African Airlines Rising in Airline Strategy Awards

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Last Sunday I was privileged to announce and present the SITA-sponsored Award for Executive Leadership at the “Airline Strategy Awards” held, as always, at Lincoln’s Inn in London.  The very well deserved award went to James Hogan, the CEO of Etihad Airways, from Abu Dhabi.

I was very struck by the fact that two of these prestigious awards went to African airlines – the first time that any airline from Africa had won one of these awards.

The CEO of Ethiopian Airways, Tewolde GebreMariam, won the Regional Leadership  Award. He won because Ethiopian Airways has delivered consistent profits whilst expanding its network and fleet.

The CEO of Kenyan Airways, Titus Naikuni, won the Airline Business Award, awarded by the magazine’s Editor.  In the 10 years that Mr Naikuni has been CEO, Kenyan Airways has trebled its revenues and doubled its fleet.

This is a very interesting development and shows how quickly the world and the airline business is changing.  Parts of the African Continent are now experiencing fast growth.  The World Bank reports that the economy of Sub-Saharan African countries grew at rates that match or surpass global rates.  The rate of return on investment in Africa is currently the highest in the developing world.  During 2011, Sub-Saharan economic growth rate was 4.9%.  Excluding South Africa, which accounts for over a third of the region’s GDP, growth in the rest of region was 5.9%.

Trade has driven much of the growth in Africa’s economy. China and India are increasingly important trade partners with 12.5% of Africa’s exports being to China and 4% to India.

It is therefore not surprising to see African airlines rising, and it was good to see this recognised at the Airline Strategy Awards.

What is Leadership in IT?

This is a topic I sometimes get asked about by journalists.  There are numerous articles published in magazines and online about “leadership”.  Consultants will sell you studies and there is generally supposed to be a rather large problem about it.

The IT profession worries a lot about how it is perceived by its customers, partners and suppliers: whether it has a seat at the top table, whether it is listened to and, when it is feeling collectively pessimistic, whether anyone is listening at all.

Now there is a lot you could talk about here and I will only attempt to answer the leadership question.  It’s something I have put a lot of thought into, after all it is a large and a complex topic.

Lets start at the boring end of this and define our terms, leadership in the Oxford Dictionaries Web-site is defined as:

  • “the action of leading a group of people or an organization, or the ability to do this”

Not much use is it?  So we then get to leader where the first definition is:

  • “the person who leads or commands a group, organization, or country”

This is not getting anywhere is it?  So then we take a look at lead and at last with the third definition (ignoring the parts about leading animals and winning a race) we find:

“#3 be in charge or command of:

  • organise and direct
  • be the principal player of (a group of musicians)
  • set (a process) in motion
  • begin a report or text with a particular item
  • in boxing make an attack
  • in card games play the first card”

So let’s see if we can work with these?  Well simply it is important to recognise that leading and leadership have many different meanings for different people, different organisations and different contexts.

There are four elements of this that resonate with me.  The first is that leadership in IT requires you to organise and direct. And I like the dictionaries juxtaposition here of ORGANISE and DIRECT.  It is a big risk that you may sometimes be tempted to do too much organising of the IT Department and forget to set strategic directions clearly; and vice versa since direction of IT without effective order and organisation will almost certainly end in tears.

Secondly setting a process in motion is of course also very familiar to anyone in modern organisations these days.  Leadership in the 21st Century is usually rarely in the military mode where you ask people who report to you to advance in a particular direction (or indeed shout CHARGE! follow me!).  Most likely in complex organisations these days IT leadership is about working with, persuading and influencing “business process owners”, in your and often in other companies or structures, to deliver together the shared objective.  Less dramatic than shouting CHARGE, it is probably harder to do and requires a completely different set of skills including, analysis, communications and political ‘know-how’.

Thirdly being the principal player of a group of musicians is a really tremendous definition, which I really like.  These days no-one in IT knows it all, understands every technology old and new, is a database expert and a networking genius, can manage waterfall and agile projects and so forth.  You rely on the talent and the experience of your immediate team and their teams.  If I have learnt one thing over my time as a CIO it is that IT is a team sport.  For it all to work it has all to work together and the analogy of an orchestra is an excellent one.  Whether the CIO is the conductor or the first violin depends on you, and I think sometimes it is smart to be part of the team and sometimes to conduct it.

Finally there is the boxing attack, and yes on a small number of issues you are going to have some fights.  Most things can be resolved by compromise but leadership does involve having some principles and lines in the sand, where an IT leader will need to fight his or her corner.  An example will be the point where if a system is not renewed the business is in danger, or you are insecure, or don’t have adequate back-up.  You cannot compromise on those issues.

I invariably disappoint the journalists with complicated answers like this on IT leadership but I really do think it just depends – depends on the culture of your organisation, depends on the circumstances you find yourself in (a Recession requires very different leadership from a Boom) and above all depends on you.

But I would suggest you think as an IT leader where you want to be on the following dimensions:

  • organise
  • direct
  • process
  • conduct
  • (and very rarely) attack
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