by Mike English

The CIO questionnaire John Lewis IT chief, Mike English

Oct 13, 2009
CareersIT LeadershipMobile Apps

John Lewis Partnershiphead of MIS tackles the CIO questionnaire. From academic to IT leader, Mike English explains what it’s like to head IT for a retailer where the workers own the shop.

Q. Which business (or other) books have been influential in your career? A. Steve Covey’s books on personal development including The 7 Habits of Highly Successful People (reviewed here). Various leadership books; I tend to borrow them so can’t remember any titles except I used the Harvard Leadership pocket book recently. Rich Dad, Poor Dad by Robert Kiyosaki. A good book I read recently before started the transition for the team from combined ops/dev teams to split teams was Managing Transitions by William Bridges. It’s one of the best books I’ve read in terms of being both a good read, honest and practical and useful. Most books have one or two useful messages which could be said in one or two chapters but are often padded out to 10. I’ve used a lot of what I read in that book to help manage the transition successfully. The Bible has also affected the way I deal with people in terms of fairness, honesty and general ways of doing business. I’m not saying I’ve always made the right call in situations but I think it influences me in the right direction. For example, in Proverbs, it says, “If a ruler’s anger rises against you, do not leave your post; calmness can lay great errors to rest” – i.e. if your boss is mad at you, stay calm. I’ve had plenty of opportunity to apply that one!

Q. Who have been the most influential people in your career? A. One of my first managers within IT was Helen Wilson and she had a big influence. She saw potential in me and trusted me with top-level business management and with many opportunities which I might not otherwise have had so, high challenge and high support. She was also a good model for a manager and leader. Beyond that, a couple of friends who have had their own businesses have influenced me. They always challenge me to remain customer-focused despite working in a large organisation. I think I’ve listened but there’s always room for improvement.

Q. What is your approach to training and mentoring? A. I’m passionate about training, mentoring and coaching. I enjoy BBC1’s The Apprentice because, while I suppose the primary aim is to entertain, the idea of learning and developing in an Apprentice-style set up resonates with me. I can vary my leadership style but I’m most comfortable with coaching and this is generally one-to-one in a work context. I am also a Level 1 RFU coach and enjoy mini-rugby coaching – here, the coaching style required is quite different. In terms of training, it’s important that individuals own their own careers and therefore I tend to put the responsibility primarily on the shoulders of the individuals in my team to make the business case for training. I then expect them to summarise what they’ve learnt afterwards and explain how they are going to apply it to their work. This has worked really well recently where we had six people from my team attend the Kimball Group Data Warehouse Lifecycle course in Gatwick. We are already starting to reap benefits in terms of better design for the data warehouse.

Q.Which tools or tactics have given you most success in communicating up/down/across? A. Finding what really needs to be done quickly. Get that done and customers will trust you more and be prepared to wait for a while to get a more strategic solution. So, do tactical things but don’t let go of the strategic – always a tricky balance but it’s fun! Articulate (primarily verbally, but also in writing and pictorially) the options open for the way forward, explain the consequences of doing nothing or letting things rumble on as they are now. Have a simple vision – in our case, we were able to sum up the business information strategy in one simple diagram without too many words on it. Most people prefer pictures and colour for vision, not verbose, grand statements. Take as much time as it needs to explain the vision over and over again. One of my entrepreneur friends once said to me that “people can lose the vision in three days”, and in my experience that is true. I think it’s the same type of thing up, down and across. Clear vision, clearly articulate it… and keep articulating it. Q. What has been your biggest mistake? A. In a previous job, giving in to pressure to start a project when there was no significant senior-level business involvement. Although I flagged this as much as I could at the time, with hindsight I should have refused to run the project without the right senior stakeholder involvement. We got there in the end with the project but it was far more painful than it needed to be and the opportunity cost was high.

Q. And your greatest success? A. Developing the John Lewis Business Information Strategy, getting senior stakeholder buy-in, resources and budget to deliver it.

Q. What is your greatest strength? A. Ability to deliver and associated project management skills.

Q. And your greatest weakness? A. Not surprisingly, this relates to the mistake I described above: giving in, under pressure, to compromise on something in the early stages of a project when my instinct tells me not to.

Q. How do you keep up to date with the march of technology? A. Focus most on the area that I’m involved in at the time; read relevant periodicals; keep up with those in other technology areas. I’m fortunate that I have a couple of people who send me information fairly regularly but I do find it a challenge at times to keep track: in/out/right sourcing – what’s the latest?!

Q. How do you deal with stress? A. Try to see whatever the ‘stressor’ is, in perspective. Take time out: prayer and meditation. I also try to get away from desk and meetings: even a quick lunch in the cafe with a colleague is much better than stuffing down a sandwich at one’s desk. Understand what I can control (my own actions), what I can influence (others’ views) and what I have no influence over whatsoever (the economic climate). I’ve found a good book here is Boundaries by Henry Cloud and John Townsend.

Q. What profession would you most/least like to attempt? A. Most = carpentry. Least = ?

Q. Which technology companies and people do you most admire? A.Ab Initio.

Q. Do you have a sport you practise or sportsperson/team that you follow? A.Unfortunately, I don’t practise rugby any more (I tried a year or so ago and immediately remember why I stopped – injury). However, as I mentioned above, I enjoy mini-rugby coaching with a local club (7-13 year-olds) and I also have a referees’ qualification and a reasonable amount of experience of that too. I follow Harlequins and after enjoying so many fantastic games last season, I finally treated myself and my son to a season ticket for next season.

Read the full CIO UK interview with Mike English here.