“The role of the CIO is to understand what the business needs from a technology perspective and then apply that as close as possible to their strategies.”
Paul Coby has been a technology leader for over 30 years. He’s currently leading the technology function at the global chemicals and sustainable technologies company, Johnson Matthey, and seen by many peers as the godfather of modern day IT leadership. His career spans the Civil Service in the UK to CIO roles at British Airways and John Lewis Partnership, and importantly for this interview, has experienced his fair share of crises. What then is his advice for innovating under unpredictable periods? And what does that mean for the future of his function?
Innovation in 2020
He begins the interview by describing what Johnson Matthey were working on before lockdowns were initiated across the globe back in March 2020:
“The good news was that we had started investing in our infrastructure to turn it into a genuinely global organization,” said Coby. “This meant replacing our routers in Shanghai, for example, ensuring we modernize our server infrastructure, rolling out [Microsoft] Teams, and more.”
It sounds a little prosaic, but Coby believes the basics should be covered well before one’s more interesting strategies can bear fruit. Or as he put it: “If we hadn’t have had the foresight to build up our foundations in this way, we wouldn’t have been able to have worked remotely as well as we have this year.”
The second aspect of business that caught his attention was just how well his teams responded.
“I’m fortunate to have teams all over the world—Shanghai, Kuala Lumpur, London, Philadelphia—and their work ethic was magnificent. It’s fantastic to see people step up.”
Innovation, as he sees it, requires technology, people and leadership. The first two he felt were expressed in the evidence of seamless remote working, relatively speaking, and a positive response from his employees. That meant Coby’s real task following on from the shock of remote working was to lead.
“It’s up to the leader to provide leadership—and that isn’t easy because no-one knows what’s around the corner,” he said. “We did our best to act quickly, cut costs from the organization where possible and communicate, communicate, communicate.”
And it didn’t matter per se if what they communicated had no tangible clarity; his staff just wanted to be informed that Johnson Matthey were working hard to save the business, and in so doing, their livelihoods. That further encouraged change at the very top.
Focus on people and cost
Coby and the rest of the leadership team met virtually every day from then on. For them, 2020 was about people and cost. What problems needed fixing and which networks needed protecting? They considered what different parts of the business needed, which regions required further assistance and how the business could adapt to fluctuating market conditions. Johnson Matthey manufactures one third of the world’s catalytic converters. When the global car industry paused during the pandemic, its factories had to close too.
Next, cost. Leadership quickly triaged all projects and came up with a way to prioritise its strategy to maximize the potential for innovation. They paused nearly one third of all projects in this way. They even held frank conversations with their partners.
“We spoke with our suppliers and partners and reminded them they had said ‘we want to be with you on your journey,’” said Coby. “Well, we said, we now want to reduce our costs quickly so how can we work together to achieve that?”
And in just under a month, Johnson Matthey had reorganized itself to reflect the new normal as it stood in early 2020. What was that like?
“It was like 9/11 at British Airways, or in John Lewis [Partnership] as the business changed, but in all ways crises bring out the best in people and there is a real desire to do the right thing. Leading that desire was key.”
But not every technology leader is alike. There is no mould from which to build the ideal CIO—and “thank goodness for that”, claimed Coby.“You can be a technology leader from different places but there are core principles that remain the same: building the right team, knowing who to trust and valuing technology,” Coby added.He continued to muse on the state of senior leadership today, finally ending on a positive note:
“In many ways the technology leader today has colleagues across the boardroom who understand technology and what they want from it,” he said. “Whether they are CMOs or CFOs they can at least speak with you from a solution perspective, without treating technology as something they don’t understand. That’s brilliant. It brings a collaborative nature to the top of the business, which is so useful for its innovative practices and future.”
This interview is brought to you in partnership with Tata Communications, a Digital Ecosystem Enabler, helping teams stay connected, productive and focused on driving secure customer experiences.