Expat CIOs: IT leaders broaden horizons with global experiences

Expat CIOs: IT leaders broaden horizons with global experiences

For many IT leaders, taking on an IT opportunity abroad can be a boon for career and life experience alike.

When Richard Ventre got an opportunity to move to India from the Netherlands, he latched on to it. “We live in a world that is more global than ever before and it is important to experience different cultures, customs, and traditions,” he says.

Ventre, who quit his job as director of global IT at Maersk Group port operation subsidiary APM Terminals in The Hague to join Ahmedabad-based Adani Ports and Logistics as its CIO in December 2019, is part of a growing group of IT leaders embracing the “expat CIO” experience, taking their expertise to foreign countries in search of new cultural opportunities and challenges — and, in the case of Bhupendra Pant, larger global leadership roles.

“I had spent more than two decades working for multinational companies such as L&T and Welspun in India and already had exposure to international projects. It was time to step out of India,” says Pant, who quit his position as CIO of Mumbai-based conglomerate Welspun Group to join automotive distributor and consumer electronics company OTE Group as its CIO in Muscat, Oman.

“Oman offers a good work culture, lifestyle, and the salary is not taxed,” Pant says. “It is easier [for Indian IT leaders] to switch to Gulf Cooperation Council countries than Europe and Australia. With lots of Indians here and not much of a time difference, change management is less, too.”

For others such as Brian Ferris, chief data, analytics, and technology officer at loyalty, marketing, and data analytics consulting firm Loyalty NZ, leading IT abroad was about “gaining huge value in seeing different issues and learning different ways of approaching problems, something that can’t be learnt out of a book.” He moved from New Zealand to Amsterdam, working with Nike and Heineken as their global enterprise architect for data and analytics.

Whatever may be the driver for going international, relocating to a different country is a big decision that needs to factor in risk as well as reward. And, as the strong focus on digitization and globalization increasingly presents new opportunities for CIOs to go global, IT leaders must evaluate each variable carefully before taking the leap.

CIO.com spoke with top IT leaders who have taken up international roles about the key challenges they encountered and the strategies they adopted to become successful abroad.

The challenges of managing IT in a foreign land

Adjusting to a new environment, motivating team members, and earning trust are challenges all expat CIOs confront. But differences in levels of technology maturity, project management, and governance can also present issues for foreign CIOs in fulfilling their core responsibilities.

Brian Ferris, chief data, analytics, and technology officer, Loyalty NZ

Brian Ferris / Loyalty NZ

Assumptions about technology development being at the same level in different countries, for example, often prove wrong. “When I landed in Europe, I was surprised to see that New Zealand was ahead of it in cashless transactions. In terms of technology expertise, New Zealand has around half a dozen SAP experts. In Europe, the pool is huge, and the specialization is massive,” Ferris points out by way of example.

As New Zealand doesn’t have nearly as many historical buildings as Europe does, Ferris was also in for a surprise when he was denied permission to run a new cable into an old building in the Netherlands. “There were huge changes in my perspective. I would say the first three months were the hardest,” he says.

Governance is another area that can vary vastly from country to country. Ventre realized this when working on a large cloud migration project for Adani Ports as part of its strategy to digitize ports and logistics.

“The levels of process maturity in India were low as compared to Europe. The entrepreneurial spirit burns bright in India and technology execution and adoption can move quickly but in an unstructured and less controlled manner. In Europe there is a tendency for governance to stifle agility, but you feel that you have more control and confidence in the outcome. I don’t believe either extreme is right, and that somewhere between these two extremes lies the answer,” says Ventre, who has since returned to the Netherlands as group CIO of SHV Holdings.

How technology is consumed can also vary. Joe Locandro moved from Australia to Hong Kong to take up the role of CIO at CLP Group. From there he moved to Cathay Pacific Airways and then to Dubai to become VP of business technology services at Emirates. He experienced a high propensity for bespoke developments outside Australia.   

