Justifiable Courage: Leadership and Technology in a Changing World

I recently did my first Women on Business interview in Singapore with Diane Jurgens, Chief Technology Officer for BHP Billiton. Diane’s experience working in some of the world’s top companies – from Boeing, to General Motors and now, BHP – has given her a unique perspective on the role that technology plays in delivering business outcomes. Diane is an advocate for recruiting women into technology and STEM roles in business. Check out #TechRevolution for opportunities with BHP.

Your career has included a focus in technology, engineering and information systems. Across the past 25 years the role that these functions and expertise play in business has changed dramatically. How do you view the role for a CTO now vs. say, 10 or 20 years ago?

Great question! If you look at the world, and business in particular, it’s changed dramatically over that time period. I’d say that the biggest change is that the CTO role now usually, especially in our company, has a seat at the most senior executive leadership table. And it’s really seen as a valued and strategic partner for our company helping to drive the strategy and really being part of the key decision making process within the company.

I’d say the other thing is that expectations today are much higher than they were in the past. For our team members, our leaders, our business, digital has become a part of everyone’s life. The digital experience that you have at home, you bring into your work life, and so the expectations are much, much higher for what technology and the role of the CTO needs to deliver for the business.

Thinking about the the short to mid-term future (say 5-10 years), which area or application of technology in business excites you the most?

Well, specifically for our business, technology as it can apply to safety, for keeping our workforce safe in the jobs they do. For me, that’s really exciting, because it has a significant impact on our team and also on our business and I’ll talk in a minute about that. The second thing I find exciting is just the ability to respond to the dynamic global world that we live in; changing policies, changing economics and how dynamic we are. The third one I’m really excited about is how we’re using technology to enhance, or contribute to, our social responsibility as a company.

To go back to safety, technology is evolving, people, processes – whether it’s robotics and automation to take people out of harm’s way, or using different methods of extraction – we’re looking at both digital and researching physical or chemical innovations to do what we do in a safe and more environmentally friendly way, so to me that’s really exciting.

A final area that is interesting to me is increasing our productivity and driving business results. We have a lot of team members on the frontline working hard every day to do their jobs more effectively, and technology can really enable and enhance that. Working closely with our business partners we’re able to identify opportunities to take bottlenecks out of the process and do what we do more efficiently.

In terms of our social responsibilities, around climate change, we’re working hard on low emission technologies, green IT, carbon capture. These are things that have an impact today and will have a significant impact over time.

Thinking about a future CTO and business technology and information systems needs, generally speaking, where do you see the biggest skill or capability gaps that need to be addressed?

Well, within our industry, our business, we have long-life assets, that means we work on a project for ten, fifteen, twenty-five years, and I think one of the most important skills that we’re developing is to look at technology and how quickly it evolves. It’s on a completely different timescale, even changing on a daily basis so we really need individuals with skills that can iterate, can take advantage of technology, make options available to our business much faster. When I worked in China, we used to say we do things five times faster and really not wait for this normal “refresh” cycle to change the way we work, so really decoupling the constraints of our business from what technology can offer. The same applies for what we are doing at BHP.

Other skills I think are important are teams that can work quickly, harnessing the potential in an inclusive and diverse workplace, people who think about problems differently and then specifically for technology, the importance of STEM skills, like technology, innovation. The industry definitely has a skill gap, especially if you look at the intersection of the resources industry, the diverse candidates and STEM candidates, when you bring all three of those together, there’s really not a large candidate pool.

The reality in our business is that we work in a fairly harsh, remote environment and so when the pressure’s on people in leadership, it’s the soft skills that are also really important. When you’re leading diverse teams and helping people try to be agile, especially in a business that’s risk adverse, having leaderships skills that can get people confident, to be bold. One of my favourite sayings is to have “justifiable courage” in what we do and a lot of that is around the softer side of understanding technology, understanding the business and helping your team in a dynamic environment, not just catch up but stay ahead.

Technology business lines often play a change role within an organisation. Is this true in your experience and what types of leadership traits do you think are needed to enable successful technology-led change?

It’s a coincidence that you ask that question because just recently I was talking with our CEO Andrew Mackenzie and he pointed out that technology in our company right now plays one of the biggest change agent roles in how we’re moving the company forward.

I think there’s a couple of things really to be effective in change, regardless of your role. Having the credibility and the functional expertise is important, but more important, or just as important, is to know your business. I remember really early in my career I had a mentor and he gave me the challenge of ‘five things to grow my career’and the number one challenge was to ‘know your business’. At the time as an engineer I thought knowing computers was sufficient [to meet that challenge] and so the next time I met with him, I came back to talk about what I had learned about computers and he quickly stopped me and pointed out that I was working for Boeing and our business was airplanes, our business was not computers. And so it really called me out on the fact that no matter what functional expertise you have, knowing your business, the core business is key, and applying your expertise may change.

The second trait is leadership who are capable of building, leading, empowering great teams. That can have a cascading effect on how much change you can implement. Thirdly is that to make change you need to continue to learn, to stay current and relevant. When your knowledge of all of that, your functional or your specialty in the business, that helps you build those trusted relationships with your colleagues or your leadership team, that then gives you the licence to help guide or lead or enable the change.

You’ve spent more than 10 years working throughout Asia, with many years in China. In your experience, what is the biggest challenge for foreign companies operating in emerging markets?

I know it sounds obvious but it’s really to adapt, to learning the culture, the differences, being flexible and adjusting to the country that you’re working in and what the best practices are there, really spending the time [to understand that].

I see a lot of companies with executives who do this ‘fly in/fly out’ – there for a day or a few days – and feel like they got to know what the culture was and how to do business and/or relying on people for stereotypical advice. I think that causes a lot of cultural misunderstanding. I feel that spending the time to truly understand the country you do business in is important. I remember early in my China days I was working for Kevin Wale [former President, China, General Motors], and he put it really well. He had this saying which was “we need to be in China, with China, for China”, truly understanding the culture, the government policy and the role we play, and their success would make us successful. And so I think that in the Asian countries and cultures, building those kinds of relationships, as you know from your time in China, this ‘guanxi’ is really key. The importance of those relationships, although it’s not novel or unique to China or Asia, it definitely plays a bigger influencing role in how work gets done.

The final thing more or less goes back to the ‘fly in/fly out’ leadership. I think having people on the ground and a company committed to senior leaders makes a big difference to success. In our company, for example, we have two senior leaders who report to the CEO living in Singapore and I think we’re one of the few global foreign national companies to have that commitment. Having not one, but two direct reports to the CEO in Asia and being connected to the people, to the culture, the government, economy and not managing from afar, I think is one of the biggest opportunities and the biggest challenges foreign companies underestimate.

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