Transformational Leaders: Philip Clayson, former CIO of SSE Energy Services

Transformational Leaders: Philip Clayson, former CIO of SSE Energy Services
Published: 24 June 2020

The challenges of COVID-led critical business and systems change, and rapid channel shift, are soon to be replaced by the competitive rigours of market reset. Pivotal to the delivery of the former, the best CIO’s will be in the vanguard of the latter. In truth, the best are already ensuring that changes brought about by the crisis are embedded into enduring operating models.

Philip Clayson recently concluded the successful parallel divestment and transformation of the technology estate, supporting the transition of SSE Energy Services into OVO Energy. With a passion for the thorniest and most challenging of hybrid business and technology problems, Philip quietly relished the additional complexity of a pandemic! Matt Cockbill, Head of IT & Digital Leadership practice, and Phil discussed the skills CEOs and boards should be expecting from their CIOs and digital leaders as they seek growth and recovery.

Your career is made up of a diverse mix of roles, companies and sectors. What has been the golden thread linking these jobs?  

The things I am most energised with and magnetised towards, and where I am most often brought in to help a company, are scenarios that demand critical transformational delivery, at significant scale and complexity, and often are world, or market firsts; they’re game changers. I naturally gravitate to the things other people don’t want to do. Things that are innately difficult, and where there is no precedent to follow. It’s really important to me that there is organisational messiness, and some underlying fragility to the environment, or dysfunction in tech teams. Combine this with the need to embrace some form of digital update to enhance customer and user experiences, bringing together back end transformation with front end innovation, without breaking the business, and it gives me the complexity I enjoy!

Over the last 20 years I have sought out, and been fortunate to be involved in, a series of initiatives which have, in the main, never been done before. In my early career with News Corp I was part of the launch team for Sky Digital in the UK and was off the back of launching Star in Asia and Sky Latin America. During this period, I was also the co-architect for the Freeview network, which is still thriving!

During my time at Oracle I was part of the Media team which delivered a world first product set, which was the equivalent of the Apple iOS ecosystem for apps running on non-PC devices, enabling media content to be shared and consumed, as well as collaboration. Had the investors known how advanced it was for its time, they would have made more of it, we were nearly 10 years too early and had the product well-ahead of the iPhone launch, and before the market was mainstream as it is today!

With Arqiva in 2005-2006 I led the transformation recovery of the Met Police radio, video and data systems technology programme. At that time if you were a member of the Police following a criminal from Brixton to Hendon, your Police radio communications would not work effectively. In the immediate aftermath of 7/7, with over 30 operational London Boroughs, the inter-operability was not there. The terrible events of 7/7 accelerated the programme. It delivered new comms that could give greater range and mobility, as well as being the first to offer integrated above-ground and underground comms in a large metropolitan area worldwide.

My next major achievement was with BT, building the TV facility for the London 2012 Olympics in Stratford – an immovable deadline, with a ‘must work’ imperative!

This was followed by joining TalkTalk in 2014 to deliver the ‘ultra-newsworthy’ cyber breach recovery. At TalkTalk, a smart kid in Northern Ireland exploited a hole in an inactive website and created a real moment in time. The breach enabled us to drive cyber right to the heart of the board agenda. From there we were able to drive an enormous amount of transformation across a portfolio of acquired businesses that required deep change. We had some twenty years of legacy, and while this wasn’t the first major cyber breach around the world, it was headline news here in the UK, an event which triggered previously unimagined transformation, especially technology transformation within the business.

The golden threads running through my career are pace, complexity and the ‘hairiness’ of the challenge required in delivering in these situations. I love to tackle the challenges that others find too much of a commitment or drain upon themselves. I love the challenge of leading technology teams to deliver an industry shaping, sometimes world first, or be first across the line with a market competitive transformation.

How has the CXO perception of CIO’s changed and how are they critical to driving growth and change?

If we look back over recent decades, IT leaders were often encouraged and sometimes expected to stay ‘in their lane’. The value of technology as a function, and the teams within it, is now changing. With digital at its heart, (product) engineering has a louder voice. The skills of tech leaders have had to evolve to influence boards, and technologists at all levels have to invest time in being part of a business rather than just part of engineering.

The importance of technical competence hasn’t faded, but rather the ability to articulate it in terms that commercial leaders can engage with, support or sponsor. If I look at the technology turnarounds I have done, one common theme is legacy IT was prevalent and fragmented, and the businesses typically retain very little subject matter expertise on some technologies. Finding and creating a strategy for dealing with these complex messes is multi-level and requires teams to come together to work on tech so old that many were keen to forget it!

In order to get the profile and impact often needed, I invest time working with the c-suite on changing language across the business to think in risk terms, using increasing amounts of Cyber Risk language, in order to educate, inform and convince the entire board to become a generation of plc board members that now lead the industry in recognising the severity of cyber. Despite some initial reluctance in some companies by the technology teams to ‘look back and deal with IT tech debt or ‘legacy’, I move the dialogue to talk about looking forward by first changing the legacy, so it becomes less of a drag factor on the business. In the case of the cyber attack, we had quickly moved beyond the ‘it will never happen to me’ mindset, simply because it had, into a world of embracing a whole new lexicon of cyber terms, and a new world of cyber awareness.

For some boards who have not had to face into cyber issues, the understanding of the cyber world is still, worryingly, more distant. Even for boards who understand some of the basics of digital and customer and the key concepts of data, and even when those boards understand the downsides of legacy tech, cyber still often eludes them. Business risk thinking, language, and quantification is the key to cracking awareness within the board.