“While other global airlines used Amadeus or Sabre, Emirates had built its own ticketing and reservation system. Similarly, CLP had a lot of custom development for its transmission and distribution business. It could be because the companies wanted to be self-reliant rather than be controlled by western software companies or the fact that there wasn’t enough support of packages locally as compared to Europe and North America,” says Locandro.

Whatever the reason, getting acceptance for off-the-shelf software packages was a challenge for Locandro, despite the fact that their total cost of ownership would be better in the long term compared to developing and maintaining solutions in house.

In moving to the Middle East, Pant found the lack of a vibrant startup and partner ecosystem difficult. “PoCs take a lot of time,” he says. “Skill sets needed are not readily available or are available at high price points, all of which prevents us from getting results fast.”

As a foreigner, building trust with the IT team is extremely important, an aspect that proved to be “the most important and challenging issue” for David Berry, CIO of apparel and accessories manufacturer Boardriders, when he shifted from Häagen-Dazs in the US to become VP of IT at Grand Metropolitan Foods Europe in France.

“How do you get people to trust you that you’re not just going to impose an American view on things and [instead] respect the international side of things. If you can’t get over that you can’t settle down because you’re only as good as your team,” he says.

Building trust becomes even more difficult in countries whose cultures differ widely from your own. For instance, as compared to the Dutch, Indians are less direct, more polite, and more respectful of position and authority, Ventre says.  

“As a leader you want to be challenged, you want to be told that your idea is stupid and that there is a better way to do it but there is very little dissent in India. In such a situation, it takes a lot of time to build trust,” he says.

Dealing with business stakeholders

Business expectations of IT can also differ from country to country. For example, according to Ventre, expectations in Europe focus on the ‘how,’ whereas in India they concentrate on the ‘what.’

He felt that taking the time to improve the maturity of the IT function and setting it up for future success was less valued in India than delivering the next project, regardless of how the project was delivered.

Differing corporate structures can also pose challenges, especially when it comes to issues of collaboration versus hierarchy.

Joe Locandro, CIO, Fletcher Building

Joe Locandro / Fletcher Building

“It is very challenging to work in corporate Australia and New Zealand where everybody wants to have a say in technology. Some business units want to share some solutions while others want to build their own fiefdoms and have shadow IT,” Locandro says. “The poor CIO gets pulled from pillar to post because every business unit has a different philosophy. There is a necessary overcomplication of collaboration.”

The Middle East and Asia, however, have more of a hierarchical setup, Locandro says, with implicit trust in specialists, who are allowed to get on with their job, which results in speed to market.

“The downside is that if you try to do that in Australia or New Zealand, you wouldn’t get business buy-in and therefore you wouldn’t achieve your objectives. Similarly, if you tried to use the Australian approach in Asia or the Middle East, you’d never get anything done,” says Locandro, who returned to Australia from Dubai in 2018 and has since taken the CIO role at Fletcher Building in Auckland, New Zealand.

As for Ventre’s experience, business leaders in India expect their CIOs to have an in-depth knowledge of technology and a hands-on approach to it, he says.

“I remember being in meetings and being asked very detailed technical questions and expected to have the answer,” he says. “In Europe, if I was going into a meeting with the board about cybersecurity, I would have my CISO by my side, but in India you find that doesn’t happen as much. The CIO is expected to have the answer and if he/she doesn’t then the fear is that it might reflect on his/her ability.”

Because of this, Ventre says, European CIOs have been able to evolve their careers into business leaders first and IT leaders second. “I am not the expert in cyber, architecture, cloud, project delivery, or data, nor should I be. I have an amazing team of domain experts around me for that. My job is to develop the technology strategy that underpins the business strategy, and to orchestrate my people to achieve our goals and the right outcomes for the business,” he says.

Culture clashes

Aligning with the new culture might not be easy or to everyone’s liking but IT leaders will have to go the extra mile to do so if they seek success.

