by Edward Qualtrough

Addison Lee CIO Ian Cohen on following your passions and why there is no such thing as a startup way

Nov 30, 2017
CareersTransportation and Logistics Industry

Addison Lee CIO Ian Cohen has advised fellow technology executive peers to stop trying to emulate startups, follow their passions, and to be authentic – adding that it’s never been a better time to be a geek or a CIO.

Cohen was being posed questions by CIO UK Editor Edward Qualtrough at the 2017 CIO Summit, discussing his corporate CIO career, his transition to the startup and scale-up world, and subsequent return to a Chief Information Officer position having joined transport and mobility services company Addison Lee in July 2017.

“It’s an incredible time to be a CIO,” he said. “It’s an incredible time to be involved in technology because the promise of tech-lead business transformation is now a reality. Technology is changing the way we live. It’s changing culture, it’s changing society, it’s changing the way things happen and why wouldn’t you all want to be at the very heart of this revolution?”

The former JLT Group CIO and Financial Times CTO stepped away from corporate life in 2014 to pursue a portfolio career working with smaller agile tech companies. Cohen said that there had been no career master plan, but that he had been “drawn into the startup and scale-up world”.

“I found I was increasingly being drawn towards a world I wasn’t a part of,” he said. “I was being drawn in by new behaviours, attitudes and activities that I was finding way more attractive than the world I was in. I was learning a whole new vocabulary and the more I learnt, the more  I started telling people around me, ‘there’s something different happening here. This is something we as CIOs and technology and business leaders need go and experience’. Sure, you could read about it in Techworld, TechCrunch or in a Mckinsey report but you needed to feel it and touch it to genuinely understand.

“So I got up and did just that. I left corporate life – I walked out of the machinery as Peter Gabriel would say. There was no master plan or grand scheme – I don’t do life plans. I followed my gut. I couldn’t be just saying all this stuff without doing it. In many ways it’s the essence of being an authentic leader – being true to yourself.”

Follow your passion

But Cohen said that getting involved in startups wasn’t for everyone, despite pressure from consultants, analysts and the media – however well-meaning – that it was an area CIOs should be getting involved in.

“It’s really important to connect with something you are passionate about; frankly ignore the Gartners and CIO 100s or whoever else telling you to be something that you’re not,” he said.

“Connecting with something you are very passionate about is really, really important – rather than doing what people think you should be doing.”

Suggesting the startup and scale-up world was not of interest to all technology leaders, Cohen said that it had never been easier for CIOs to learn safely, to dip their toe in the water and see if it’s something they truly want to pursue.

“I think it’s incredibly easy to learn safely,” the former CIO 100 high-flyer and CIO 100 panelist said. “What’s wrong with starting from, ‘Hey, I’m really interested in what you do and why you do it – can I help?’ It’s a great way to learn safely and you’ll find the vast majority of startup and scale-out businesses will welcome you with open arms.

“As a CIO you have access to all of these companies. All of these individuals. In my case, two of the companies where I am still a non exec happen to be companies that did work for me in the past. So, I got to know them, I got to understand a bit more about them. I got to tap into the way they work.

“I loved the immediacy of what they were doing. I loved the passion about the way they did it. I loved the fact that they listened and responded in a way that the traditional suppliers didn’t.”

The lure of being on the disrupting side, rather than the disrupted, was also appealing.

“I wanted to go and tangibly experience how a company of 35 or 40 super-smart people could go and change the operating model of a FTSE 100 company? And I felt that was something that I really wanted to be a part of.”

There is no startup way

But Cohen was critical of the idea about a particular kind of startup way, or of organisations that had specific aspirations to behave like a startup in its culture and thinking. However, all organisations can look at the purpose and mission that some of the most successful startups have as something relevant to all businesses and sectors.

“There is no startup way,” he said. “Every one of these companies is different. Now, many have some defining characteristics – typically centred around a strong sense of passion and purpose – but the way they execute is unique and individual. Actually understanding how a 35-person company becomes a 100-person company and maintains that sense of purpose is something I want to emulate in my new role.

“That doesn’t mean I’m recreating a specific ‘startup way’ inside the organisation I’ve just moved into, but there are certain characteristics and behaviours I’d love to take back into this role.

