Graham Johnson, transformation director at Ecclesiastical Insurance

When Graham Johnson was studying applied physics and electronics at Durham University, he used to sneak into psychology lectures for a little light relief.

When Graham Johnson was studying applied physics and electronics at Durham University, he used to sneak into psychology lectures for a little light relief. He was as fascinated about what makes people tick as the mysteries of quantum mechanics, "where the maths was horrendous or exiting, whichever way you wanted to look at it".

And when it was time for Johnson to move into the world of work, he eschewed the choice of many of his fellow electronics students to take up a highly paid job in chip design in favour of a more free-wheeling career which has seen him work as an electronics engineer, self-employed consultant, CIO and now transformation director.

Johnson has just moved into this last post with Ecclesiastical Insurance, the company which insures St Paul's Cathedral as well as a host of other heritage sites and many more functional buildings. His remit is to shake up the company so fewer staff are toiling in back-offices and more are out helping customers.

These are early days in the new job, but his career provides some interesting clues as to how he'll set about the challenge. It also contains plenty of insights for young IT professionals who are wondering how they can sketch out a career path which gives them personal satisfaction while leading them to the top.

One of the keys in Johnson's case is his dual fascination with technology and people. He has become a true "hybrid manager". "I think there's a real shortage of classic hybrid managers - who can manage the technical gurus but also have a coherent business conversation with the chief executive," Johnson says.

He is less sure why there's such a dearth. "Maybe it's do with the left brain, right brain split," he says. "Lots of people are logical and lots of people have human empathy, but there don't seem to be too many who have a bit of both." Which could mean there are wider career opportunities for those who do develop both left and right brain sides.

In any event, Johnson's hybrid skills saw him managing a team of telecoms engineers at BT at the age of 23. It proved to be a testing entry to the world of team building and people management.

"When you're young and you have people who are a lot older and more experienced than you, you can't just rely on your intellect to give you authority," he says. "You sometimes have to handle quite difficult situations which you're not equipped for."

That is when it can all go horribly wrong unless you are prepared to take advice. Johnson valued the opportunity to talk to a mentor, an older manager at BT. "I didn't really understand some of the stuff I was getting into, and he was able to give me some good advice," Johnson recalls.

There is no one way to develop a successful career, but one essential is the willingness to move on and take on new challenges. After six years, Johnson moved into consultancy, initially with one of the big players and then in a self-employed capacity.

He worked on major projects with famous names such as Marks & Spencer, Abbey National and Baring Securities, where he was seconded as IT manager reporting to the finance director (before Nick Leeson wreaked havoc on the hapless bank). When he became self-employed he worked on large projects for a string of other famous companies, such as Legal & General Assurance, Nationwide Building Society and the London Stock Exchange.

So if you're a self-employed consultant, what's the secret of winning blue-chip clients such as these? "You must have a really good reputation," says Johnson. "One way I set out to distinguish myself from others was by including all my previous client names on my CV. Some others only used to put things like 'large financial institution'.

"I used to tell potential clients that they could approach anybody for whom I'd ever worked for a reference - because I had nothing to hide."

Johnson's open approach was a confidence booster for potential clients and his interest in people made him a good networker. He is a frequent attendant at IT industry events and spends considerable time building contacts.

Most importantly, his approach to clients was designed to build confidence early on. "Typically, I would go to a client and do a piece of work," he explains. "Then, if there was a big project, I would write a strategy paper setting out how I would tackle it. That initial month helped me to understand the problem, but it also enabled me to explain to them how I would set about fixing it before they made a commitment to hire me in the longer term."

On several occasions during his consultancy years, Johnson found himself parachuted into organisations as an interim manager. One such example was at National Westminster Bank, where he led a project to develop and implement management processes for 2,000 staff.

"In interim assignments, it was important to go in and make a difference quickly," he says. "At the same time, you have to take the people with you. I never used to think that I could simply railroad the permanent staff just because I would only be there for a few months.

"By getting commitment from the permanent staff, it was possible to make sure that the changes I was making would be successful and, effectively, glued into the organisation for the future."

Any IT professional faced with the same kind of situation should make certain their actions match their words, advises Johnson. "It's about being as open and honest with people as you can be, given the nature of the situation you're dealing with. You need to take other people's views into account but, at the end of the day, you're the boss and it's your decision.

"And if you make a mistake, instead of blaming others you must take it on the chin yourself. In some cases, if your team makes a mistake which isn't your fault, you may also want to take it on the chin. It reinforces the fact that you're on their side."

Johnson was finally tempted out of consultancy by an offer from John Hirst, then chief executive of FTSE 250 company Premier Farnell, to work some transformation magic on the firm's sprawling IT function. The challenge was to take five disparate IT departments and mould them into one global function.

The task eventually saw Johnson running a global IT department with staff in Europe, United States, Asia and Australia. "When you're managing such a disparate team, you have to spend a lot of time with them, which means plenty of travelling," says Johnson.

Over the years, he has developed a simple principle for communicating with people: "If I have to disseminate information, I use e-mail. If I need to have a conversation with someone, I telephone them.

"But if there's a problem, I do it face to face.

"A lot of people try to deal with problems by e-mail but then you get e-mail wars going on, which is terribly unhelpful."

One other characteristic of Johnson's career which younger IT pros should note is the fact that he's never been afraid to step into the unknown. For example, during his consultancy period, he was involved in launching a company on the stock exchange - a task for which he'd had no previous experience.

Taking on a task which seems very difficult and achieving it gives you an inner self-confidence, he says. "You might not know how to do something, but there are plenty of people who do and can advise you," he adds. "You might think you could never do anything like that. Actually, you can."

CV: GRAHAM JOHNSON

1981: Leaves Durham University with degree in applied physics and electronics and joins British Telecom International as an executive engineer.

1987: Moves into consultanccy with accountancy firm Deloitte Haskins & Sells (now part of IBM). Works on projects for blue-chip companies Abbey National, Baring Securities and Marks & Spencer.

1989: Becomes managing director and principal consultant at JFS Consultancy Services. Under the auspices of JFS works as an interim manager for National Westminster bank among other projects.

2000: Seconded from JFS to an internet service provider to create a subsidiary company offering financial services over the internet - Intermutual Financial Services.

2001: Back at JFS and leading a team of 50 as interim head of financial systems at Axa Insurance.

2002: Joins Premier Farnell as CIO to lead a team of 230 IT professionals in UK, United States, China and Australia.

2008: Joins Ecclesiastical Insurance as transformation director.

JOHNSON'S ROLE

Graham Johnson's role at Ecclesiastical Insurance is to drive an ambitious programme of change across the company. Because he is very new to the role, he is still formulating the detail of his approach. But it is already clear he will have direct reports from the IT, business consultancy, programme management office, human resources and strategic planning functions. He also has responsibility for facilities - buildings and so on - and is deciding how to organise this part of his remit.

This was last published in November 2008

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