Leadership for learning: A CIO's commitment

We need to keep a strong eye on the next generation who can succeed us within the organisation.Simon Kennedy, The Warehouse Group

“Initially I was concerned that I wouldn’t be able to put in enough time to make a difference,” says Simon Kennedy, after receiving invitations to join an advisory board or be a mentor.

But since then, the CIO of The Warehouse Group (TWG) has accepted a select number of the invites.

Currently, Kennedy is an advisory board member to the Future Leaders Programme at the University of Auckland Business School, as well as to the Masters in Business Analytics programme at Massey University.

He also mentors, albeit informally, two TWG staff outside his department.

“We try and catch up for an hour every two months either in the building or offsite somewhere,” says Kennedy.

His current mentees are involved in programme delivery, so their roles “have an affinity” with the technology department. As part of the mentoring process, he acts as a sounding board for some of the projects the mentees are working on.

“It is really interesting,” he says of this experience. “It is an opportunity to provide a form of input into another part of the organisation in a unique way.

“I would imagine people in technology leadership roles are asked to do this from time to time,” he says.

“Say yes to one that feels right,” he advises, “and you will be surprised at the value of the experience for not only the mentee but for yourself as well.

“We recognise that our team members play a huge role in ensuring our business success," says Kennedy, who also supports TWG’s advocacy to promote retail as a career.

“It is important to consider how those I mentor can grow personally and meet their various goals, whether it is in their current business area or a different one.

“Essentially as part of a leadership team, we need to keep a strong eye on the next generation who can succeed us within the organisation."

Prior to joining the Warehouse Group, Kennedy worked across the globe as a consultant, focusing on the retail sector.

After completing his degree in modern history and economics at the University of Oxford, Kennedy became a management consultant, working with Accenture and at Ernst Young. He also worked at another consulting group, Kurt Salmon Associates, before joining Reliance, a conglomerate headquartered in India.

He has attended structured mentoring programmes at Accenture. He found the approach useful, but says it was dependent on who your mentor was.

He says TWG has frameworks around leadership development, performance management and personal growth.

“It is a strength and advantage that The Warehouse Group has the scale of multiple brands,” says Kennedy.

The group brands include The Warehouse, Noel Leeming Group, Warehouse Stationery and Torpedo7, as well as The Warehouse Group Financial Services. The Group has a Store Support Office based in Auckland, 238 retail stores as well as distribution centres throughout the country

He says with the diverse group of companies under the Warehouse Group umbrella, team members have “a range of opportunities to take some mentoring or coaching from people outside their direct area of current interest”.

“People finding different routes across different roles is something we encourage,” says Kennedy.

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Everything we do in life is a learning opportunity.Simon Kennedy, The Warehouse Group

Industry advocacy

While the internal side of leadership development is important for the organisation, Kennedy says in recent years, the group has also stepped up its connections into the external world.

“We are playing a more active role in championing retail as a career and we are looking to open people’s eyes to that fact that retail is a career choice.”

Many people have retail work experience as students, doing weekend or seasonal work.

“Yet, there are so many career opportunities and we want to make people aware of that,” says Kennedy. “Whether it is on the merchandising side, operations, store management and other areas such as technology or finance, there is a wide range of roles.

“It is a satisfying and rewarding place to work,” he adds. “You are connected to everyday life. Everybody shops, you don’t have to explain to people what you do, they get it.”

As part of this advocacy, TWG has a close relationship with Massey University.

The group sponsors the Stephen Tindall Retail Chair in Management, named after the founder of TWG, at Massey University.

“We connect with Massey on a variety of opportunities. Whether it is about opportunities for students to spend time in the business, or work on short-term assignments.”

The Warehouse executives are also invited to be guests lecturers at the university.

“It gives us a chance to help create opportunities for students coming through, to think about retail as a future career. But also have practical ways of gaining that experience in improving their skills, knowledge and desire around retail as a career.

“We hope we will see some of them choose to have their career with us.”

Kennedy says he has been a guest lecturer in retail technology at the Massey Business School for postgraduate students.

“It was a topic that included understanding how broadly technology can play a part in retail success in the functional areas,” he states.

Simon Kennedy at the 2016 CIO100 event in Auckland (Photo by Jason Creaghan)

We are playing a more active role in championing retail as a career and we are looking to open people’s eyes to that fact that retail is a career choice

Collaboration and critical thinking

He discussed the significant opportunities in retail and other industries, with digital technology.

“What does consumer technology mean to the retail industry and what opportunities are there for people working in the sector?

''We have a daily challenge of looking after our current way of operating in addition to building for the future,” he says.

The challenge, he adds, with a smile, is compressing all these insights into a one-and-a-half hour lecture.

He says one of the questions students asked him was how to find the right balance between the things they could do with technology and what they choose to do; and ‘potentially high risk but high reward’ versus choosing 'safe options’.

“We had good discussions that in retail, you have to continue to be customer-led,” he says.

He also discussed about how care has to be taken with legislation compliance and data management. “Think about what your position is and be very clear about the ethics and values around collecting data,” he said.

“In some ways, regulation and compliance is not going to keep up with the reality of how fast the technology is moving,” he states.

“We have to make well-thought choices,” he adds. “It is not just being compliant, it has to be in line with our values and our positioning.”

Kennedy joined the advisory board for the master’s in business analytics at Massey University a year-and-a-half ago. The graduates of this course are trained to work as data scientists, one of the most sought after skills across sectors globally.

“The collective role of that advisory board is to provide some input and a sounding board for the academic leadership of the programme, and help the leaders to stay in tune with the industry view of the skills and capabilities.

Simon Kennedy, The Warehouse Group

People finding different routes across different roles is something we encourage.Simon Kennedy, The Warehouse Group

“There have been discussions on the relative merits of having technical skills, but also some of the softer skills and attributes that are important in the marketplace.

“These are skills around critical thinking, working collaboratively and the ability to present ideas persuasively in the workplace context.

“It can be almost as important to get the message across and demonstrate the value of the data that has been found, as the skills required to manage the data side of things.”

He says working on the advisory board does not require a significant commitment of time. The board meets for two hours every quarter.

“From a long-term point of view, I hope that by participating in this, I am adding a little bit of value to the programme.

“We are developing people coming through the workforce and ultimately it is good for us, and good for New Zealand. That is the big picture," he states.

“I find it interesting personally to reconnect with the current academic environment, as it has been a long time since I was there.

“It is also great to capture insights that the current generation of students are experiencing. These insights help me understand not only what students want from a workplace so I can ensure ours is attractive, but also provides me with knowledge of what skills are coming," says Kennedy.

The board members come mainly from technology and consulting service companies.

“It is also useful for all of us on the advisory board to create connections that we would not have otherwise, and learn from each other as well."

“I might meet them in a conference but that is a different kind of environment,” says Kennedy. “You do not get that kind of dynamic.”

“It is about recognising that you can learn so much from so many people,” he concludes. “Everything we do in life is a learning opportunity.”

Simon Kennedy with his team members at The Warehouse Group: “It is great to capture insights that the current generation of students are experiencing. These insights help me understand not only what students want from a workplace so I can ensure ours is attractive, but also provides me with knowledge of what skills are coming.”

CIO New Zealand would like to hear from other business technology executives working with advisory groups for academic organisations, or mentoring future ICT leaders. Email the editor divina_paredes@idg.co.nz

Follow Divina Paredes on Twitter: @divinap

Follow CIO New Zealand on Twitter:@cio_nz

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Copyright © 2016 IDG Communications, Inc.

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