will be running pilot projects that will be rolled out to their other companies.

When he is approached for more resources, he points to the two other dictums.

‘Kill complexity’ covers all systems and processes. “The first thing they should look at is, 'are there any complexities in my systems or processes that I can kill or reverse? Is there anything that I am doing, which is not actually adding value to the business?'

“By process of engneering, using automation and putting teams of people in the mode of trying to create time, you create an environment where people are naturally striving to better themselves and the business every day.”

He relates this approach to disruption that is impacting both organisations and careers.

“Change happens every day,” he says. “So why do people think disruption is anything else, apart from a company's inability to see a competitor?”

He proffers instead the concept of ‘internal disruption’.

“It is creating a mindset within the people to come up with big ideas. That constant change and growth really expands my portfolio of skills.”

If you can't move at speed you get caught in 'a narrow field' and that will limit your options to work in multiple industries.

Bernard Seeto, Southern Cross Health Society

Bernard Seeto: Upskilling allows you to move at speed

“It is a bit like a system upgrade,” says Bernard Seeto, IS Strategy and Architecture Manager at Southern Cross Health Society. “Similar to the way an operating system needs to be upgraded - so do you as an individual.”

“It is about learning all the time,” says Seeto, who has chalked up executive roles in financial services, general insurance and telecommunications.

“I try to look at all the different aspects of technology I need to develop. Not just from a strategic perspective, but from delivery and operational perspectives too. Because my belief is you need to learn more about those roles and that gives you greater agility for the organisation.

“With that agility, you get greater opportunities, you get more choice because you can move at speed.

“But if you can't move at speed you get caught in, for lack of better words for it, 'a narrow field' and that will limit your options to work in multiple industries.”

Seeto says taking on this continuous upskilling mentality requires a range of disciplines - from time management to the ability to learn from other people.

“To be honest, you never really have enough time built into your day for this,” he says. “The only way you can do it, is to collaborate and work closely with other people.”

These, he says, could include your suppliers and industry analysts.

“If you are not willing to share your strategies and have more proactive discussions and really create a level of collaboration intensity, it becomes very difficult to move forward.”

Seeto also suggests providing a safe environment for staff to suggest new ideas.

When he was Head of Solution Delivery at IAG, Seeto conducted reverse mentoring sessions with some of the junior staff.

He invited the people in their graduate programmes for discussions.

“They helped me set the agenda, and by doing that you gain different perspectives. But you can only do that if you create a safe environment for people to be allowed to speak to you quite openly.”

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