It is 1993 and Peter Dew, today CIO of the Linde Group, has just arrived in Sydney. He has been sent there by BOC, the industrial gas supplier acquired by Linde in 2006, to shut down a failed systems replacement project and start a £25m SAP installation.
In later years, Sumatra Ghoshal, the INSEAD management guru, will counsel Dew that most leaders have to deal with sweet and sour projects - work they like and work they do not. In Australia, Dew has just been handed the biggest plate of sweet and sour IT he has ever been asked to digest. And at the moment, it looks mostly sour.
Dew recalls, "The plane landed and I went to the apartment I was staying in and closed the door. On the second night I was there, I had never felt so lonely in my whole life. The nearest person I knew lived in Johannesburg and I did not quite know what I had signed up to."
Shutting the failed project was clearly a sour job, but even the SAP installation did not look that sweet. "It was a vast project with complex business issues. Everything was horrendous. I was totally out of my depth," says Dew.
That night in the Sydney apartment was the bleakest in Dew's career, but it also marked a turning point. Through the long watches of the night, he started to think deeply about what he needed to achieve. And as he did so, he discovered something about himself that proved critical in advancing his future career.
"The starting point was that there was nobody in Australia who I knew," he recalls. "So I formulated two or three slides of what I believed success would look like if we pulled off the new project and then focused my mind on it."
He was doing something that he had not articulated so clearly in any of his previous jobs. He was creating a vision to which his new team could aspire - something to aim for. That vision, he discovered, as the project moved forward to a triumphant conclusion, was the magic ingredient that motivated - even inspired - the team he built around him.
It was a lesson in leadership that he now cheerfully admits he learnt the hard way. Two years earlier, aged 31, he had moved back to the UK from South Africa to head an 80-person systems development team at BOC.
"On my first day in the office, somebody told me the staff were having a communication session and suggested I go and address them," he says. "I remember looking at the sea of faces and I thought I might be one of the youngest people in the room. I probably gave the worst speech of my life.
"In the next couple of years, I got the job done, but I was uncomfortable with my style. I now realise that I was slightly in awe of the people who worked for me because I thought they were much smarter and had been doing the work for longer."
Dew adds, "In short, I realised afterwards that I was managing that environment, and what was needed was leadership." After that experience, Dew gained a new confidence, although he claims that he sometimes feels "slightly inadequate, slightly overwhelmed, slightly unqualified, slightly confused" in any new post - a claim, incidentally, that is always belied by his performance.
So when Dew was summoned back from Australia in 1998 by then BOC chief executive Danny Rozenkerantz for a talk about the general state of IT in the company, he marched into the meeting without that sense of awe that had marred his speech to the systems developers.
"The risk I took was that I had prepared a very in-depth view of what I would do with IT in the company," Dew says. The discussion turned into a job interview. But Dew was wary. "I did not want to take on a job where I could not make the changes I had outlined."
He says. "I think I made it clear in a subtle way to Danny that if I did not have his mandate, I did not want the job. I think it was the first time I had had the confidence of my convictions and I was prepared to stand my ground with somebody who was in a more elevated position than me."
Dew's risk paid off - partly, perhaps, because he did not realise he was going for what turned into a job interview. "I think that made me braver. I thought I was the outsider and it turned out that I was the insider. But I did not know that at the time and felt that I had nothing to lose."
There are subtle lessons in the way that Dew has built his career in IT that are often overlooked. His experience shows that becoming successful in IT is not just about going on courses and ticking boxes on a CV. There is also an inner spiritual journey that is different for each individual, but no less important than formal career building activity.
For Dew, that spiritual journey really has been about finding the sweet and the sour, separating the one from the other and dealing with each in the best way possible. Take, for example, his transition from manager to leader - the key to unlocking his full potential.
"Management is about orchestrating and organising tasks," he says. "I is about making sure that people are working on the right things in the right sequence to achieve a goal that everybody believes in.
"Leadership is the ability to conceive a vision or a future state and then inspire people to work towards it. I think good leaders create an environment for others to be successful."
Then there is the ability to transform negative sours into positive sweets - Dew's key in turning around the Australian situation. "You have to seek out the positive in any situation," he says. "My mind opens up in a positive space but closes down in a negative space. If I can create a positive view, then I can build on that to solve an issue.
"If I am down in a depressed negative state, I cannot be creative. I think creativity is something IT people need and is a core attribute of a CIO."
Finally, there is the willingness to take risks. Dew has always taken risks, but he has done so in order to build a portfolio of experience that enables him to move up a gear. But there are times to move and times to stay put, and decisions about that, too, can become part of the spiritual journey.
Dew has now been CIO at BOC and Linde for nine years - a lengthy tenure for an IT professional in a top job. But he has stayed put because being there fits in with his philosophy. "I like to see things that I have started finished," he says. "When you are CIO of a large, diverse and successful enterprise, what you decide today may not produce any results that you can see over an extended period of time.
"But having been here so long, I get a tremendous sense of achievement from seeing strategies that I have put in place come to fruition. I can tell you what my team's contribution has been to the success of this enterprise. To me, that is a phenomenal thing to be able to say."
With positive thinking, the sweet will always overwhelm the sour.
CV: Peter Dew
• 1980 Graduated in computer science from Portsmouth Polytechnic (now University of Portsmouth).
• 1980 Joined Plessey as management trainee. Plessey ran ICL computers, so Dew was able to gain broader experience.
• 1981 Joined Cyanamid, agricultural products and pharmaceuticals company which ran IBM, as a systems analyst.
• 1983 Answered advertisement for systems analysts and project managers from Acer Electric, Pretoria, South Africa.
• 1986 Headhunted by Afrox, BOC's subsidiary company in South Africa. Worked on developing bespoke systems and also responsible for some operations.
• 1991 Back in UK, became manager of systems development implementation at BOC.
• 1993 Moved to BOC Australia and became IT director Australia and New Zealand.
• 1998 Back in the UK, became global CIO for BOC.
• 2006 Became group CIO for Linde Group following takeover of BOC.
Dew's current role
• Peter Dew heads a global IT operation with 1,200 employees. Most of them are located in Guildford, Surrey and Munich. There is also a Linde Group (originally BOC) "captive" operation in Calcutta employing 100 people, as well as a number of smaller sites.
• Dew reports direct to Wolfgang Reitzle, the chief executive officer of the Linde Group.
• Dew has five direct reports. They are a head of business consulting and service management, who is responsible for the interface between IT and the rest of the business a head of enterprise systems who is responsible for all enterprise systems from analysis through design to operation, as well as datacentres and SAP a head of personal and communications services who is in charge of personal computing, desktops, laptops and telecommunications a head of project services who runs a global pool of project managers and a head of strategy services who runs a small team focused on future IT strategy. Dew also has two "dotted line" reports: the CIO of Linde Engineering and the CIO of BOC's Gist logistics business.
This was first published in October 2007