“There are organisations out there that you look to and you aspire to for possibly the wrong reason. Very few companies need to be Google. Very companies need to be Amazon. What you need to be, is to be the best organisation that you can be, centred around the purpose that your organisation has to be something different than it already is.”

Mission and purpose

Returning to a CIO position at Addison Lee at the end of July 2017, Cohen said that he had taken some of his learnings from the digital advisory and startup world, particularly around an organisation’s mission.

“Now I’ve gone full circle and returned to corporate life – sort of.  I’m Group CIO of Addison Lee – private equity backed and just about the least corporate company I could find,” Cohen said.

“Most Londoners will know us for disrupting the black cabs over 30 years ago and for the 4,000 plus Ford Galaxys on London’s streets but many won’t know we were the first to bring true ‘ride-tech’ to the cab or that we are now a global mobility services provider operating in more than 50 locations worldwide.”

The CIO said that by drilling down into the purpose and mission of Addison Lee the mobilty and transport company could differentiate from other ride-hailing companies like Uber and not get caught up in a price war with the VC-backed taxi company.

“To be honest the Uber question is the one I’m asked the most and people are surprised when I say we’re not necessarily competing with Uber,” Cohen said. “We differentiate by service and quality in a market that Uber happens to occupy based on volume. They’re in a race to the bottom on price, we’re focused on service, trust, safety and assurance. I’m responsible for Product as well as Technology in this role which is great because I get to obsess about customer experience and product design as well as all the engineering and the infrastructure – I guess you’d call me a ‘full stack CIO’.

“When you boil it down to my approach it really starts from ‘why’ – do we understand our purpose and why customers would choose us or great tech folks might want to work here? You can put Agile structures in and do all that cool clans and cohorts stuff but if you can’t articulate your purpose to your team, if you can not answer the ‘why’ question and define that purposefulness – then you’re going to struggle.

“I think I learned an awful lot in two and a half years out in the startup space.”

Digital and technology skills

Fielding a question from the audience about cultural fit and a lack of the right digital and technology talent, Cohen countered that “there isn’t a skills gap”. The real concern for more traditional enterprise organisations was having an appealing proposition to those working in the sector and associated roles.

“There’s a huge talent pool out there,” he said. “There are incredibly gifted, talented people working in the startup and scale-up space doing amazing work and answering pretty much all the questions that we have in this room.

“Data and analytics, advanced profiling, microservices, containers, serverless solutions – but the only problem is that they don’t want to work for you. And, when they politely refuse your advances by saying ‘it’s not you, it’s me’ – they’re lying. It really is you! In reality that’s all of us and we all need to find new ways to attract and engage with talent instead of bemoaning the fact they don’t fit our models.

“I think there’s an obligation inside organisations to educate themselves about how to engage and enthuse talented people and learn from their methods rather than imposing ours –  there’s a new dynamic of attract, engage, learn and return”

Indeed, Cohen argued that old HR structures and methodologies needed to change in order to keep up with the new ways of working.

“I think traditional ‘HR recruit and retain’ is a failed experiment and they should move on,” he said. “It’s had its time. It was predicated on an economic model that has changed. I’m not saying the gig economy is the answer to everything, but the idea that I left school, I got a job, I worked my way up the ladder, I wanted to be high up and I did ‘X’ is not the world we live in now.”

Cohen said that he no longer discusses “retaining” talent with his colleagues in HR and instead prefers to talk about “engaging” an organisation’s employees – educating them to do things differently and even celebrating if they choose to leave because a CIO is putting talent back into the talent pool.

Limitless opportunity

Returning to the opportunities and changing nature of the CIO role, Cohen said there was no single way to approach the responsibilities of a Chief Information Officer or technology executive. Responding to a question about the relative importance of technical skills for CIOs, Cohen said that what was more important was to be authentic about your own interests and skills, and it was not necessary to be pushed into a less technical management or leadership positions as had been the traditional career trajectory for the first wave of CIOs.

“There is absolutely no doubt it is an incredible time to be a geek – for years the techies were told to go and learn the language of business; that IT doesn’t matter, it’s all just a commodity. Not any more. Now everyone wants to code and we’re in the age of the Rockstar Developer. Break out the beard and brogues – tech is cool,” Cohen said.

As such, Cohen suggested there were limitless opportunities for the leading CIOs.

“There are so many roles out there. I think the very best CIOs out there can literally write their own agendas.”