For example, Europe offers lots of opportunities and people can carve out careers and climb the professional ladder quickly, Ventre says, but India, with its large population, is far more competitive. To get ahead people feel compelled to work harder than the next, often putting work before family, he observed.

Richard Ventre, Group CIO, SHV Holdings, with his family at the Taj Mahal in Agra, India

Richard Ventre

“I had a real challenge to convince my team that I did not want to see them in the office past 6:30pm. It was like a battle of the wills to see who the last person in the office could be. As the working week ended on a Saturday at 2pm, I lost the ‘Friday feeling.’” Ventre says of his time in India.

In some countries, an expat IT leader’s communication skills can be put to the test, as top management may seek advice not from people of position but from those they trust.

“In Australia I can directly tell someone I’m not happy about something. However, in Hong Kong and in the Middle East, you sometimes need to convey messages to your suppliers or to other departments through a trusted third party,” says Locandro.

The Iron Rice Bowl, a Chinese term for employment security, is yet another cultural challenge, typical of Asian countries, that an expat CIO will have to contend with, Locandro says, adding that most people prefer to have a full-time job in these countries, which is opposite to Australia and New Zealand where lots of people, because of tax and other choices, want to contract and consult. For Locandro this was a major hinderance in infusing fresh talent into CLP as the company’s churn rates was as low as 5%.

Over time, Locandro addressed this issue by shifting CLP from being Hong Kong-centric to Asia Pacific-centric, expanding into India, Cambodia, and Thailand, as well as launching projects offshore. “Some people self-selected out as they couldn’t handle the change. For those who stayed back, I did a lot of skill development,” he says. “I started doing such a reorganization exercise every two years, and those who didn’t want to change generally left. Coupled with people retiring, the churn rate increased to 8 to 10%.”

Changing jobs regularly can also be considered suspicious in certain cultures, something that Ferris encountered when he moved to Europe. “It’s typical in New Zealand to move to a new role every three years but in Europe changing jobs frequently is viewed with suspicion. It was a real challenge for me early on because it was seen that there must be something wrong with me where I couldn’t hold down a job. I had never considered my CV from that perspective and had to explain to people that it was very, very normal where I came from,” he says.

Building business value abroad

To address the myriad challenges of leading IT abroad, IT leaders must leverage their communication, collaboration, and relationship-building skills. 

One key area where an expat IT leader’s soft skills will be tested is in establishing an effective relationship with business stakeholders. In this aspect, Pant’s experience of “working with very demanding stakeholders in professionally managed companies as well as family-owned businesses in India was very helpful,” he says.

Bhupendra Pant, CIO, OTE Group, in Muscat, Oman

Bhupendra Pant

“As IT leaders, you should initiate a few things that add value from the management’s perspective. While they are expected to keep the lights on and secure the crown jewels, they should quickly understand what is being appreciated and what isn’t. For this, CIOs must constantly take feedback from the stakeholders by setting up good communication between business and IT,” he says.

To accelerate this at OTE Group, Pant made the CIO’s office and IT department more accessible across the company’s grades and locations. For example, when his team was working on its OTE Connect mobile app for customer service, the IT team was transferred to the vehicle service location where it not only worked closely with the business but also interacted with external customers.

“Initially there were teething troubles but there was no argument or justification on any adverse feedback, and we would immediately rectify it. We would also not shy away from asking what we needed from the business. This also helped in improving the participation from business,” Pant says, adding that the approach of proactively seeking feedback was much appreciated.

To successfully bring business on the same page as IT, Locandro organized a yearly innovation day during his stint with CLP. On this day, business leaders were invited to talk about the successes of their IT projects and how it helped them. He also set up an innovation center and organized walk-throughs for business units.

Ferris made sure he spoke short, crisp sentences with very clear meaning with his bosses who weren’t native English speakers, even though they could be incredibly fluent in the language. “People get lost in long sentences, and when senior leaders get lost they don’t admit it; they just say no. Give them something they care about, but make sure they could understand it,” he says.

