Z Energy’s CDO: ‘First trust, then transform’

The energy sector is in a consistent state of transformation—both digital and otherwise—but the word “transformation” can be thrown around loosely, as if it just happens with an organization. In reality, it’s hard work, and hard to do. Change is challenging, and maintaining high-performance and diverse teams is fundamental to deliver success.

“A main thing organizations face is the position of technology within it, and how well respected or well thought of your technology team is,” says Mandy Simpson, chief digital officer at fuel retailer Z Energy, New Zealand. “Until you’ve built trust into this team, and it’s well thought of to do what it says it’s going to do, it’s hard to make significant change. My starting point in every organization I’ve worked for is how to become a trusted partner. Once you’re there, everything gets easier, so your expertise starts to be seen as something to be trusted to move the organization forward. You have to build that a little piece at a time by doing what you say you’re going to do over weeks, months, and years.”

Attracting that integral workforce, however, is a challenge in itself. Drawing more people to IT and tech roles, regardless of background, requires shattering the stereotypes of the industry and the perception of how narrow the search criteria for talent is.

“We have to showcase the diversity of roles,” says Simpson. “Within my area, we have everything from developers, testers, and integration, but also through BA Scrum Masters, there’s product management, design, and data analytics, all set within our digital team. There’s something for everyone, and showcasing that is really important.”

Of course, being in a position on the leadership team affords Simpson the position to hear everything going on, and thereby have an opinion or offer input.

“I don’t just sit in the leadership team and talk about technology,” she says. “I make it my job to understand all the things that are going on. This is my first role in the energy sector, so there was a steep learning curve as I tried to understand everything from fuel supply through to the customer-facing parts of our business. There are heaps I don’t yet fully understand, but that’s part of it. You can’t influence if you don’t understand the business you’re trying to influence.”

For Simpson, the bottom line is get the widest experience you can because the role of a CDO, CTO, or CIO, is, at its heart, a dynamic leadership role.

“I think people worry that if they step outside their technical role, it’s hard to get back in,” she says. “If somebody offers you an opportunity to do something different, do it because those experiences are what, in the end, give you this kind of wider view of the world. Go for the roles that scare you. That’s when you learn the most.”

CIO Leadership Live New Zealand’s O’Sullivan recently spoke with Simpson about embracing change, achieving a transformation end point, and what it takes to be a forward-thinking, modern-day CIO. Watch the full video below for more insights.

On high-change organizations: One thing that’s been the same in every organization I’ve worked for is they’ve been high-change organizations. Either ones that are going through sector-wide transformation like Z is now, or high-growth organizations. Transformation has been really important in all of those. And one thing I love about that is it means you can really bring your experience into the role and look for ways to improve things relatively quickly. Areas of high change are something that definitely suit me. They don’t suit everybody. And I think there are leaders who have a preference for being involved in organizations that are maybe a bit more steady-state, but I am definitely a bit of a change junkie.

On the transformation trajectory: We might feel like there’s a starting point to transformation, but in fact it’s been an ever-transforming landscape. If you work in technology, you’ve been in change forever. The technology itself is changing, but also how we use technology in businesses and how we think about it has changed a lot in the past decade. I don’t think there’s ever exactly a starting point. The most important thing is to start where you are, not wish for something different or wish to go backward, but just to start with what you have. Then take that as the playing field to play from. I often find people get stuck when they wish they had more people, more money, or that senior leadership would listen to them. You just have to use the playing field you have. In lots of other areas of our lives, we don’t take that approach. It’s much easier if you can just accept what you have and move forward from there.

On what transformation is: My view on transformation—digital transformation, in particular—is we’re moving toward an endpoint. Lots of people will say it’s ever-changing, and I agree that, from a technology point, it is. But to me, the endpoint is an agile organization, and I don’t mean agile as in the way we think about doing work, but a nimble organization. If you can transform your organization to the point where it’s able to rapidly respond to whatever happens, then that’s the transformation. So, is there an endpoint to that? There are always tweaks along the way, but you can see organizations move from being static to being able to deal with whatever comes at them. That’s relevant to us at Z, because you could say, “In 40 years’ time, there’s no future in hydrocarbons.” That might happen in 10 years or 100 years. I have no idea which of those is true, and I have to be ready for all of them. We also don’t know what the replacements are going to be. Are we looking at electricity, hydrogen? What’s the role of biofuels here? All of those things are rapidly changing. The Prime Minister actually just announced that the biofuels mandate is now going to be cancelled, so how do we respond to that? Does that actually change what we’re going to do? As an organization—not just the technology part but the whole organization—we need to be able to move forward quickly. That, to me, is the goal of transformation: To move your culture of your organization forward. The technology parts in transformation are just ongoing along the way.

On being a modern-day CIO: The biggest thing is being a wider leader. Leading an organization, not a technology function, I very much see my role and all of the Z leadership roles. I don’t just lead the technology function of Z; I, along with my colleagues, lead Z. That ability to step up and out, and see the wider picture is really important. Communication skills and translating technology to the strategic objectives of the business and back, and making that connection, is incredibly important to help every level of the organization prioritize. I’m not sure there was ever a time we had enough resources to do everything we wanted to do, but that feels more acute now than it has done in the past. That makes a strong approach to prioritize what needs doing, and ensure it’s fully agreed across a whole organization. If anybody ever finds the perfect way to do that, I would love to know. I spent a lot of time thinking about that process. And we have a strong delineation between prioritization, which is done by our business leaders, and then planning, which is done by the technology team and various team members of the areas they plan for. That’s taken a long time to bed in, but it’s running nicely now, which means I can spend more of my time focusing on prioritization, knowing that the organization will plan to the prioritization list we’ve given.

On nurturing talent: We have people who spend two or three years at Z, but we also have people who have been here for over 35 years. It’s a culture where you can move around and get some entirely different parts to your career. One thing Z does, which is different to anything I’ve seen before, is recognize that every person is a leader. We talk about what leadership attributes you should have at every stage of your career, and I think that makes career transitions easier. It’s not like you suddenly become a leader partway through. We talk about leadership from day one. Then it’s helping people to think about their career, not necessarily in terms of the roles they want to have, but what they want to do. Helping people understand themselves is something we spend a lot of time thinking about.

Chief Digital Officer, Digital Transformation, Diversity and Inclusion, Energy Industry, IT Leadership