Getting to know our Chief Information Officer

Meet our Chief Information Officer (CIO), Shannon Henwood. Shannon discusses leadership, why it’s okay to fail, and the mindset that has guided him through life and his career.

What is most important to you as a leader?

I’ve come to realise that this changes. To me, one of the most important things is to not be fixed in your ideas and be willing to listen and embrace others. In saying that there are a couple of fundamentals.

Be across new and emerging technologies. If you’re a tech leader and you don’t have an understanding of Generative AI and prompt engineering, then you’re probably behind the eight ball.

It’s equally important to be a credible leader. If you say you’re going to do something, you really need to do it the best you possibly can. If things aren’t going the way you’d like them to, then be transparent about that with your team and your peers. It’s okay when things don’t go well because that’s life, but it’s not okay to not talk about it. To be an authentic leader, you need to be able to talk about the good, bad, and indifferent.

Be across the commerciality of your role. If you want a seat at the table as a tech leader, then you’ve got to be able to talk the talk. A lot of the things we talk about in our industry are commercial and directly related to supporting our customers.

You need to not only know your customer, but you also need to understand your team. It’s all about connecting with people. My role may be a technology leader, but at the heart of it is being a people leader and I lead an amazing team. That’s what is critically important to me.

It takes a belief to be a leader and know you’ve got what it takes. We are all innate leaders in one way, shape or form, we just have to see and believe that we are.

It’s not always easy to admit when things haven’t gone the right way. How do you foster a culture where people can fail safely?

Put simply, if you have to say it’s okay to fail – it’s not.

The way I like to think about it is that you provide an open, safe space and boundaries which people can operate within. We have a lot of very talented, intelligent, and capable people in our team. It’s about setting expectations up front, being clear about where the boundaries are, and trusting people to get on with what they do best. If you do that repeatedly, then as long as your team works towards that, they’ll know they can fail safely. If they do fail or get it wrong, as a leader it’s your job to celebrate and learn from that then help guide them to get back on track and support them. It’s about giving your team the confidence to operate to get the best outcomes possible.

Who has had the biggest influence on your career and why?

About 10 years ago I was working on a program, that at the time I didn’t have the technical ability to deliver. I was working on the program because I had the ability to deliver programs. I sat down with my highly respected and experienced boss and mentor to talk about the program’s progress, who had significant experience in the tech sector.

He said to me, “You’re not doing too well, are you?”. I said, “Nope”. He replied, “I’ll make it simple for you – you need to build it twice”.

After a confused look from me, he explained that when you have a highly complex problem you can’t understand or find a pathway forward – whether that’s in life or at work – you build it twice. Once in your head, and then go and do it for real. If you can visualise what the problem is and what the fix is, you can then talk to others to help you solve it. You can’t solve it by yourself.

At the crux of that advice is having a builder mentality, using visualisation techniques, and knowing that you are only ever as good as your team. This thinking has carried me through the last decade – at home, at work, creatively and technically.

As a believer in life-long learning, can you tell us about what a ‘builder mindset’ is and how you apply that day-to-day?

When I think about learning and building, I always seem to interchange the two in conversations, because to me they are almost one in the same. For me, life-long learning is something you should always be doing. I don’t see it as an adjunct to life. A builder mindset is all about being creative. You’re always building something – as an example that could be a brand, your reality, or future plans.

My grandfather was a builder by profession. Growing up as a young boy, I remember going to building sites with him, and we’d be building things together (even though I could hardly hold up a hammer). That’s one of my most pleasurable childhood memories, because I felt that I was constructing something tangible and strengthening that connection with my grandfather. Every time I think about building, I think about him, and I also think about something tangible.

This mindset is particularly helpful in technology, where there are a lot of unknowns. For me, making technology tangible into something you can touch, see, experience, and creating an outcome you can put benefit/value behind – that’s a builder. How do you give that to your team? You make it tangible. A builder mindset isn’t just for engineers, it can be for everyone.

In an industry that’s changing at pace and dependent on the advancement of the technologies. How do you stay ahead of trends and keep on top of certifications?

I’ve always had a focus on the next material thing I’ll learn that year. I’m a big believer in going to the source to learn as much as I can. For example, I previously wanted to learn more about big data, so I went to the place where it was best understood at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Boston.

However, some of the most beneficial learning I’ve had has been in the creative side of tech. I’m not the most technical person, for example I won’t be able to write a lambda function. I know what it is, but what I can do is come at a problem from a different perspective, by asking lots of questions to lots of people. Asking questions (the right questions) is an amazing learning opportunity. From asking questions I like to then process the information and the tell the ‘story’.

It’s clear your passion is learning! You’ve done a lot of different courses over the years to further your knowledge. What’s the best one you’ve ever done?

What a lot of people don’t know about me is that I started my career as a photographer. At school I wasn’t the most studious; I was arty. I left school with high distinctions in photography, went on to study photography at college, and eventually to work as a photographer. My background is creative and visual, so the best course I have ever done was at MIT and was aptly named ‘Leading and the lens’.

It was jointly facilitated by the head of innovation and leadership at MIT and a veteran photographer from Magnum Photography. Why? Because their belief was that photography is exactly the same as leading. I signed up immediately. I fondly remember when we did the session on framing and composition. Hal (the head of innovation and leadership) spoke about looking at messaging and context – what’s on the edges and putting the content into the middle, and how you position certain parts into the presentation/message. Sam (the photographer) then stood up to explain the concept in slightly different terms. I remember he basically said the exact same thing, but he changed presentation to photograph therefore totally changing the context. I found this so powerful. We then were asked to go and do both (take the photograph and prepare a presentation) – which made it even more real and awesome for me because I was ‘building/creating’.

If you could go back in time, what advice would you give yourself as someone starting out in their career?

Listen more. You’re not going to get it right all the time. Take calculated risks.

One of my previous mentors once said to me when I was struggling in a role to “make sure you know what you love doing and know what you loathe doing. If you can do more of the love, then the loathe doesn’t become such an issue”. The advice, then and now, is to know what the love/loathe list is. If you’re doing too much on the wrong side of the ledger, it becomes work. If you do more on the good side of the ledger, it won’t feel like work, and you’re bound to bounce out of bed each day.

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