To deliver value and break down silos between business and IT, Ferris leveraged a distributed model — embedding squads into other business units rather than grabbing all the authority himself. “I found if I held the budget and the reporting line, giving away operational control was a powerful tool to build trust. Also, my embedded resources could learn about a business unit far better than I ever could from a conversation. They are in team meetings, hearing the vibe and seeing the opportunity. This approach helped us in breaking down silos delivering value in a big way,” he says.

Staying on the right side of risk and compliance are critical for any technology decision maker, but for foreign IT leaders the need for help may be more pronounced. For Berry, it meant working closely with the human resources and internal audit team. “Dealing with HR is extremely important because they know the law, they know the regulations in the country. Working with internal audit is important from a financial point of view. I stay close to them to make sure what I do follows whatever the regulations are,” he says.

Making connections

Not recognizing subtle cultural differences can lead to a CIO treading on toes without knowing it. For a better understanding of the local culture, Locandro studied Chinese history and took Mandarin classes when he was in Hong Kong. Similarly, he learned about Muslim culture when he went to Dubai.

“In Spain everyone goes out to lunch together. If you are eating alone at your desk, which is very normal in many cultures, it is considered very rude and you’re really thumbing your nose at the team when you do it,” says Ferris, who also recommends CIOs to use websites such as Hofstede Insights to compare countries on key dimensions before making the switch.

Brian Ferris, chief data, analytics, and technology officer, Loyalty NZ, at Nike headquarters in Amsterdam, Netherlands

Brian Ferris

When in India, Ventre ended his team meetings with “theek hai, chalo” (it’s fine, let’s go), a small indication that he understood some Hindi and was trying. “I would never have been able to hold meetings in Hindi, Gujarati, or Dutch but I understood some words/phrases and it is important to show a willingness to learn,” he says. “The reality is that in most global organizations the business language is English, but that does not mean you should be ignorant to the fact that you are working in a different country with a different language.”

Another area where making an effort is vital and can pay off is in developing a professional network.

Locandro, for example, had to map out a network of trusted third parties to get his messages across to business and technology stakeholders within the company and outside. “The trusted people needed to reach out to stakeholders in IT were mostly inside the organization. In case of suppliers, they would be people in business or in chambers of commerce and for government, I had to go through other government departments,” he says, adding that it took him two years to create a social-professional network to break into the inner circles and get accepted.

“Eventually, I ended up being one of the thought leaders and got invited to a lot of Chinese events in mainland China, in Hong Kong and government and advisory,” he says.

While at Heineken in Amsterdam, Ferris formed a peer network “to get together away from everyone else and share learnings and problems.” Under this non-competitive peer relationship initiative, he set up a technology architecture group comprising IT leaders from big companies such as Shell and Phillips, which proved to be “valuable for everyone.”

Embrace the challenge

The decision to go international brings a steep learning curve for IT leaders, but the transition to a new geography has its rewards.

“There is enrichment of thought, diversity, and insights. CEOs look for resilience, adaptability, and clarity in thinking. The experience you gain offshore gives you those dimensions, and when you speak in the job interviews, you can draw from a whole range of experiences,” says Locandro, who credits his entry back into New Zealand to his ability to apply global best practices over other candidates.

Ferris says his international exposure has made him aware that “technology won’t always come out of the US Silicon Valley. Eindhoven and Hilversum are hotbeds of innovation. Culturally, I think it’s really helped me in understanding and building my teams better. I have more empathy and respect for people working and operating in another language,” he says.

And the peer networks built while abroad are invaluable. As Berry says, “I still have contacts in virtually every country I’ve worked in. When I have any business or technology issue, I can call somebody up in any country and seek a solution. This is the power of networking and collaboration.”

Careers, CIO, IT Leadership