Considering he supports Sheffield Wednesday in football, Somerset in cricket and Leicester Tigers in rugby, and has lived in Yorkshire, Kent, Rutland, Sweden, the US and South Africa before settling in Taunton, it’s probably not surprising that Graham Benson considers himself a specialist in change.
Benson is currently IT director of sports and leisure clothing company MandM Direct, which via web and catalogue sells a broad range of kit from sportswear and serious running gear to street/surf/ski equipment, and everything from fashion brands like Stella McCartney to Hunter wellies. But Benson has worked for a series of employers and is unapologetic about his habit of going into companies, fixing things, then getting out.
“All I’ve ever done is business change programmes,” he says. “I don’t set a time limit and I always follow through on projects but I’m Wysiwyg – what you see is what you get. I don’t put on an interview face and my track record speaks for itself. I move regularly and I come in to do a job on recovery or rapid expansion. We agree objectives and move from change to stability. I’m not the stability person; my motivation is that I enjoy the process of change and the delivery.”
Benson describes himself as “technology-literate but not techie”, and is a believer that the CIO should be a facilitator who uses IT to enable businesses to achieve goals – but with change it is the human factor that is central, he argues.
“To me, it’s all about change. Forget technology, it’s about the people. Management is task but leadership is people and the intellectual property of the business resides in the brains of the people. They’re not the main asset, they’re the only asset,” he says.
He has worked “on both sides of the table” as IT seller and consumer, and describes himself as “a hybrid”, having run an outsourcing business unit at Microgen and managed a software house producing retail FX programs, as well as holding senior IT management roles at Avis, online entertainment retailer Play.com and DIY outfit Screwfix Direct.
As well as managing the change process, the real joy of the job is “not just meeting project deadlines but watching teams grow and people grow”, he says. That said, coming into companies at turbulent times can also pose difficulties in terms of -acceptance and behaviour from the existing team.
“There’s always going to be a level of uncertainty,” Benson acknowledges. “The culture of the organisation and management style of the predecessor means you have to manage change intellectually but also emotionally. In recovery you meet scepticism more than [in companies going through] growth.”
Despite the moves he has not had any cunning career plan or pattern (“It’s been right place, right time… everybody’s got to ride the wave of luck”), but Benson feels he may have discovered his forte in web-centric companies like Play.com, Screwfix Direct and his current employer, where change is constant and technology central to success – or failure.
“In dotcoms you metamorphose from a small to large company quickly,” he says. “It’s like human physiology: when growing through puberty, you go from child to adult but get confused along the way. I have to make sure we’re responsive enough, which is one of the reasons I like being in the dotcom space. It’s a meritocracy and very results-driven.”
Not, seemingly, lacking in confidence, Benson is a man of strong opinions and likes mingling with fellow managers.
“I enjoy animated debate,” he says, adding that even if that involves a bit of provocation and thinking aloud, it is all to the good.
“We get so absorbed in doing rather than thinking about what we do,” he says. “We all get seduced by the pace of life and don’t think. I don’t set out to forcibly network but it’s great to take opportunities to meet with your peers to exchange thoughts with business colleagues and say ‘what do you think about this?’ I’ve learned more from people I’ve worked with than from any other source.”
He takes that forward by often working with former colleagues when he moves on to pastures new. “Three of the people I’ve worked with have become CIOs. When you go through strenuous change programmes that are successful, people want to work with you again.”
He is also a believer in focusing on strengths and “doing what you’re good at”, although he says he has no resistance to self-improvement, for example through mentoring.
“I have found that people have pointed out my faults before I’ve worked them out,” he admits.
“For instance, I’m quite gregarious and extrovert but I had a senior colleague who I struggled to connect with, and I was insensitive to that. My boss said: you ought to pick this guy to mentor with because he’s the exact opposite of you. People tend to pick the easy choices in life and I would have fallen into the same trap.”
Despite his faith in the value of mentoring, Benson says that it does not require a formal structure.
“You do it when it’s appropriate, not just every three o’clock, Friday – that de-values it. You have weekly one-to-ones for an hour, keep management out and chew the cud. I’ve also learned from neuro-linguistic programming [a model that is sometimes used to understand the thought processes of successful people]: it’s helped me be a bit more flexible about how I approach things.
“I can be a bulldozer and I hate the phrase but emotional intelligence is important in my job. You have to be a bit chameleonesque. Brits abroad speak louder and slower if they can’t make themselves understood but really it’s their fault that people can’t understand them.”
On outsourcing, Benson is flexible, describing the to-outsource-or-not-to-outsource dilemma as “horses for courses”,- depending on whether the intellectual property is going to be critical to the success of the business.
He first worked with offshorers back in 1996 when he says the business was “a bit of a Wild West frontier” and blames customers for much of the disappointment engendered when offshore contractual arrangements go awry.
“A lot of the reason they’re suboptimal is that we get greedy in realising savings rather than making regular trips, making people feel part of the company. You need to do things like company mouse mats and T-shirts and make regular visits to avoid that sense of separation.
“I don’t start from the perspective of being or pro- or anti-outsourcing,” he says, but in dotcoms, he feels, rolling your own e-commerce systems – or elements therein – can be a differentiator. Therefore, development and what he calls “artistic control” might be best kept close to the vest.
On the other hand, he also believes that it might often be appropriate for firms to change their own processes rather than spend lots of time and money on adapting IT systems.
“Where process is a unique, value-add to the business, change the program but, if not, change your process to fit the software,” he says.
As for the vexed question of where the CIO sits in the organisation, he believes it is important for him to have a direct route to the top rather than go through other, traditional conduits such as finance or operations. “I report to the chief exec and I want to work where IT is high-impact,” he says.
It’s also important to have a seat on the board or executive committee, he insists, in order to act as translator between IT and business strategy. “If the CIO sits at the board table they’re part of the strategy. I’ve had commercial roles and enjoyed them. I’m a firm believer in having empathy- with my colleagues and representing their views into IT.”
Looking forward, unlike most CIOs, this MBA graduate isn’t shy about saying that he has ambitions to run a company.
“CIOs in general hit a self-imposed glass ceiling once they become CIO,” he suggests. “In a situation where technology is so pervasive and enables the world, surely it would follow that if you’re commercially-savvy, a CIO should be viewed as potential CEO material.”
He says he’s “having too much fun at the moment” to move on anytime soon. He lists his interests as including music (“Spotify is fantastic and I love my iPhone”) and is enjoying the paternal period of taking his kids to Glastonbury, Reading and other festivals, and sharing tastes in tunes and bands. Even when abroad on regular visits to Hong Kong and Johannesburg, he keeps in touch via Skype.
He also enjoys riding motorbikes – to the extent of owning five models, and it’s clear that this fast-moving, changing man has no shortage of ambition.
Graham Benson: CV
1991: IS manager, Microgen UK plc
1994: Head of IT services, Thomas Cook
1996: Director, strategic accounts, Thomas Cook
1997: General manager, technology solutions, Thomas Cook
1999: Business systems director, Avis EMEA
2001: CIO, Screwfix
2004: IT director, ebuyer
2005: IT director, Play.com
2008: IT director, MandM Direct
Follow the fashion, read the views of rival Asos.com CIO Gary Mudie.