by Byron Connolly

A head for business

May 26, 20148 mins
CareersIT Leadership

“I’ve always seen myself as a business person who happens to specialise in technology,” says Jon Kenton, COO at Corrs Chambers Westgarth.

Unlike many in IT, Kenton was interested in the transformative power of technology in business at the beginning of his career.

“For me, it was never how powerful is that chip or how many processors can you find on that piece of silicon,” he says. “My technology roles have always been business-facing; I’ve never been one for the infrastructure side of things – not that there’s anything wrong with that – but it isn’t what makes me tick.”

Today, Kenton is part of legal sector undergoing massive change, driven largely by technological innovation. He describes it as a “fascinating time”.

“The technology challenges for legal firms are quite profound and the rate of change is just phenomenal,” he says. Technology is disrupting existing processes and providing greater efficiencies by allowing legal staff to access and share information online.

Law firms are becoming globalised and lawyers are working more intelligently using e-discovery tools that enable them to quickly scan, analyse and create data maps to find key correlations between information for litigation, compliance and internal investigations.

“Rather than processing hundreds of thousands of pages, they can use [these tools] to work out which pages are actually interesting to read. That will continue as machines get smarter and faster,” Kenton says.

“Then you look at systems where you can really build your IP. For example, writing a system to a client where it [calculates] 80 to 90 per cent of what they need. We’ve seen these appearing and they will continue to roll out across the industry.

“The flipside is that with the use of technologies like email and instant messaging, the amount of data you have to process is so much bigger too.”

Kenton clearly understands what technology can do for business but has always had a thirst to expand his skills beyond IT. While a graduate at Lloyds of London, he made the initial decision to pursue a career as a business analyst rather than infrastructure specialist.

As COO at Corrs Chambers Westgarth, Kenton is responsible for all human resources, legal support, marketing and technology functions.

He also oversees the firm’s five-year strategy and change program – Corrs2015 – which aims to drive growth in targeted areas of the business, attract the best people to the firm and invest more to build technical and commercial expertise, and deliver better advice than competitors.

Kenton says a major driver of the program was the global financial crisis, which altered the business environment permanently.

“We saw very early that Asia was the global economic engine and that was both an opportunity and a threat for Australian business – our clients,” he says. “Our ambition therefore was to ensure the competiveness of our clients and our country by helping them to engage effectively in the Asian growth machine.”

Kenton is responsible for 400 staff out of a total team of 1000 at the law firm. He was CIO between 2007 and 2011 and since then, has quickly become responsible for areas of the business that aren’t directly related to technology.

In January 2012, he completed a three-month stint as CIO and director of people, a role that covered human resources, and learning and development. Within a few months, Kenton was again promoted to COO, a role that he has held for the past two years.He says the move was a natural progression.

“It’s obviously a big jump but along the way, I picked up different roles around the firm that weren’t strictly technology. The HR and learning and development position was an example of that.”

Dealing with ambiguity

Kenton believes CIOs are very fact-driven and analytical but once they move into a more senior, c-level positions, being able to deal with uncertainty becomes very important.

“You won’t have all the information you need and you won’t always have the time to go and get it,” he warns.“A lot of people with analytical backgrounds – not just in technology – tend to think in a very fact-based way. They think ‘If I present the facts, they will agree with me’, without really understanding what those facts mean, what that person’s motivations are, and where they are coming from.

“My biggest journey over time has been around working with other people, working out how to get my points across and really influence people.”

So do CIOs lack the skills required to move up the c-level food chain? Perhaps some do but Kenton also believes a number of people in senior technology roles are happy being where they are and don’t necessarily want to progress upwards.

For those who want to move higher, a change in mindset might be a good start.“I’ve spent some time with people throughout my career who have been frustrated because they think they have the answer yet no-one is listening to them,” Kenton says. “They haven’t perhaps spent as much time thinking about how they present the argument in the first place.”

There’s also a mindset from CIOs to mention downsides, he says. “As a CIO, it’s ingrained in you to find out why things won’t work – so if you get presented with an idea, you immediately ask ‘why won’t that work?’”

A CIO is also unwilling to take the sorts of risks other c-levels, such as the COO, may take in relation to technology deployments, he continues.“If you [switch on] a production system and it falls over, that’s not good. If you look at a solution and someone says to you ‘there’s a 10 per cent chance it might not work’, as a CIO you are saying ‘hang on, that’s not something I can live with.’

“Not all technology projects have that level of criticality but [CIOs] can get into the mindset of needing to eliminate failure. Uncertainty is not good, risk is not good and you want to eliminate those things in production.But as you become more senior, there’s always going to be ambiguity and uncertainty.

Making a decision around that means [you need to] weigh that up with the knowledge that a lot of your decisions will not work.”

Over the years, Kenton has learnt technology projects “aren’t actually technology projects”, they are change management projects with an element of technology.

“They normally end up in technology because that’s the group that has the project management skillset,” he says.

“But it’s interesting when you talk to some technology project managers and ask them ‘what’s the outcome, what’s your objective on this project?’ Many will say ‘it’s to implement some new technology’. Not it’s not; the objective is to change behaviour. If you don’t change behaviour, the project hasn’t succeeded.”

Kenton’s advice for becoming business chief

1. Understand the objectives of other c-level executives

Kenton says in a business environment, it’s important to build longlasting relationships that enable you to have the right conversations, particularly when things go wrong.

“There are things that go well and things that go badly and it’s important to have those relationships,” he says. “It’s also [about] how can you help them do what they need to do.

“I’ve spent a lot of time listening and building relationships with other people around the table to make sure I understand where they are coming from.”

2. Get a mentor

Find someone who’s moved into another c-level role – a mentor – and talk to them, says Kenton.

“Build relationships with people in the business you admire and look at how they go about things,” he says.“Think about what you do from a business lens rather than a technology lens – a lot of CIOs do that [but] it’s really important.”

3. Don’t ‘jump to the no’

Kenton has observed some people with analytical skills often ‘jump to the no’.Although you may be right about the reasons why a new idea may not work in practice, saying ‘no’ doesn’t encourage dialogue, he says.

“There’s a whole bunch of research that says if you want to get more ideas out of people, encourage their ideas. If you sit in a room and they ask ‘how about this?’ and you say ‘that won’t work’, it immediately shuts down the conversation,” he says.

“Work out what you can do to eliminate the negatives. Focus on the qualitative aspects of [an idea] and work out how to [uncover] the positives.”

4. Have some vision

Think about the technology function as a business itself, says Kenton.“It’s important to have a strategy and vision of what you are trying to do and how that ties into the business strategy,” he says.

“It’s important to be able to express that in a concise way … so people understand what you are doing and how it fits into the business, rather than [being viewed] as the person who makes the telephones work and the PC turn on.”