Thirteen years as the head of IT at power tools manufacturer, STIHL Australia – a traditionally male dominated industry and aimed typically at a male audience – Therese Chakour-West is not daunted by the job.
Instead, she not only knows a thing or two about the product range – including chainsaws, cordless power tools, grass trimmers, brushcutters, leaf blowers and concrete saws – but she’s also recognised globally as a strong IT leader who doesn’t shy away on a global scale from “speaking truth” to power. She’s often the only female at international IT workshops.
She’s also considered an authentic leader who recognises “you don’t need a masters degree to be human.” She points to the quote by Simon Sinek: ‘Leadership is not about being in charge. Leadership is about taking care of those in your charge.”
Chakour-West caught up with CIO Australia for a discussion about her time at IT helm of this typically blokey global company, and revealed some of her next moves.
CIO: Did you always envision a role in IT?
CW: When I was at school, I would never have thought IT would be the path for my future career. I started at Melbourne University doing a Bachelor of Education and then when I completed my first year, the university was encouraging students to look into this new course which was a Bachelor of Information Management (IM) and the first year of Education was a common year, so I went straight into the second year of the IM course.
While this course included some technical subjects such as development, what I really enjoyed most was the business analysis and process management subjects. So you could say, I fell into IT. As part of the third year, we had to undertake a co-op year in an organisation and I landed a job as a system tester and trainer. The rest as they say is history.
CIO: What are some of your big milestones/greatest achievements while at STIHL?
CW: Winning the top CIO 50 in 2016 and also winning a Gold award in the Global Intranet and Digital Workplace awards.
Driving the business’ technology maturity with the development of the IT roadmap for STIHL was also key, and being instrumental in changing the way we do business at STIHL with the introduction of our digital workplace.
CIO: What are some of your big challenges in the role?
CW: My biggest daily challenge is finding value based IT solutions to business pain points and bringing our people along on the journey to adopt the change given its rapid pace.
CIO: How has your job evolved over time?
CW: My job has evolved 180 degrees. When I started out in the head of IT role, IT as a function was still very compliance based; a back of office function. These days, everything we do has a technology touch point and I am passionate about what IT can do for a business’ competitive advantage. There has never been a more exciting time to be in IT than now, as it drives business transformation.
CIO: Where has the job taken you – any exciting travels?
CW: I’ve been to four continents. I’ve been to China, Brazil, Germany, Switzerland, the U.S, New Zealand. Six different countries, but four continents. That’s the beauty of working for a global organisation. You get these opportunities to travel and occasionally I will extend and visit somewhere I haven’t been before.
CIO: What are some of the lessons learned from all of the travel?
CW: The biggest takeout is the relationships that you develop when you spend time with your colleagues around the globe. The other thing you learn is how the culture of the organisation is consistent, even though a global organisation. And there’s really an element of the local culture. As a family company, we’re still completely private, owned by the STIHL family, and that culture of hospitality and looking after your guests, and your people, is consistent everywhere I’ve been.
CIO: What have you learned culturally about STIHL?
CW. I’ve learned the culture not only in the countries I’ve visited, but also how the Stihl culture really flows from Germany down to all of the subsidiaries. I picked that up in my first year when I first started all those years ago. I spent five weeks in Germany. I had someone go out to dinner with me every night. The weekends we travelled around and I saw Munich and Heidelberg. I went to Strasbourg. I travelled around with my colleagues. They showed me Germany. I always felt like this real sense of hospitality. It’s a culture I’ve not experienced anywhere else.
CIO: What’s your advice for other women looking to get into a senior IT role?
CW: I’ve been with the company for a long time and I’ve developed key relationships. I think getting your name out there – backing yourself – and building that credibility is important. All too often females think you need to know the ins and outs of technology of every device, and you need to know how to develop in .NET. But with a lot of technology roles we don’t advocate hard enough for the need to understand business. At the end of the day, you might have the greatest technology, but if someone doesn’t know how to apply it and deliver on a particular business strategy, then what’s the point.
We have a saying in my team. ‘We don’t deliver technology for technology’s sake.’ We actually try to achieve results: What problems are we trying to fix? What processes are we trying to improve or make easier? There’s always got to be some underlying business need, or reason or pain points that we’re trying to resolve. All too often technology is seen as development roles or high-tech roles, but more than ever we have a need to understand the business, have more business analysis, and project management in order to bring about change.
CIO: Are there new directions taking place at the company?
CW: We’re trying to tap into the female market through a different product. Our battery product is really gaining traction in the market and we’re trying to attract more and more females.
CIO: What kind of leadership skills are important to you and what have you learned along the way?
CW: Being human at work is important. Even though we’re in a really high tech period in time (with machine learning and AI), there’s no time like the present when we actually need to be human at work. We still have to work with people and we have to bring them along the journey. We still need to be connected to people because the more we’re connected, the more meaning they have and the greater their going to produce the output. You really don’t need a masters degree just to be human. Understand your people and what it is they’re trying to achieve, their goals and dreams, and work with them to help them achieve that.
CIO: What are your top tech priorities for the rest of the year?
CW: For me personally, we’re doing a lot in the space of business intelligence and data analytics, mobility. Those are our main focus areas, and moving to the cloud.
As a result of my trip to Germany and Brazil this year, globally we’re changing the way we think and act and operate to really try and drive that One STIHL philosophy where we’re a global organisation, and anything we do, we need to think outside of our local domain. How can this solution impact or benefit other subsidiaries around the world?
CIO: Are all the subsidiaries different in terms of technology in use?
CW: More and more we’re becoming aligned. SAP was probably the first step in that direction. Slowly everybody is migrating across to that new standard SAP template. We also have a standard B2B template for all of our dealer network globally. We’re moving to Exchange 2016 in preparation for migration to Dynamics 365, which will be a global rollout. So now everything that we do is, ‘How can we do this globally?
It’s to the point where our digital workplace that we rolled out in 2015, Germany is saying, ‘We either take that and roll it out globally, or you’ll have to align with the rest of the group when we do rollout a global solution.’
CIO: Is Germany using your digital workplace project in Australia as an example?
CW:Yes they have used it as a guide for the global project. I’ve met with the project team and had several discussions. Germany are becoming a lot more open to people outside of the country running global projects. For example, I am currently driving a global project to deliver a global resilience program and IT disaster recovery plan. We’re doing that from opposite ends of the world – you don’t have to be in Germany now, which is great.
CIO: I understand you’re often the only female at international IT workshops? How did you get a seat at the table?
CW:There are two female heads of IT in the group, but I’m the only female in attendance at the international IT workshops. Generally, the manufacturing facilities are represented and I’m the only sales subsidiary that’s represented mainly because Australia will soon become a regional centre for the group.
CIO: When will Australia be named the regional centre of the group?
CW: It’s probably more a 2020 program of work. We’re trying to move to this One STIHL philosophy globally. The first project to go live will be the upgrade to Exchange, which will become a global project. And we’ll be initiating the new ‘Follow the Sun’ support. Traditionally, a lot of our support came out of Germany, and of course, they are ten hours behind us. With the new ‘Follow the Sun’ support program, which will be live January next year, they will be looking to set up Australia as a regional centre.