Taking the Global view

Any IT professional who wants to break out of the confines of technology into the wide world of international management could do worse than seek advice from Heather Allan.

Any IT professional who wants to break out of the confines of technology into the wide world of international management could do worse than seek advice from Heather Allan.

Last autumn, she took up a post in Geneva as corporate services director for The Global Fund, a private/public partnership which raises and distributes around £2bn a year for the global fight against Aids, tuberculosis and malaria.

Allan has held a string of senior IT appointments and served on the boards or executive committees of some sizeable organisations (see CV panel), but her main focus had always been on IT. Now, she has management responsibility for functions such as human resources, purchasing, legal services and administration. How is she making herself at home in these new fields?

"When you go from being a specialist in one area to a manager over multiple areas, you really need to understand what best practice means," Allan says. "You need to be able to identify good staff in those areas and tempt them to join you.

Top quality

"You must to be able to rely on recruiting people who are good at those skills. One of the most difficult things is to make sure you can get help to understand what makes a top-quality person in the fields in which you are not an expert. You have to figure out how to make sure that your team is top quality.

"Then you need to understand what good practice means in those areas. And you must learn to trust and delegate through quality people to make what you want happen."

It's meant a busy life for Allan over the past few months as she shuttles between her office in Switzerland in the week and her family home in the UK at weekends. Challenging, too, because The Global Fund has been taking over important admin functions previously handled for it by the World Health Organisation.

The Global Fund was looking for a corporate services director with experience of the public and private sectors, with particular strengths in IT and human resources - and with the ability to manage on the world stage. Which made Allan a natural.

Her previous job was CIO at Imperial College, London, one of the world's top-rated scientific universities, but she'd worked for big-name private sector companies such as Alcan Aluminium. A five-year stint at the international human resources consultancy William M Mercer, means that she's in the fast lane when it comes to talking HR.

Motivate and inspire

She's taking time to build that quality top team at The Global Fund. "When you've got a good team, you have to work through it," she says. "You have to motivate and inspire the team with a clear vision for the future and you have to energise and motivate people to want to work together to achieve it. But that's true whether you're managing one or multiple functions," she says.

So how do IT people get to the stage where they become attractive prospects for more wide-ranging jobs? "I think you always need to choose the next job to be one that gives you a wider challenge and responsibility," says Allan. "The real trick with IT is to move from technical into management positions when it's appropriate in your career.

"If you want to end up on the board of a company, then you need to start understanding the business as early as possible in your working life. You have to empathise with the business - and communicate in business terms."

Allan also believes it's important to choose to work for a company with energy and vision - and a boss to match. She says she's had a string of great bosses.

She adds: "I never planned a career - I just knew when it was time to move on because I wasn't being stretched and there weren't enough new challenges."

Academic background

Allan has certainly stretched herself professionaly. She came from a rarefied academic background - including a spell in the Edinburgh University Regional Computing Centre writing graphics software to model chemical crystals - but learnt a lot about business computing during five years with fork-lift truck company Barlow Handling.

"I was a business analyst working with a team writing a general ledger system - in those days, you didn't buy a package for that. There were three very experienced people doing it and, when I joined, the first thing I did was to learn about commercial computing."

She learnt fast. Eighteen months later, she was the company's IT manager. But then it was time to move and seek another challenge. She joined CAP, the computer services company that morphed into the Sema Group. The big challenge there was to convince the company to invest in a new business area with IBM. She was given profit centre responsibility for the new business - and had to account to senior managers for the P and L.

But with one job mastered, it was on to the next challenge, this time at the F I Group, now Xansa. "The company had a smaller number of customers than CAP, but the customers ran larger projects," Allan recalls. "It was an interesting difference in focus." She found herself running the financial services business with a team of 120, accounting for around a third of the company's revenue.

Fresh challenge

The next switch - from financial services to metal manufacture - provided a fresh challenge. As UK IT director for Alcan Aluminium, Allan headed a smaller team than at F I, but was able to influence IT groups in seven divisions of the company. "I was responsible for the UK IT strategy, the optimisation of IT in the UK and representing the UK in its global link with the Canadian Alcan."

When she joined HR consultancy William M Mercer as CIO for Europe, Asia and Africa, Allan faced her biggest challenge yet. "William Mercer was a global company that hadn't fully worked out the implications of operating globally," she recalls. The firm had nine different practices, covering areas such as benefit consulting and pensions, and wanted to optimise the working of each around the world. It had realised that IT would be an important factor in achieving that goal.

"They wanted me to help them find the opportunities and to optimise global working." It was a big job - the greatest challenge yet - and it marked the point in Allan's career where she broke through the glass ceiling to become a front-rank global CIO. But the challenge palled when the US part of William Mercer decided to take more control over the global strategy.

Allan moved to Imperial College, London at the invitation of the rector, Sir Richard Sykes, the former chairman of GlaxoSmithKline, "to inject leadership, energy and change" into the College as director of information, communications and technology. In six years, Allan lead a team which overhauled the college's IT services for its 20,000 students, academic staff and administrators.

And, now, her latest challenge is The Global Fund. "IT is seen to be important for the future here," says Allan. "While our IT is very good, there are still huge opportunities for it to help the organisation in its next stage of growth. Information is vitally important - from gathering data from individual countries through to managing grants and analysing comparative performances. It's going to be a huge enabler."

Allan believes one key to success in her most challenging role yet is being at ease with working internationally. "I've done that in my last three jobs," she notes. It's another piece of good advice for any IT specialist who wants a broader role on the world stage.

Allan's role

As corporate services director at The Global Fund, Heather Allan oversees IT, human resources, purchasing, legal services and administration (which includes travel, front-desk services, building plans, space planning and management, and insurances among other topics).

The Global Fund is a global public/private partnership which raises and distributes money to prevent and treat HIV/Aids, tuberculosis and malaria. It works with other bilateral and multilateral organisations to supplement existing efforts dealing with the three diseases.

Since its creation in 2002, it has approved funding of $15bn for more than 550 programmes in 140 countries - a quarter of all international financing for Aids globally, two-thirds for tuberculosis and three-quarters for malaria.

CV: HEATHER ALLAN

  • 1967: Leaves Cambridge University with first class honours in mathematics and begins two years research into algebraic topology at Edinburgh University for MSc.
  • 1969: Starts working in computer graphics at Edinburgh University Regional Computing Centre.
  • 1977: Recruited by fork-lift truck company Barlow Handling as business analyst and later promoted to IT manager.
  • 1982: Joins computer services company CAP (now part of Sema Group) and persuades company to invest in new business area with IBM.
  • 1988: Moves to F I Group (now Xansa) as a general manager and is later promoted to financial services business manager.
  • 1990: Takes post as UK IT director and member of UK management team at Alcan Aluminium (now part of Pechiney).
  • 1996: Joins human resources and benefits consultancy William M Mercer as a worldwide partner and CIO for Europe, Asia and Australia. Also appointed a UK board director.
  • 2002: Returns to academia as director of information, communications and technology at Imperial College, London and a member of Imperial's newly-formed college executive.
  • 2008: Takes post as corporate services director for The Global Fund, based in Geneva.

 

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