Talent Talk with Rebecca Chenery

Welcome to another instalment of our Talent Talk series. Today we are joined by Top CIO in New Zealand, Rebecca Chenery, who delves into the importance of adaptability in strategy, and poses that deep technology knowledge is only part of the equation when it comes to great IT leadership. Let’s get into things:

Q1: You were recently named the Top CIO in New Zealand. Tell us about what that means to you and the journey you’ve taken to get to this place in your career? 

I’m thrilled for my team - this award recognises their talent and commitment to do things differently over the last few years. The award is acknowledgement for all the hard work from the people that I have been fortunate enough to share this journey with. I’m also humbled to be recognised among this group of exceptional IT and Digital leaders.  

The word ‘career’ suggests some kind of well-considered plan – in my case there wasn’t one! There were a series of decisions about different opportunities which led to where I am now – I certainly haven’t taken a straight line to this role. I’ve learned that you need to be open to different ideas and opportunities, even though these may not fit into the immediate picture you have for your career. 

I’ve also learned that you have to be willing to step off in to the unknown, back yourself along the way and be OK with not having all the answers. Learning how to be comfortable being uncomfortable has been important. 

Q2: What's your biggest challenge in your role from a day to day operational perspective?

Keeping stakeholders and internal customers happy within the constraints that we need to operate in. There is never a shortage of good ideas but unfortunately we can’t do everything for everyone, so a tricky part of the job is having those difficult conversations about priorities and trade-offs across business areas.

Q3: Where do you see most businesses go wrong in terms of their IT strategy?

Failing to see strategy as adaptive is a mistake. Gone are the days of creating a strategy, locking and loading it and executing over a number of years.  Once this would have been a reasonable approach, but today’s world is changing so fast that these long-term roadmaps are increasingly redundant, out-of-date and risk being based on flawed assumptions of the future needs of customers and the business. A failure to be adaptive, inclusive and collaborative in strategy development is a failure to meet the needs of your business stakeholders and your customers. Instead, effective IT strategy is iterative and ever-changing. It anticipates and responds to changing needs and requires the collaboration of many parties for it to deliver real value.

Q4: What opinion do you have that is 'against the grain' as far as most technology leaders are concerned?

That it is deep technology knowledge that makes strong leaders in IT. Sure, technology nous and expertise is important. But from what I’ve seen, it’s far more important that senior IT leaders understand their business intimately and know the nuances of building a team culture that is motivating, performance-oriented and rewarding.

A strong IT team now see themselves as change leaders helping the wider business and their own teams transform. For some IT leaders this is a significant mindset shift and well outside their comfort zone.  Technology is programmable and predictable – people aren’t.

Q5: What’s the most valuable leadership lesson you’ve learned in your career?

You can’t please all of the people all of the time. This is a really hard lesson for a people-pleaser like me!

It’s OK to not have the answers. Sometimes the best you can do is admit that you don’t know and that you need help from the people around you. 

Sometimes you have to make the implicit explicit.  It’s dangerous to think that everyone is on the same page, sometimes it can be even the simplest of matters that generates the most ‘noise’.

Read more stories of leadership in tech in our latest publication, Human 2: Bold leadership through crisis and change. Check it out here.