by Pat Brans

TfL CIO Steve Townsend’s tips on getting there

Mar 28, 20125 mins
IT Leadership

See also: CIO UK profile onSteve Townsend Transport for London in CIO 100

Everybody has a hobby. When that hobby is playing a musical instrument, or collecting old cars, the passion is clear to see. Other pastimes are not so easy to pick out.

For example, it might not be obvious to those around him, but Steve Townsend is a people watcher. He notices how people accomplish things at work, both alone and in groups, and he learns from what he sees.

The CIO of TfL has made several observations on why some people achieve more than others.

He says, “Those people I see making good progress are the ones who’ve decided what their life goals and their ambitions are. They have a clear idea of where they are today, and where they want to be in the future. Their goals are formed by those things which are of personal importance to them as individuals.”

This kind of thinking hasn’t just come to Townsend recently. He recognised this trait in successful people a long time ago and set his own career aspirations accordingly.

Knowing years ago that he wanted to be a chief information officer in either a private blue chip company or a large public organisation, he worked out a number of key skills he would have to master.

He also made sure to communicate his direction to people around him; and many of those people have helped him get to where he wanted to be.

Clear goals “Most people who have progressed to where they want to be, used their own map to get there,” he says.

“They’ve carefully thought out if it was worthwhile for them as individuals. They have listed the items that need to be checked along the way. And they’ve done all those things in detail.”

Comparing this to individuals who are frustrated or dissatisfied with their careers, Townsend says, “Some people aquaplane rather than take off. They spin from one job to another, moving left and right instead of forward. Generally, these are the ones who haven’t decided what they want from life, whether it be a work-life balance, some sort of financial recognition, or public recognition. They need to decide what they want to do, reach a level of comfort with their ambition, and go for it.”

Another of Townsend’s observations is that successful people build an environment where everybody understands their direction.

They are good at articulating and communicating their vision in a way that other people can buy into.

“Choose your friends or executive colleagues that have a common interest in what you’re doing,” he advises.

“Not every single friend will understand your direction in life, and not every single executive in an organisation will understand the direction you’ve set upon. Find commonality with people. Once you find that, you are all better placed to achieve your goals”

The TfL CIO says, “You have to believe in what you are, what you’re doing and where you’re going.”

This doesn’t mean you have to know everything or understand every last detail yourself. Townsend says this is the purpose of building a strong team.

You must recognise that there’s always someone out there who has the experience to help. No matter what your ambitions, other people will already have experience you can learn from, either because they’ve been around longer or because they’ve simply been exposed to situations you’re yet to encounter.

On making use of what other people can teach you, Townsend says, “It’s very important that you open your mind and see some of those experiences and use them wisely. You can’t just take all the advice people give you.

“At the same time you have to admit that while you may be a capable, hard-working, and well-read individual with exposure to many things, there’s always somebody else out there with first-hand knowledge of other situations that could prove useful to you. It would be unwise not to take their experience on board.”

The Element of Trust Anybody who succeeds does so with the help of others. They build and maintain good relationships. Doing so requires trust, an important word to Steve.

Trust is not about sharing all information with everybody. It’s about sharing appropriate amounts with the right people at the right time.

“Most people I speak to say trust is built over time,” says Steve. “I have quite a different outlook from that. I start out with trust, and maintain that level of trust, or diminish it over time, depending on the interactions.”

“I learned quite some time ago that you can waste a lot of time building trust. It’s best to trust people from the outset. They won’t always live up to your expectations, but experience of what makes a good working relationship and what constitutes a positive culture in the workplace means you can quickly determine if there’s going to be a problem.”

Townsend makes several observations from his years of people watching. You can look at how a person got from A to B. Somebody who’s young and aggressive and got there quickly, may have left somebody by the wayside.

“Some people don’t care much for relationships,” he says. “They might get somewhere quickly, but at a cost. What sort of auras do people build around themselves? Do they build real, sustainable relationships or just what they need to get by at the moment? Those who flit from one place to the next or only invest in short term friendships, may not have the strength of character to help you succeed.”

If you pay attention to people, you’ll learn a lot. Watch how they react to different situations. Observe how they behave in groups. Spot common traits of successful people and find ways of making those elements work for you.