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Join us for our fourth CXO of the Future Podcast here at Mayfield with Neetan Chopra, Group Chief Technology Officer, Dubai Holding, as he discusses his vision of the CXO of the Future.
In this era of rapid digitalization and technological innovation, the role of the CIO has changed from IT leader to innovation leader. How can CIOs pursue innovation thoughtfully and bring the usual skeptics onboard? Historically, Patrick and Neetan worked together at one of the major airlines – Patrick as CIO and Neetan as SVP IT Strategic Services, although now Neetan is currently Group Chief Technology Officer at Dubai Holding, where he is responsible for driving digital, analytics and technology outcomes for the overall Group and co-creating new digital business models.
Patrick Naef has also moved on and is currently Non-Executive Director on the Board of Franke, one of the largest manufacturers of commercial kitchen appliances and Partner at Boyden. Naef also serves on the boards of start-ups and on advisory boards of technology companies and venture capitalist firms in the Valley.
Neetan Chopra began his career at Accenture in India where he spent four years before moving over to the airline industry. He worked his way up through a variety of IT leadership roles for a glorious 22 years. Twelve of them were during Patrick’s CIO days, while the airline was undergoing its digital transformation. In 2018, Neetan was comfortable, but decided that the time had come to disrupt himself. He left to join global investment company Dubai Holding– changing both his industry as well as his domain. Reflecting on the progression throughout his career, Neetan discussed the escalation of learning and the challenges as he moved up– from initial project and account management roles for various divisions, where the challenge was functional technology implementation, to change management for larger divisions where he was deploying larger areas of technology.
Neetan’s first big shift came in 2013 with the transformation initiative of the airline where he worked. This happened when senior members on the board encouraged the team to look at the airline business model from the tech lens in the early years of the digital era. And so came an escalation of difficulty in Neetan’s career — from transaction IT, or functional IT, to business unit IT, and then to transformation in the digital era.
Ironically, they were having one of their best years at the time. But the margins in the airline industry had been on the decline. “It took the foresight of our leaders to see that as we were at the pinnacle of our game in the industry,” said Neetan. But not everyone was onboard for the transformation: Neetan and Patrick took the mandate and without a clue of how to get started, they crafted a bespoke approach of their own.
“We’re going to rally around this.”
The first steps of their digital transformation journey was building momentum and building a vision. A data scientist suggested they start by getting a firehose of ideas flowing into the company.
“We reached out to universities, ran competitions and gathered folks from all parts of life for an innovation summit and asked, ‘What is the future of travel?’ We distilled that vision into an immersive experience in our lab and shared our passion about the future of airline pricing and distribution in the digital era. Now we needed to take that vision and turn it into something. We took up residence at Google in London and Berlin, bringing senior management together with young fresh minds in the startup world. This deep immersive experience helped us get hearts and minds connected to what we wanted to do.”
Who’s in charge?
There is a mantra for that:
“In a disruption journey and a transformation journey you don’t follow the rules, you don’t follow the formal structures, you just follow the passion.”
Neetan & Patrick were passionate about the transformation and their passion was contagious. They grew their circle to include a number of senior executives, ran internal workshops and conjured up stories of typical, and not so typical travelers. They got both middle and senior management involved in the workshops.
“Who was in charge? The essence was that everyone was in charge.” says Naef. “If you really want to transform a company, everyone’s going to be affected by it. The moment you discuss who is in charge, you’re already in the wrong discussion. Once you give a task to someone, all the others say, ‘it’s not my project it’s his / her project.’”
Instead, Neetan & Patrick included people who had the passion to contribute. “We were given the liberty and the freedom to do crazy things which you probably don’t encounter in every company. It was a fascinating environment where everyone felt like equal parts of the system.
“Some stakeholders are more inspired by a vision and others are more inspired by value. In a transformation journey, both perspectives are equally important. You could have a great vision and achieve no value. Similarly, if you keep chasing tactical value you’re never going to disrupt business.”
Working with start-ups in a legacy world
Both Neetan & Patrick were passionate about engaging with startups. “Within asset rich, legacy companies with a lot of heritage,” said Neetan, “if you’re trying to drive transformation, your leadership style should be influenced by two embedded mantras. 1) Have a paranoia for the vision and 2) Forget best practices. “The whole concept of best practices demeans you to the lowest common denominator of the industry, startups help you with both dimensions.”
Patrick agreed wholeheartedly. “Organizations are not machines with cogs where you can exactly describe how they work. Organizations are like living organisms. They are not all the same. The environment is different. The culture is different. A lot of companies try to apply the cookie cutter approach by bringing in one of the big consulting names that have done that zillions of times and then think if you just follow the process you’ll get the results. It is not a process to follow that out pops a result.”
The first phase of engaging with start-ups was in the innovation lab. It was a symbiotic relationship. “Startups needed us and we needed them.” At a low cost at any given time, Neetan & Patrick had multiple startups looking at multiple areas of the business and attacking them with their fresh ideas. The lab was like a two-sided marketplace and intentionally located “bang-smack” in the middle of headquarters – open to everyone. The airline formed a community of innovators (geeks) and built in-house capability. The business submitted ideas in an organic form so there was a portal for ideation. Over the years, the lab continued to be a community effort. More business ideas came in and more geeks wanted to contribute as did start-ups from the outside.
“So that’s how we built the momentum around the lab.”
Defining the role of the CIO of the Future
Neetan Chopra: The role of disruptors in the future is defined by a mindset. It doesn’t really matter what your skillset is. People learn to know – but you need to know how to learn. You need perpetual curiosity and the ability to learn. The CIO of the future needs to have paranoia about the vision and focus on continuous reinvention.
In addition, the CIO of the future must have the ability to differentiate and not limit themselves to best practices. I have a particular view on measurement. I think measurement and obsessive measurement promotes mediocrity. If you unleash people and stop looking over their shoulders, you get exponential performance. The mindset of a leader that says “you are human beings. Bring your whole soul into the organization.” Make sure the only thing that you are passionate about in terms of being homogenous is merit. Dreams without deadlines will not get you anywhere. You need to focus on getting stuff done and getting value. You will have many set-backs, but what doesn’t kill you can only make you better.
Patrick Naef: The CIO of the future needs to be someone who can constantly disrupt himself and his organization. This is true for all leaders in this era. We have the tendency to come into a new organization and drive change. Once we’ve made the change we start protecting it. And I think that’s the beginning of end. The moment you start protecting what you create you’ll become part of the legacy. And I think it’s absolutely essential to constantly disrupt yourself. And once you’ve built something you’ve got to challenge yourself again because the world moves on. Things change, new technologies pop up and before you know it, you’re part of the legacy.
Continuous improvement, continuous disruption and killing the legacy is the constant measure
Takeaways: Lessons for the Modern CIO
1. Dreams without deadlines will not get you anywhere. You need to focus on getting stuff done and getting value out of it.
2. Continuous improvement, continuous disruption and killing the legacy is the constant measure of success.
3. In a disruption journey and a transformation journey you don’t follow the rules, you don’t follow the formal structures, you just follow the passion.
4. The role of disruptors in the future is defined by a mindset. It doesn’t really matter the skill set. People learn a lot to know stuff – but you need to know how to learn. You need perpetual curiosity and the ability to learn. The CIO of the future needs to have paranoia about the vision and focus on continuous reinvention.