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Leadership's tug of war

Leadership's tug of war

Why IT is proving a less attractive discipline for women

Forging a career in IT

Where women are accepted into leadership positions, it should be due to their skills in succeeding as CIOs and senior IT managers. Senior IT management must possess those same attributes of self-confidence and belief, not to mention strong communication skills.

An emphasis should also be placed on strategy and transformational change, and knowledge of the technology they espouse and represent to other c-level executives and the board.

Like many CIOs, the four women described here entered the industry through what might be described as the side door, and worked their way to the top. While Parton and Biggin had extensive experience in IT, Beveridge began her career via secretarial school and tennis.

Growing up in Tasmania in the 1970s, she says, there were not many career choices for women but she was hopeless at tennis and “even worse at doing what I was told, so a secretary’s life was not for me”.

Training as an accountant seemed the next most sensible pathway, but Beveridge soon became interested in IT while working as an office administration manager for a brick manufacturer.

“By then, IT was becoming mainstream with the rise of the personal computer, client server and automated office applications,” she says. “I got a real buzz from modernising the office processes of that brick manufacturer and helping them become the market leader."

Beveridge’s career has traversed various business and IT roles and across many industries including manufacturing, contract catering, postal services, insurance and education. “A common theme has been my ability to connect business and technology and to drive business change through the effective use of technology,” she says.

Weatherston arguably has one of the more novel backgrounds for an IT manager, particularly for the group CIO of one of Australia’s four leading banks; she originally trained as an archaeologist at Glasgow University.

“The Scottish universities followed the old medieval university curriculum of the seven liberal arts. This approach was designed to provide a broadly-based education that produced brains that were analytical, literate and inquisitive,” she explains.

“All undergraduates were required to study a range of disciplines over and above the core degree subject including philosophy, science, language.

While the practical value of moral philosophy escaped me at the time, looking back it gave me the mental training for my subsequent role as a COBOL programmer. Moral philosophy was the original discipline of logic and the basis for modern mathematics.”

Weatherston decided to switch careers. She was advised computers were “the thing of the future”, but there were no degrees in computing in the early 1980s, so she took a graduate trainee in computing. This started with hands-on training in COBOL programming.

“After four years of being a programmer I decided I needed a better understanding of the businesses for which I was writing the programs,” she says. “I returned to university to study for an MBA. This was a challenging but worthwhile decision that opened up my career.”

CIOs as business leaders

Like all senior IT managers, these four CIOs are working toward defeating the IT-as-cost-centre mentality common among many other executives, and do this through proving and providing their business acumen.

“I believe there are four key pillars supporting every business: Finance, human resource management, marketing and information technology,” Beveridge says. “All four should receive board and executive attention as a weakness as any one pillar will affect the foundations of the entire organisation.

“Our technology is one of the selling points for IT services, and hence has a positive contribution to future revenue. As CIO, it is not about making money or being cost neutral in my business area, it is about contributing to the revenue growth and cost efficiency of the organisation as a whole.

“My KPIs relate to organisational capabilities and how technology contributes to the efficiency and effectiveness of people, processes and systems.”

This might mean upsetting some attitudes entrenched among management. In her current organisation, Parton recalls amazed but positive commentary from a number of senior leaders in the operational business when the CIO opened a corporate event by speaking knowledgeably and in detail on financial and strategic elements of organisational performance.

“If IT does not have a seat at the table then it is difficult to fully contribute to the economic success of the organisation,” she says.

Recent major projects contributing to the bottom line include Beveridge’s replacement of a CRM system to SaaS, as well as a new free online education learning management platform. Biggin, meanwhile, has overseen a replacement of a document management system with involvement from the directors of the AMA.

And Weatherston cites the recent development of global transaction banking and mobile consumer platforms that is “central to our strategy of being the most connected bank in our region”.

Keeping that balance – being ahead of the technology game, ensuring business outcomes, while maintaining effective IT operations – is key to the Future-State CIO.

“I have yet to meet the perfect leader or indeed the perfect CIO,” Weatherston says. “The day we stop striving to improve is the day we should give up. It’s incumbent on all of us fortunate enough to obtain leadership roles to keep learning. It is very important to be self aware and to constantly look to build on strengths and work harder on shortcomings.”

Perfect or not, male or female, it is difficult to achieve this state, Biggin says. “My advice would to be keep flexible and open minded. However, you can only achieve something if you continue to completion. If you get side-tracked, you’ll never get there.”

Hopefully being a woman is not one of those issues side-tracking the career of Australia’s Future-State CIOs.

Join the CIO Australia group on LinkedIn. The group is open to CIOs, IT Directors, COOs, CTOs and senior IT managers.

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