Talent Talk with Mark Leadbetter

Welcome to the first instalment of our Talent Talk series. In this series, we will be interviewing a number of interesting and inspiring people who are leading the way in tech. Kicking things off is CIO of House of Travel, Mark Leadbetter, who talks us through the importance of ‘disrupting the disrupters’ and embracing change. Let’s jump into it:

Q1: You were recently named one of the Top CIO’s in New Zealand. Tell us about what that means to you and the journey you’ve taken to get to this place in your career.

It is great to get recognition from your industry peers. The complexity of the CIO role is best understood by those that are in or have been in this role. In our day-to-day roles we don’t often get time to reflect on the changes that we make and the influence we have. Receiving recognition such as this does trigger this reflection. My career goal has always personally been to be a leading CIO. This journey has been a long one. I have worked in many roles throughout my career, starting at the bottom in helpdesk, as a junior developer and moving through to leading projects, working as an independent consultant and project manager. I have been lucky enough to have exposure and experience within many prominent New Zealand organisations both in the public and private sector. As a CIO you need to take learnings from this experience, in both roles and industry. It is important to understand and empathise with what happens with your teams at the coal face.

Q2: What's your biggest challenge as a CIO from a day-to-day operational perspective?

The biggest challenge as a CIO is change. This is the speed of change, keeping up with changes and managing change. The digital world that we manage is constantly changing. The industries that we are in (particularly travel in my case) are extremely dynamic and full of disruption. The challenge is keeping ahead of this and trying to disrupt the disrupters. It is important that we embrace change, change is essentially the main driver within IT and what allows us to make a difference to the businesses that we are involved in. It is critical though that while we implement change within our businesses we do not lose sight of the support and BAU operations. Within BAU operations there is also significant change that you need to be aware of and stay ahead of. The best example of this is cyber security and the constant evolution of cyber threat to the business. Juggling these challenges is definitely the biggest challenge as a CIO.

Q3: Where do you see most businesses go wrong in terms of their IT strategy?

The biggest mistake that any business makes is not aligning IT with the business. There is not any aspect of business operations that IT is not involved in or influences. The alignment of IT and business strategy is critical. Too many times you can see businesses making decisions without the involvement of IT or assuming that IT can deliver what is needed. I have also seen the reverse where IT makes decisions for the business. Both of these approaches cause significant issues.

Agile provides the perfect methodology and framework for involving the business in IT delivery. Creating delivery streams aligned with the business, having strong product owners within the business and involving key business stakeholders in IT delivery planning are all critical to achieving the best outcomes. IT and business leaders paddling in the same direction will always ensure the boat gets there faster.

Q4: What opinion do you have that is 'against the grain' as far as most CIO's are concerned?

I believe that the concept of digital transformation is thrashed. Ultimately transformation is intrinsic to what we do every day in our role. I find it interesting when asked if I have thought about digital transformation, I would be really worried if I hadn’t and probably shouldn’t be in a CIO role. I believe that what you should be focused on is transforming your organisation to deliver digitally more effectively. Once again using Agile concepts and creating an agile culture within your organisation is critical to this. Transformation is not a one time thing. Companies talk about ticking the box of digital transformation. Transforming yourself is not something that has an end point. You have to continually transform yourself. Technology grows and changes and you need to continually change both yourself and your organisation to adapt to this.  If you create the right culture to manage this constant transformation then you will be more successful both as a team and as a wider business. 

Q5: What’s the most valuable leadership lesson you’ve learned in your career?

Culture is the most important thing in a strong high performing IT team. The most valuable leadership lesson is listen to your staff and be collaborative in your leadership approach. Being a good leader is about having the right people around you and always listening to and respecting their opinions. A collective mind is far stronger that a single-minded approach. In large organisations it is important that you use this approach as it allows you to stay connected at all levels. Sometimes your first-tier support teams can give you the most valuable insights into the challenges of your business as long as they are comfortable sharing. The reverse is important as well, don’t be afraid to share information with your teams and keep them engaged in the wider business. Empower your people to make the right decisions and support them in those decisions. In times such as now with the challenges of Covid it is really key that you have a strong culture, particularly if you have teams working remotely. It is critical to make the workplace (whether in the office or remote) a zone where people are comfortable, supported, included, rewarded and happy. Always remember culture eats strategy for breakfast.