Heather Payne is the Chief Technology Officer and VP of IT at Avon, an assignment hot off the heels of her transformation of DMG Media. Beginning her career as an engineer, she was convinced to go into IT during a graduate programme at Ford Motors – and she’s never looked back. After several years working her way up in software development, she was appointed Head of IT at Hotels4u and Thomas Cook, before joining DMG as CTO in June of 2016.
La Fosse sat down with Heather to hear her key insights on how to be an impactful IT Leader, and her plan to encourage more women to get into the industry. Read part one of the ‘Women in Dev’ series.
What Richard Branson, Sherlock Holmes, and great IT leaders have in common
IT transformations aren’t just about optimising efficiency and bringing in new software or operating systems – they’re about building teams who work brilliantly together and giving them the tools they need to excel. Richard Branson put it perfectly when he said ‘you cannot be a great leader without great people to lead.’
Richard Branson also says that the best leaders are those who have the capacity to think differently. It’s for this reason that he believes dyslexia should be recognised as a sign of potential. I really identified with this idea; having the capacity to think differently is vital as a leader, as it helps you to approach and solve problems in a different way, and I believe in the end allows for you to achieve amazing things, even though this may not be the ‘normal’ way of looking at things.
A great example of this is Sherlock Holmes. A huge part of what makes him so effective is the way he approaches problems; making connections no-one else sees, thinking outside the box, and taking a holistic view of the challenge at hand.
From a team-building perspective, this means that IT Leaders should seek individuals with diverse perspectives and ways of looking at things; unparalleled innovation and transformation can be brought to life when different ideas are brought together.
Being a good CTO means being a translator
Being a CTO doesn’t just mean focusing on ‘the tech side of things’, as if you’re isolated from the wider business aims. Actually, it means sitting on the line between the business and the IT function; working out how to drive the business agenda, as well as looking at how you can make the organisational processes more efficient. You have to be able to talk business first, then talk tech.
At the C-suite level, it’s crucial to speak in a way that is accessible and understandable – this is especially important if you’re coming into a business to enact transformational change. It’s natural for people to feel threatened by change, particularly if it’s coded in a language they don’t understand. A large part of being an IT leader is translating your work and wider strategy to the entire business, so no one feels alienated.
Role models are crucial to diversification and development of tech
The tech industry has a real pipeline problem. Although steps are being taken, we’re still not doing enough to get children interested in tech, especially girls.
I think one of the key issues is that girls don’t often see role models in the tech industry– you’re more likely to see a female firefighter or a female doctor on television today, which of course is great, but you’re still very unlikely to see a female developer.
I think it’s important to show others that people just like them have gone into tech and excelled. I spoke at my daughter’s school recently and told them I worked in IT, and the feedback was incredible, I think I’ve really convinced a few! There are people of all genders, races and backgrounds doing nearly every job imaginable – we just now need to make these people more visible, so they can inspire others.
In IT, failure is just as important as success
I think that everyone who tries to implement a strategy with innovation at its core struggles at times when asked to justify themselves. Naturally, leadership want to see tangible business outcomes and ROI when they have invested in a project. However, it’s your job to try different things until you find the best possible solution for the business, and sometimes that means getting it wrong along the way.
The value derived from innovative projects may not always have immediate impact – it’s your job to convey this to the rest of your C-suite. Creating lasting and impactful business change means you may have to look beyond the three-year plan. Good innovative strategies stay ahead of the curve, and you won’t be able to do this if it’s already been adopted by every other organisation. I’m a firm believer in incremental changes and a pragmatic strategy; taking one step and then working out what the next step is.
A large part of this will be failure – you won’t be able to work out what works until you’ve established what doesn’t. Keep going and remember that failure is an important part of success – the end result will be better for having made mistakes along the way.
Jen Burry is a part of our Digital and Development Permanent Recruitment team, focussing on placing high-quality software engineering leadership professionals across the south of the UK. She has worked with organisations such as: Gousto, Collinson Group, Bookatable & Racing Post recruiting Software Engineering and Agile Delivery leaders through to technical specialists across the UK.
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