by Jennifer O'Brien

‘Sly’ moves and savvy planning empowers former female CIO

Oct 31, 2018
CareersGovernment ITIT Leadership

Susan Sly didn’t plan on having a career in IT. In fact, this Western Australian girl had always planned on being a vet. But while vet science didn’t materialise, she found herself immersed in the world of physics and mathematics at university – and eventually went into the navy.

Her first role was as a maritime warfare officer for the Royal Australian Navy, before crossing over as a regional tech manager for the Department of Defence. She’s been a system implementation and analysis manager for Child Protection and Juvenile Services for the Department of Human Services, and worn the CIO hat for the Australian Energy Market Operator (AEMO).

She also worked as the executive general manager of information management and technology (IMT) for VicRoads, a post she held for eight years. In that role, she was able to reposition the IMT role to focus on client service and organisational risk – and in doing so clinched the 2013 iAwards Victoria CIO of the Year award.

Indeed, she admits she had a full life and career even before getting into the IT realm. But once onboard, she said she’s never looked back.

“We have an incredible capacity to make change. The intellectual stimulation – the ability to realise change and foster achievements is really high and very rewarding.”

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CIO Australia caught up with Sly, who today is the technology director of Lueur (French for “glow”), which works with boards, business executives and technical professionals to implement strategies that exploit technology for business success and develop the capabilities and practices to realise them.

CIO: Let’s go back to the beginning. Did you always envision a career in IT?

SS: Not at all. I had a very mixed background, which I think I benefit from now. I worked across really diverse areas ranging from the military, working offshore in oil and gas, a public relations role in a university. And one of the most important roles I had was working in HR with an oil and gas company. All of those roles were prior to me coming into technology and the management level about 18 years ago.

CIO: What are some of your lessons learned from your time as a CIO and executive GM?

SS: Fixing things has to be as important and satisfying to everyone as doing the shiny new things. If it’s not, you get a gap between new technologies and the platforms and integration that underpin them.

Show interest in all levels of the stack and give people opportunities to shine no matter how close or how far from the business owners and users they are. Impressive is very short lived if it is not sustainable and robust and team dynamics suffer if glory is only given to those that the business see (it’s a bit like forwards and backs in rugby).

CIO: What did you take away from your time at AEMO given it was a short period of time?

SS: People often assume that I would regret going there because I left after three months. It couldn’t be further from the truth. I learnt much in the process, left on good terms with the CEO and the AEMO IT team were amazing – adaptable, smart and dedicated.

In hindsight, AEMO was my first consulting gig and it set me on the path to having Lueur and doing consulting, both of which are now incredibly important to me. One big lesson that I apply with clients is to make sure that the car you love in the showroom is the one you want for your daily drive.

I help organisations to define the style of CIO they need according to their culture, their strategy and their long term goals before they speak to recruiters – this can save the organisation, the recruiter and the ultimate appointee a lot of heartache. I went to AEMO to drive change, but I was a tornado when a stiff breeze would have been better.

CIO: What stands out for you in terms of highlights from your previous roles?

SS: What stands out for me are the achievements of the team at all of my jobs. But at VicRoads, in particular, there were huge commercial achievements in terms of outcomes for the business. Expansion of services. Growth and depth of capabilities. That’s one of the jobs that stands out.

CIO: What are some of the changes and trends you’ve seen in the IT industry.

SS: The most important transition we’re still going through is a true service approach and very outcomes focused. As an industry, we’ve been inputs and outputs focused, but I think the big change now is that the intuitive service delivery model is all about the outcome.

CIO: What’s it like being a female leader in IT?

SS: It’s different having been an executive on managing the internal services to being on the vendor supply side now. We still have the assumption – not just within the industry, but within our clients – that women still need to prove they get tech. That’s the best way to put it.

I often hear the comment,’oh you do HR stuff.’ This is said because I focus on how teams deliver technology. It’s technology-driven, but the assumption is that because I work with teams and leadership that it’s an HR thing. I think that tends to be more of an assumption put upon women.

CIO: What will help fuel momentum and encourage more women to get into IT?

SS: There has to be basic behavourial changes, and it has to come, frankly, from the top.We have inculcated quite a paternalistic attitude to improving diversity. What I mean by that is it’s about what we can do to help women – which in itself implies that they actually don’t have the capabilities or the capacities to do things by themselves. There’s an assumption still that women are incapable of doing the role, without assistance. It’s not deliberate, but what we have to do is more consciously say, ‘I need a person for the role.’

It’s very subtle and what it requires is some conscious, proactive measures to encourage women and grow the capabilities and appoint women.

CIO: If you had to describe yourself as a leader, what type of leader would you be?

SS: I’m one who grows others. My job is to make sure that the potential is realised, whether that be in people or in companies. And the way I do that is by cajoling and interfering – and getting the potential out of them. The best way to empower people is to hold them accountable.

CIO: Have you had any challenges or hurdles that you’ve had to overcome along the way?

SS: Probably some of the most significant battles are when you have to change the perception of the technology team. When the team perceives either what they are capable of or perceives what they should be doing – that I think can be very challenging at times.

CIO: What’s like being in the hot seat as a CIO and then going into a consulting role?

SS: I’ve been stunned at how happy I am. People said to me for years that I should go into consultancy. I like to be in charge and the people side of technology is incredibly important to me. I thought I would lose both of those going into consultancy, but instead, I find that’s the real difference that I bring. I can have conversations with people – and I can push people in ways that as a manager sometimes you can’t. You’re able to have a very objective conversation with people that allows them to drive change.

CIO: What advice do you have for today’s modern-day CIOs?

SS: You’ve got to be able to really understand how you drive change, but also how you build your internal teams to do it. People often think going to cloud or adopting different operating models is about getting rid of people. It’s not. And the really good CIOs are able to drive continual change within the organisation instead of simple change.

In terms of skills, they need to be particularly good at the commercial governance side of things, they’ve got to understand the criticality of capability and operating model and how to continually evolve them. They need to be internal change leaders. They need to not just focus on changing the business; they have to be able to continually evolve their own parts of the organisation.

You need to take a very broad approach to how you deliver technology. Your core capability has to be around technology and technology strategy. It has to be closely complemented by commercial acumen, leadership, the ability to lead a team – and your job is to drive change.