by Tony Westbrook

Life after being a CIO

Mar 30, 2011
CareersEnergy IndustryIT Leadership

So you are a busy, hard working, CIO. You spend your days driving your business forward through the effective application of IT, managing a demanding IT team and board of directors as well as dealing with the many uncertainties of today. When faced with all this every day, it might be hard to step back and think about where you might be in ten or fifteen years time. This will be a time when being the top IT employee in a large blue chip organisation is no longer your life’s only goal.

One way to allow yourself this luxury might be to look at those who have gone before you, and to see how they have successfully transitioned into a post-CIO role. What is needed to help you do this is a really good example…

Step forward Simon Orebi Gann. His career history in IT is certainly top drawer: Until two years ago he was CIO of BP Integrated Supply and Trading, a role he enjoyed for seven years. Prior to that he had spent three years as managing director of the London International Financial Futures and Options Exchange (LIFFE), where he was responsible for the development of the company’s automated trading platform – from the first concept to its implementation. And even before all that, Orebi Gann had worked in IT at Marks and Spencer for seventeen years, getting involved in every area of M&S’ business: Food, clothing and operations.

Orebi Gann finally left this long list of full time roles behind him two years ago. As one of the UK’s most experienced CIOs, Orebi Gann still uses, and is developing, his knowledge in many ways; building a portfolio of advisory and non-executive board positions, which allow him to pass on his knowledge and experience to a range of up and coming organisations.

Today he provides strategic advice to company boards where they believe there could be value in using IT differently in their businesses. Orebi Gann has been engaged by three large companies: on in telecommunications, one in insurance and one in the oil and gas industry. The reason they have used him rather than a large consultancy is because they are seeking a truly independent view; they know that he does not have to find work for a team of consultants, and has also sat on the client side of the executive table. Unlike an ongoing non executive role, these assignments are typically more concentrated (perhaps half time) for less than a year.

He took on his first non executive role over 10 years ago. With the responsibility of a full time line job, a maximum of one such role on top is feasible, but he now enjoys two non-executive roles. The first is as non-executive director at Next Generation Data (NGD), a datacentre provider; the other at Aspen Technology, a US Nasdaq quoted public company. In these roles, his past corporate experience brings real value to newer, smaller, organisations. Next Generation Data company profile

The non-executive role at NGD is a perfect example: “I was invited to join the board just two years ago,” recalls Orebi Gann: “They were looking for deep understanding of technology and where it might go.” His thirty years of big company experience was of immense value to a new company — he spends a couple of days a month providing these skills to NGD.

In return, NGD gets two main benefits from an ex-CIO of Orebi Gann’s stature. First there is his training and background as a technologist. He can offer a clear view on the relevant technology directions needed for NGD’s own internal development purposes and for the optimum customer offer. And of course he has built datacentres on his employer’s behalf (at M&S and BP), giving him extra insight into CIO objectives and concerns.

Secondly, he is someone who understands the customer needs of NGD’s large corporate clients, because he was one himself. He has worked for many years inside big companies and served on their operating boards, so he knows what happens in the boardroom and how IT purchasing decisions are really made.

Orebi Gann is clear that any mid-term CIO currently in post should already be planning for the rest of their career: “I was invited to join my first board ten years ago. It made it very logical to separate retirement from a full time role from non executive work, where I continue to have enormous fun helping shape and influence growing businesses.” he says. And he confirms that any CIO on the board of their current company has valuable, transferable, assets at their command, which should be fully leveraged, “To any CIO in their early or mid fifties, I’d say you have something which boards should be increasingly looking for in non-executive roles…”

So the skill set a CIO already enjoys is one that will continue to be in demand. But it is also important to recognise that a non-executive role will be very different one from an executive one, as Orebi Gann highlights though his experience: “My biggest learning has been that as a non-executive board member you can’t tell anyone what to do. Everything you do is by influence, and your only power is the one to resign. You can’t exercise that very often!” This stark statement underlines the need for CIOs to develop and enhance people management and soft skills in their current role.

Orebi Gann sees both the CIO’s role and his non-executive one, as being to pull various strands of information together to help businesses make the right IT decisions. Key pointers in collecting this information are to:

  • Stay in touch with what people are saying and what is going on inside a business
  • Talk to suppliers and computer companies to build relationships with influential market change technology companies
  • Be the gatekeeper of IT ideas and, where appropriate, an advocate for change with others in senior management who may not be able to see the value of a particular technology.
  • Work out what your business could do in five years time which is only possible because of the IT…..and how to get there before the competition.

The importance of supplier relationships is demonstrated by an example from his time at M&S. A direct discussion with Bill Gates about a new operating system for the M&S electronic point of sale terminals resulted in renewed focus from Microsoft in this area, in turn resulting in a better solution to the particular EPOS problem at M&S. And even if you don’t get the chance to help change Bill Gates’s mind, you can still use similar influencing skills to make sure your vendor’s product development meets your objectives as a valuable customer.

In discussing the sources of information he relies upon, Orebi Gann is equally clear. He believes information comes primarily from other businesses, fellow CIOs and the colleagues he works with in a business. He suggests analysts are not so useful because they are forced to generalise and so don’t understand the context of the specific problems he faces.

Simon Orebi Gann enjoys a distinguished history as the CIO of some very well known organisations. He has shown how that experience can benefit a new generation of small and more diverse businesses in the advisory roles he now has. It is an example many other of today’s CIOs should be already be planning to replicate.

Click here to see Simon Orebi Gann’s CIO CV