When Carlton Communications merged with Granada to form ITV three years ago, Richard Cross faced the greatest challenge of his career. At the time, he was chief technology officer (CTO) at Carlton. There was also an IT director at Granada. But the newly merged company would need only one IT chief. Within months, either Cross or his opposite number would be looking for a new job.
"What made it especially challenging was that we had to work together until the appointment was made," recalls Cross, who was appointed technology director following a gruelling selection process.
Cross's experience provides some useful pointers for other senior - and not-so-senior - IT professionals whose smooth career progress suddenly receives an unexpected jolt from a merger or acquisition. The dealmakers who stitch together these corporate tie-ups rarely give a thought to the career turbulence they create for the people who work in the companies involved.
But that doesn't mean a merger or acquisition has to be a career-stopper. Calm thinking and careful preparation are the keys to coming out on top.
Even so, working with a colleague while knowing that soon one or the other of you will be out on the street is not the best basis for a harmonious relationship. Yet it can be done. Cross says, "I think we were honest and frank with each other. We knew that whoever got the job, it was in both our interests to inherit something that was going in the right direction. It made a lot of sense to work together and I think we did reasonably well."
So merger lesson one: if your job's on the line, don't join the awkward squad. Otherwise, you might end up facing the firing squad.
During the period leading up to the merger, Cross and his colleague had to take a lot of decisions about how the different IT systems from Carlton and Granada could be pulled together. They had to do it against a background of post-merger manoeuvring in the rest of the business.
"Typically, what would happen is that if a Carlton person was appointed to head a department, they would favour Carlton systems and vice versa," says Cross. "It was quite hard to go into part of the business and decide what systems to put in if the head of that section hadn't been appointed yet."
In this climate of uncertainty, there was only one way to do the job successfully. "We set out to be honest and transparent about the ways we took the decisions," Cross explains.
So merger lesson two: being open-minded and professional gives new colleagues and old the confidence that your main concern is the future health of the business, rather than a desire to fight turf wars.
But, for Cross, by far the most challenging aspect of all was the selection process involved in the new appointment. "We both went through quite a lot of in-depth interviewing and analysis," he says. "But there was a feeling that whoever came out of it on top it was a fair contest because we both had the opportunity to present our views to a group of senior managers.
"It gave us the chance to put across our views on how we would run things. It was an extensive and transparent process."
So why did Cross succeed? He is clear now that it was because of the way that he presented his ideas about the future contribution that technology could make to the newly merged company. In reality, his approach was a factor of the kind of IT professional he had become. And that, in turn, was the result of the way he had developed his career.
That career started with a computer science degree. But while many computer science graduates cheerfully choose the techie root into a career of nerd-dom - and there is nothing wrong with that: IT needs its nerds - Cross was determined to head in the opposite direction. "I've spent most of my career trying to move away from being purely technical and to focus on how to extract value from the technology.
"My feeling has always been that technology on its own doesn't really deliver anything very much. It needs to be used in the right way to deliver business benefit."
His first job after leaving university was with Andersen Consulting (now Accenture), renowned during the time Cross was with the firm for its excellent management training. "It was very appealing to go through that training, which was almost akin to an MBA," Cross recalls.
But even though Cross has developed a broad management hinterland, his technology background has still proved useful in his career. "When I see a proposal for implementing some technology, my understanding enables me to get a much better appreciation of what's realistic and what's not," he says. "It enables me to see if something is not quite right and then be able to ask the specific questions to try and unpack what is in the proposal and understand it."
Yet what may well have made Cross the strongest candidate for the ITV job was the systematic way he had developed his career. HIs focus has always been on building a portfolio of skills so that he could present himself as a well-rounded management professional. "I wouldn't say that I had a long-term 20-year career plan when I started out, but I've always tried to have a three- or five-year view of what I'm doing," he says. "I tend to look at it from the basis of whether I'm still learning and challenging myself in my current role."
The rolling career plan means that Cross has systematically sought to round out his experience. "When I am looking ahead and thinking about where I go next, I'm considering how I can go into a role where I'll be learning something new."
That explains why, after 12 years, he moved out of the consultancy world to take a job managing a department with line responsibility at transport company Exel Logistics. "I thought, why don't I take on a role where the buck stops with me, not with my client? Can I manage a budget with all the constraints that come with a line management role?"
And when he moved to digital TV technology company NDS, where he worked on creating what amounted to a new business, he gained a valuable commercial dimension. "I gained experience of having profit and loss responsibility, and how to build a business from scratch when you are responsible for selling the product and making money," he says.
"Something else I also learnt there was how to work with a large R&D department on picking new technologies, choosing the ones that could make money and then taking them to market."
So when crunch time came and he had to fight for that top ITV job, Cross believed he knew what would win him the post. "What I did was to understand what the business wanted, and then try to exceed its expectations," he says. "For example, when managers said they were looking for a certain level of savings by applying technology to the business, I argued that it would be possible to save more." It was a pledge on which he has delivered.
"I was also determined to be proactive about ways in which we could improve the service that IT provided to the rest of the company," he says. At the time of the merger, service levels were lower than many wanted.
But Cross was not afraid to challenge management colleagues about what IT would need if it was to deliver. "It's a two-way process," he says. A poorly resourced technology function will deliver poor service. The principle of you get what you pay for applies as much in IT as in other walks of life.
So the final lesson for other IT professionals who find themselves fighting for their job is this: speak up, speak out and paint a picture of a positive future.
• Gained first-class degree in computer science from Loughborough University.
• 1984: Joined Andersen Consulting (now Accenture) as management consultant.
• 1988: Moved to Bermuda to work as project co-ordinator for a computer services company, Bermuda Business Machines
• 1989: Back in the UK, again as a management consultant, this time with Ernst & Young. Became a lead consultant in IT and business process improvement practice.
• 1996: Joined Exel Logistics UK as director of systems delivery. Moved on to become solution delivery director for NFC Europe, then European IS director for Exel Logistics.
• 1999: Appointed vice-president for interactive TV at NDS, a News Corporation company. Developed new group which grew into world's leading supplier of interactive TV technology.
• 2002: Became chief technology officer at Carlton Communications, responsible for 500 staff and a technology budget of more than £70m.
• Following merger of Carlton with Granada, appointed technology director of ITV.
• Richard Cross is responsible for all IT, engineering, transmission and media technology at ITV. He leads around 1,000 staff and controls an annual budget of more than £200m.
• The technology function is organised so that it "lines up against" each of the company's divisions. So Cross has direct reports who head the broadcasting division (which runs the TV channels, sells the advertising, and so on) the production and sales division (which produces the programmes and sells them internationally) the consumer division (which deals directly with customers through websites and businesses which ITV owns, including Friends Reunited, as well as mobile phone services).
• In addition, Cross has a direct report who runs the core infrastructure (including service desk, desktops, networks and e-mail), and another who handles planning and governance (including strategic planning, standards and security).