At the 2013 CFO Summit held in Auckland this week, the former chief executive of Commonwealth Bank of Australia (CBA) shared some of the lessons learned from his 40-year career, focusing on the two decades of being chief executive in three companies (CBA, ASB and Air New Zealand).
Norris, who retired from the CBA in 2011, and was knighted in 2009, was propelled to chief executive at ASB following executive roles including CIO, thus forging a different career path from his CEO contemporaries.
In his keynote, he gave pointers on successful implementation of projects with major technology components, and managing people – including executive teams – in a fast changing environment.
In any environment, the management team, regardless of the role, collaboration and cooperation are critical factors, he says. “If you have a group of executives that are not unified by a common set of objectives, then you risk people setting their own agendas and losing the power of that unity to actually drive that organisation’s planned path and achieving common strategies.”
He then zeroes in on key roles played by C-suite members, particularly the CFO and CIO to the organisation’s success. The CFO is not just a numbers person, he says, but also the navigator to pilot the CEO.
“It is probably a poor analogy, given the navigators are redundant in flight, but CFOs will never be,” he says.
Today’s CIO, meanwhile, is not just a “techie, but a strategist, a leader, and innovator, and critically, a good people manager”.
Norris says he may be biased on this issue, but points out that the CIO should be reporting to the CEO, given the stakes these days of IT in operational strategy and benefits that can be gained through technology.
Tech career gave Sir Ralph Norris the edge
Sir Ralph Norris awarded CIO Lifetime Contribution Award
He says the CEO has to be a role model for driving processes. It is important for companies to be cognisant of new business models, he says.
Many companies failed by not evolving and adapting and these include technology companies like Wang and Kodad. Kodad was killed by digital camera, by a technology it developed but failed to adapt quickly.
He also cites the importance of “strong communication” across the organisation.
Every week, he says, every staff member received an email from him which identified what he was doing and highlighting the people who were successful, such as those who had received customer commendations.
“It was important what our customers thought,” he says. Every week, he dealt directly with the staff involved in the 10 best commendations and 10 worst complaints.
Ringing the staff involved in commendations was “easy”, he says. As for the complaints, he says, it was about making sure the staff member knew why the complaint had arisen. “I would call the manager of that person and quickly establish the fact what we needed to do to make sure it didn’t happen again.”
He says today, CBA is rated as world class in culture by the Gallup research organisation and since 2005 has increased its market share in almost every product category. Its customer satisfaction rating had gone from worst to best among the big four banks in Australia.
From being the 45th largest financial institution in the world, it is now number eight based on market capital, during a period that encompassed the global financial crisis.
He likens this move to the victory of Steven John Bradbury during the 2002 Winter Olympics. The Australian ice skater raced to the front when his opponents collided and hit the floor, a reference to the recent financial downturn.
Norris says when he joined CBA, the bank systems had operated in silos. “We had banks within banks, processes triplicated throughout the organisation.”
He saw this as an opportunity for improving productivity and simplifying processes.
The systems were designed for a different time in banking, he says, when cheques were widely used, and bank ranches were open from 10 am to 3 pm. He says the CBA overhaul has now resulted in a 21st century system "that is structured like social media type systems".
International keynote speaker Andre Mendes notes the “tremendous coordination” required by the heads of finance and technology in the current environment.
The CIO of the US Broadcasting Board of Governors says the ability of these two executives to work together is “absolutely essential for the wellbeing of the company”.
“I would go on a limb and say that the CFO and the CIO both have a helicopter view of the organisation that is not rivalled by any in the C-level environment,” says Mendes. “And that provides them with tremendous opportunities for achievement for impact and for growth within the organisation.”
“Not only do they have to work well together, they have to be very well aligned in terms of the impact that technology has on their businesses and the rapid pace of change that is happening in the industry and as a result, in all of the industries.”
In the past, he says, discussions between the two executives would be more about getting approvals for expenditures, analysis on return on investment and “always driving to the bottom line”.
“Now, it is really far more about innovation and transformation of the business,” he says.
He calls on CFOs to talk to their CIOs about these four technology strategies – consolidate, virtualise, co-locate and cloud – and what the organisation is doing about them.
“Get rid of commodity functions, focus on your organisation’s mission,” says Mendes.
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