Making the transition from CIO to executive general manager

Bobby Lehane had always wanted to be a CIO, but one who was in touch with the business rather than a technologist.

“I set about securing a role as CIO within the financial services industry. That was where I wanted to be because I felt financial services were the leader in terms of using technology to enable positive business outcomes,” he says.

Lehane joined Zurich Financial Services Australia in November 2007 as the CIO. He was then promoted to the role of Asia Pacific Middle East CIO in 2009 and then became APAC COO in January 2011. He has been in his current role of SME executive general manager since June 2012.

Prior to Zurich, he worked as a CIO at property organisation Multiplex Group for three years. Lehane also worked at the Commonwealth Bank of Australia as head of financial markets technology.

“I came in here [Zurich] with the strong mandate to change. I entered the CIO role as someone who didn’t want to be known as their head technologist but someone who was part of a business trying to navigate it to better outcomes,” he says.

“I didn’t want to be known as a technologist or the computer guy. I always tried to ensure that I was commercially aware of the financials and the bigger picture.”

According to Lehane, the role of CIO is not a technologist but a business leader. “Companies don’t need technologists; they need thinkers, thought leaders and people who can get stuff done.”

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  • How Lehane made the transition

    Getting offered the Zurich CIO role for APAC and the Middle East was Lehane’s first step in the transition.

    “I took it on the provision that I would continue to do the Australian CIO role and deliver the program of change that we had underway at the time,” he says.

    Part of this program was changing the IT platforms supporting the organisation in life and general insurance divisions. One of the platforms was called HMS Express and now supports the business which Lehane runs in his role of executive general manager.

    “Off the back of that, I was offered the role of COO for Asia Pacific. Moving from CIO to COO was a great step because that meant I needed to be more across the whole business in APAC,” he says.

    “I needed to be across the numbers, the relationships and start to develop a reputation as a leader.”

    Lehane also volunteered to fill roles. For example, in 2013 when the company had a change of leadership in its claims division, he took on the CEO role for six months.

    “I did that because the organisation needed it and because I became aware of another important part of our business, which is claims.

    “With my transition, I believed I had the right mindset from the start. I understood I wasn’t in this organisation to run IT, I was here to run a business with the other executives,” he says.

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    Skills gap

    According to Lehane, CIOs need to “get out of the mindset” of being subservient to a business and take opportunities such as covering for the CEO while they are away.

    “CIOs should be putting their hand up and taking the opportunity to learn more about the business, regardless of what aspect.

    “If CIOs are not willing to put themselves forward and demonstrate the value that they are bringing to the organisation, as other business leaders do, it’s not going to happen.”

    Another problem which may be holding CIOs back from taking on new roles is the use of IT acronyms/language and not having an understanding of balance sheets.

    “It’s that commercial mindset of understanding the numbers and metrics of the business you support. It’s not enough to understand the uptime of your servers, no one gives a shit,” he says.

    According to Lehane, CIOs used to report to the CEO but now the CIO has to report through the COO. He says this is a reaction to CIOs using too many “technical terms” and the CEO wanting to speak with someone they understand.

    In addition, CIOs should be developing relationships with business partners rather than staying in the IT department.

    “If you can’t articulate the proposition or get the support that you need, then you will fail. There is no room for shrinking violets.”

    Overcoming degrees of separation

    Lehane suggests that if a CIO is serious about making the transition to another C-level role, they should go back and take a business degree.

    For example, he became a graduate of the Australian Institute of Company Directors last year.

    “Through that, I got a deep understanding of how boards and executives are supposed to work. I also developed a network of people that were doing the company’s directors course at the same time. I now have a language and an understanding that I can use with the board here [at Zurich] I previously didn’t have.”

    In addition, Lehane has an individual development plan as his long term goal is to become a CEO. This plan includes details of priorities that will help him progress further.

    “As you move into these roles and you spend more time engaging with the board, you try and figure out what you need to do in terms of continuing to develop into a CEO. The path I’m on at the moment means that this is where I want to go,” he says.

    Lehane laments that most CIOs won’t make the transition to another role. Research conducted in 2011 by Vanson Bourne for CA Technologies found that only 4 per cent of CEOs in the world’s organisations were previously IT executives compared to CFOs (29 per cent) and COOs (23 per cent).

    “I know we [CIOs] are capable and can bring a lot to business roles. A business role needs someone who can execute, who can get stuff done and do it repeatedly. CIOs need to do that.”

    Follow Hamish Barwick on Twitter: @HamishBarwick

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