In my roles since TalkTalk I have always focussed on cyber and have built a cyber capability to ensure any legacy cyber risks are minimised. Where boards don’t see the value of a permanent CISO, a good route to prove the need and value is often to have interim support from a CISO, support from audit partners, and increase cross company cultural awareness. Together these channels provide the landscape, posture, and help to surface key cyber related gaps. While this approach is perhaps more covert, it is exactly the right thing to do to help business leaders understand their role in cyber. While ‘inform, consult, collaborate’ is my usual approach, there are times to really take ownership and ensure, covertly or overtly, the right things happen to protect a business while it is still learning.

With a clear drive to transform, what are the facets or skills which you feel are critical for CIO’s and digital leaders to enable them to operate as genuine CXO leaders, driving meaningful organisational transformation?

Working across the CIO community, and picking up from other CIO’s, I find that the IT and digital leadership community can be quite polarised. At one end of the spectrum CIO’s can be hands-off, believing that a C-Suite title means they ought to spend 80% of time with the board and 20% in with their teams. This builds a great board reputation, but often leads to them landing nothing material quickly and having very little understanding of the blockers their team experience that makes them less productive, lowers morale and wastes everyone’s time and money.

The other mould I am seeing more of are CIO’s who have come from a different, non-technical discipline; more programme delivery or finance, marketing, risk or governance. There are good people in this mould but there is almost always a gap in their technical awareness, and deeply technical teams like to work with people who they can talk to at the technical level, not having that can create a credibility gap, meaning the CIO role might become more administrative than technology related strategy led value creation.

The feedback I get from the teams I have inherited is that the ability for me to work with them and look into the underlying tech choices; be it the correct cloud option, the right data choices, waterfall vs agile as well as challenge on technology operations, cyber, and systems resilience, through to defining the service wrap and security, is valuable. Cutting through to the heart of the matter, while maintaining focus upon detail, is a hard balance to strike, but it builds trust and empathy with delivery teams when they can get meaningful relevant leadership support.

This is equally relevant to choices in digital; if you can’t understand the app or channel, and align this with the user experience you are trying to create, and the user behaviour you are seeking to encourage, you will struggle to effectively lead a team to create best in class digital products let alone achieve a quality delivery. The ability to think in different modes is critical. I tend to look through three lenses; people, finance and technology.

First, through the people lens I created in my SSE role was for the entire IT team and was all around resource planning, skills development and capability and making the transformation journey real and personal for each employee at the personal level. What did it mean to them? How could it support their career and their development in their role?

Secondly, the finance lens then had to align to this, across the various budget lines, capital investments, operational improvements and people development.

Finally, the technology lens; we had to make many assumptions around the urgent need to adopt modern tech, and switch off a lot of legacy IT. We front weighted our investment budgets to account for the people costs and implications of acquiring the necessary skills. The tech lens also demanded a clear view of the landscape including what do we have, what state is it in, how secure is it, and what operational wrapper do we need on it.

It was then essential that we had cohesion across these three lenses together with the leadership team. This focus enabled us to have ‘whole team’ discussion with the right to challenge, irrespective of domain, drive inclusion and cohesiveness into our thinking, and then deliver with absolute clarity of direction. In turn this enabled the leadership team to cascade, with the benefit of addressing the full picture, through a fully joined up conversation, creating a stronger commitment of time and energy up front.

Reflecting upon your career so far, what have been the pivotal successes which have shaped your approach to transformational leadership and the delivery?

The first key success factor I feel has helped me is that I have built a reputation and am known for ‘cutting through the BS’. There is no substitute for just getting things done, especially in the technology teams I usually lead, where time and results are critical. It’s more fashionably called iterative development by the software teams; get something done, test it, make it available, do it again; move fast. I love to work this way, although I do get feedback that over time it becomes relentless, so you have to know when to be reflective and when to let some pressure ‘out of the tanks’.

Momentum is another key success factor – many of my roles have meant I am in at the inception or launch of a product or service, and typically each one has been larger, more complex and also more critical than the last. I move at pace, trying to leverage previous learning and bring that learning to improve on the time taken to find the right solution, model or outcome. I always want my teams to move with me at pace but always making sure they can be present on the journey and develop themselves, with as much autonomy as possible, is critical. I drive hard, but always make sure I am there to coach, share and develop every person on the journey. I look to help develop consistency across the team, so all teams, and all levels, are driving on quality, cost, and outcomes. I find that autonomy gives everyone the freedom to own their thoughts, challenge in a manner which many  have never done before and be accountable. This gives everyone pride in their work and adds self-worth. At SSE and with TalkTalk this approach drove huge cost savings, all while taking on new suppliers, new methodologies, and inherently changing new ways of working at pace.

My final success factor would be to ensure people actively draw upon their experiences, allowing them to also reflect and be present. Taking and creating a sense of autonomy; this has been an area of real growth for me personally. Trust is something you can give, but it can be earned too. I try to mirror this and always learn from what I have done and shape myself for the ‘next one’. I have learned sometimes I need to slow a little, reduce the pace slightly and make more time for investing in bringing the team through the journey so it becomes a team outcome rather than just a few people or a singular view.

Much is said of the first 90-day plan approach into a new role. In my view, it’s a guide, not a rule. I see it as a series of shorter 15-day iterations, enabling you to learn and adapt your plan as you deliver and learn.  Within my time at SSE, I feel that I created lasting autonomy, pace, freedom and empowerment within the tech teams. Time for the next more complex challenge!

For more information, please contact Matt Cockbill, Head of the IT & Digital Leadership Practice at Berwick Partners.

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