When Richard Rundle was 25, he took a risk that changed the direction of his career.
Today, Rundle is the IT director of BAA, which runs seven British airports, including Heathrow and Gatwick. In his twenties, he was working as commercial manager for the multiple supplies division of Trust House, the company that morphed into Trust House Forte, then got taken over by Granada before regaining independence as the Forte Group. Note: commercial manager. Nothing so far to do with IT or an indication that he would become a CIO.
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It was around this time that the firm's multiple supplies division, which was in the logistics business distributing foodstuffs to hotels and restaurants, decided to call in the consultants. The consultants had deliberated and delivered a set of recommendations about how the company should be developed in the future.
But Rundle did not agree with their ideas. He takes up the story, "The consultants had come up with some very conventional thinking - they wanted to redesign the manual processes - but I did not think that was going to get the business where it wanted to be." And where it wanted to be was a highly ambitious four-fold increase in income over two years.
So Rundle approached the managing director with his own ideas. He suggested re-engineering processes through automating, some of them with IT. Today, such thinking would be unexceptional. In the mid-1970s, it was pretty revolutionary, particularly for a business of modest size. Despite this, the MD backed Rundle's ideas, and started him on 30-year career in IT.
"We made my plan work, and then I recognised that there was more opportunity to use technology for other purposes," Rundle says. "The notion of somebody responsible for systems in the business became clear and that is when they offered me a specific IT role."
Yet, he says, "What I have never let go of is the fact that I still do not regard myself as an IT person. I really think of myself as a general management individual and my first instincts are always towards how technology can be applied to the business." That could well be the reason why, during the past three decades, Rundle's services have been sought by organisations that want to get a grip on their IT and make it deliver some real value.
CIO careers - lessons that can be learnt in climbing the career ladder
Lesson one - take risks
Rundle's career contains three interesting lessons for young IT professionals. The first of these is that there are times in one's career when it pays to stick your neck out and take a risk. It does not always pay to keep your head down and agree with everything other people say - even costly consultants. Perhaps especially costly consultants.
Yet when Rundle marched into the MD's office to tell him he did not think the consultants' report did Trust House justice, he did not see himself taking a risk. Even though, if his plan had gone pear-shaped, it would not exactly have become a bull point on his CV.
"In hindsight, that is true," he says. "At the time, I do not think I assessed the risk. Not personally. I considered the risk on the basis that we would achieve the outcome for the company - but, even then, that was difficult for me to assess because there was no real track record in that space. I still do not tend to assess personal risks so much. I am reasonably confident in what I think I can do and what I can achieve. And, in this case, I had built a track-record of delivery from the time I took my first job after university."
But Rundle has a good understanding of his own capabilities. He knows what kind of person he is and what his strengths and weaknesses are.
Lesson two - know thyself
In Rundle's case, he's what Brinley Platts, the IT career coach and author, has called a "paratrooper" IT executive - one who is capable of parachuting into a new situation, assessing quickly what needs to be done, rolling up his sleeves and making the necessary changes, if necessary fighting off the entrenched opposition.
There are plenty of examples of paratrooping in Rundle's career. He helped to set up a new brand, Puritan Maid, at Trust House Forte. At food manufacturer and distributor, Hunter Saphir, he was a member of a team that integrated the IT from four acquired companies. At Unigate, he was on the bid team that won an important national distribution contract from Britvic.
The key point is not that all IT pros need to be paratroopers, but that they need to know what their strengths and weaknesses are, then play to them.
Lesson three - be "in flow"
In his own career, Rundle has always laid a lot of importance on being what he calls "in flow". He says, "It means that, as you plot your way through your career, what you are asked to do is matched by your skills, knowledge, capability, competence, attributes and so on. If you are not in flow, then you are either stressed, because the job is asking too much of you, or you are frustrated, because the job is not asking enough."
He points out that "in flow" holds good whether you are thinking of moving to a job in a new company or one in the same business. "You do not have to move on. It is about assessing your skills and competencies and your level of performance. Some people are very comfortable in undertaking a role and not necessarily progressing wider or higher - because they are in flow. They are comfortable where they are and get satisfaction from their job."
Does this mean that Rundle has ever turned jobs down if he felt he would not be in flow? He recalls saying no to the offer of a top job at a big PLC because he wasn't sure it had the right culture to appreciate what IT could deliver to the business.
He says he looks at three key points when he is thinking about whether he would be in flow in a new job. "First, I assess the company. Second, I always want to meet the key people I would be working with. And third, I like to make an assessment of the environment they are asking me to step into."
But, in Rundle's book, being in flow does not rule out taking on big challenges. After all, if it did, he would probably have never moved into IT from general management.
He says, "In the very early days at THF, I had to put a huge amount of effort into understanding the concepts of technology. This was not so much in order to deal with any in-house capability - because we had none - but to deal with suppliers and consultants who would come and describe their view of the future in a technical format which nobody in the company, including myself, understood in those days.
"My first port of call was to understand the jargon - I still have the Penguin dictionary of computing terms I used. But, as a scientist, I had to understand how systems worked, how they hung together and what the outcomes would be. Only then, was I confident in advocating how we might use the technology."
So taking on new challenges can be a key career builder. But it is not always enough, as Rundle's own 30 years' of IT achievement testify. "I always have a personal sense that, if I have been given a challenge I take it through to a successful conclusion. If I start it, I will finish it."
• 1971: Graduated from Nottingham University with a degree in food science and engineering.
• 1971: Joined K J Produce, Trust House subsidiary that provided chilled and frozen foods to the hospitality industry, in technology and quality assurance role. Ended up managing 300 factory workers.
• 1974: Joined multiple supplies division of Trust House in London as commercial manager.
• 1976: Appointed general manager, IT systems for Trust House Forte.
• 1980: Joined divisional board of THF chaired by Rocco Forte. Helped create a new brand, Puritan Maid, a food supply organisation. Quadrupled turnover and multiplied profit six-fold by time left THF.
• 1984: Joined Hunter Saphir, food manufacturing and distribution company, as systems director.
• 1990: Joined Unigate as IT technical services director with focus on Wincanton, Unigate's contract distribution arm. Also responsible for managing fleet of 12,000 vehicles.
• 1995: Joined BAA as IT director.
• Richard Rundle reports to Donal Dowds, BAA's director of safety, security and services. About 600 people work in the IT function.
• Rundle has four direct reports. These are: an investment director, who handles business issues, opportunities and who monitors the outcomes of IT investments a head of architecture a head of sourcing and a service delivery director who is responsible for the design, build and operation of systems.
• A key feature of the IT "model" at BAA is "the rummage". Says Rundle, "If we have a business problem or opportunity, the first thing we do is to rummage it rather than jump to an immediate solution." The rummage moves through four stages: define the problem or opportunity explore a range of options without choosing a specific one decide which of the options is most promising and then construct the system.