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Lead Through Volatility

CSIRO chairman David Thodey offers advice to help CIOs steer their organization through rapid change.

Great leaders are often defined by how they handle adversity and navigate uncharted territory. Today, many CIOs are being defined by how they lead their enterprises to succeed in the emerging digital business landscape.

David Thodey, chairman of Australia’s Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) and the former CEO of Australia’s largest telecommunications provider, Telstra, has reflected on his career and drawn lessons from it for CIOs navigating a complex, volatile and unpredictable environment.

While admitting change is constant, Mr. Thodey said we are currently living through unprecedented social, economic and technological change.

“There is greater volatility, but also greater opportunity for those who grab it.”

“At the beginning of this year, oil prices were at an all-time low. Who predicted that? Who predicted Brexit? We are getting very poor at predicting what the outcome is going to be. Then add technology innovation into the mix. It creates volatility and uncertainty,” Mr. Thodey said.

“Every board and CEO I know is struggling with this less predictable type of change. As technologists, we are not doing enough. We need to step in and help,” he said.

Speaking to more than 1,500 CIOs and senior IT executives at Gartner Symposium/ITxpo on the Gold Coast, Australia, Mr. Thodey said CIOs must focus on four key areas to lead their organizations through volatility.

1. Purpose and values

Creating a purpose- and values-led organization – whether it’s the entire organization or the IT organization within it – is something CIOs can start today.

“We have no ability to influence how people behave, but you can define the values you stand by,” Mr. Thodey said.

A rules-based organization is risk averse and not agile enough for the current environment. Rules and processes define what we can’t do rather than what we can.

“The fundamental problem in big organizations is trust,” he said. “It is the most debilitating to innovation.”

While at Telstra, his leadership team decided to shift from an expectation of accountability to trusting each other to deliver, a subtle but important shift in culture.

2. Customer service

Customer service is a driver of change, not something you deliver, according to Mr. Thodey. Organizations that focus entirely on the customer, whether internal or external, will rally everyone around a common cause and create transformative change.

3. Reinvention

CIOs must work to reinvent themselves as well as their organizations, Mr. Thodey said.

“We have all managed people who’ve been unable to adapt to a new world. They get left behind. It’s the same for organizations. They need to reinvent themselves,” he said. “A business like Telstra that had A$4 billion in annual revenue from international calling can see it disappear in five years. Just because it was good yesterday does not make it a reason to do it today.”

Good ideas may reside outside the organization’s traditional boundaries. Mr. Thodey recommended that CIOs invite the startup community into their organization and find a way to work with them. He cited his experience with Telstra’s startup accelerator Muru-D, which changed how the startup community interacted with Telstra and brought good ideas into the organization.

4. Leadership

Leaders must give people permission to innovate or risk becoming irrelevant in the digital era. The great leaders of today inspire people to do more than they thought possible.

CIOs are in a privileged positon to drive change, Mr. Thodey said, because they have a cross-organizational view of the business. They understand where technology is going and how it can make a difference in the organization.

“CIOs need to stand up and educate the executive team about technology-led change,” Mr. Thodey said. “There is greater volatility, but also greater opportunity for those who grab it.”

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