Rob Fyfe, former CEO of Air New Zealand, is this year’s winner of the CIO Lifetime Contribution Award.
Nominated by a select committee of industry peers, Fyfe was presented the award at a private ceremony in Auckland last night.
The panel of judges noted Fyfe is a worthy recipient for the CIO Lifetime Contribution Award due to “his approach to innovation and his courage and leadership in supporting technology-based initiatives while CIO and subsequently CEO at Air New Zealand”.
The award, sponsored by SAP, is part of the 2013 New Zealand CIO Summit and Awards.
“He is a role model for future leaders in how he takes staff, customers and the public with him when introducing new technologies,” says Graeme Riley, SAP New Zealand managing director, on presenting the award to Fyfe.
Fyfe says it was a privilege for him to accept the award because he knows how much it means to the people he works with, particularly in the information technology space.
The recognition, he says, is an “absolute career highlight” for him, and is happy it will give people working in IT “a sense of what is possible in their own careers”.
The Lifetime Contribution award is given to a high-profile business person (who may or may not be a current or former CIO) from a public or private company whose contribution has significantly and uniquely impacted the greater New Zealand or global business community using information technology over the course of his or her career.
Fyfe’s stint as CIO at Air New Zealand gave him first-hand knowledge of how innovation and creativity, in the use and adoption of technologies, changed the nature of its relationships with customers.
Air New Zealand became known as a world leader in areas such as check-in, baggage handling and boarding, use of social media, application of RFID, e-commerce, business performance optimisation and human resource management systems.
“I am very proud of the achievements we made in these areas,” says Fyfe, who was CEO from 2005 to 2012.
“As CEO, or any senior executive for that matter, and CIO as well, our biggest challenge is how to allocate our time to our roles … over what is important to the success of the business.”
He applied this insight when he was CIO at Air New Zealand.
“When I became CIO, there was a raging debate inside our organisation about whether we should be sitting there as an IT division waiting for business to tell us what we needed; whether we should be prompting the business and pushing ideas and opportunities to the business.
“I was a strong believer that our IT team needed to have a strong identity within the organisation and be promoting ideas and opportunities within the organisation.”
To do this, he says, ICT had to have a clear understanding of what the end customers wanted from the organisation and how the market was changing.
He says he introduced a whole range of seminars and getting the ICT team to focus a lot more on market research and understanding the primary drivers of value within the business, which he says at that time was a "quite foreign” approach for ICT teams.
At the same time, as CIO and CEO, he stressed the importance of giving “permission” for the team to take risks and to encourage and promote ideas.
He says he has always found “untapped potential” for people who are often in their cubicles “programming away” but wanted to have a much larger contribution to the business.
It comes back to the issue of giving them that permission, Fyfe says, and what he tried to do was “unlock” that degree of permission to innovate.
Some of the ideas failed, he says, but key was to “celebrate failure” by learning from that failure, getting insights on customer value that they were able to adopt and learn from “and end up with a much stronger solution”.
One such failure, he says, was when they decided to put an extra row of seats on their 737 planes. The business class passengers complained the reduced space meant they could not open their laptops. “In the end not only did we take out that row of seats, we took out [another] half row of seats.”
“Clearly, we got it wrong,” he says. “We learned from that and now we have a march on our competitors, and our customers are prepared to pay a premium because we discovered this insight.”
As for his next role, “I am not going to run another airline, I have crossed that one off”, he says, despite several requests to do so.
If he had wanted to run an airline, he says he could have stayed on at Air New Zealand. “I was running what I felt was the best airline in the world.”
His next role will not necessarily be in a large corporate. “I would like to work with companies that have the potential and the aspiration and the self belief that they can be world-class, based on a sense of a New Zealand identity,” says Fyfe. “Once I finish this year of recharge, then I will be looking for one of those opportunities.”
“I am passionate about New Zealand,” he says. “What drove me during my time at Air New Zealand was a belief that we could embrace our sense of identity as New Zealanders and perform at a world class level.”
He says the range of awards they received suggest “we made really good progress in achieving that”.
The award Fyfe treasured most was Air New Zealand’s “most reputable and respected company” award, which the airline received twice.
“Ultimately the measure for me was creating an organisation that New Zealanders could be proud of, and New Zealanders could see as a role model of what a New Zealand company can achieve on the world stage without having to shed a cloak of our identity.”
Rob Fyfe’s CV:
- CEO Air NZ from 2005-2012
- Chairman of Management Board of Star Alliance Services until 2012
- Joined Air NZ in 2003 as CIO and led the Business Transformation Team
- Senior management positions in NZ and overseas including National Australia Bank, BNZ, Telecom NZ and ITV Group in the UK
- Independent director of Ecoya since 2010
- Director of Icebreaker since 2012
- Member of Board of Governors at IATA
- Honours degree in Engineering from Canterbury University
- Started work in RNZAF
- Attended Royal Air Force College in UK – graduated from Aero-Systems Engineering Programme
- 2009 Deloitte Executive of the Year
- 2010 William Pickering Award for Engineering Leadership
- 2010 Centre for Asia Pacific Aviation CEO of the Year Award
- 2012 Orient Aviation Lifetime Achievement Award 2012
- And, recently announced
- 2013 Winner New Thinking Category of World Class New Zealand Awards
The video of the CIO Lifetime Contribution Award ceremony will be aired during the CIO Awards on June 11 at SkyCity Convention Centre. The New Zealand CIO Summit is organised by CIO magazine, Conferenz and IDC.
Getting to know the CIO Lifetime Contribution Award recipients:
Rob Fyfe’s rise to Air New Zealand chief executive included a brief stop as its CIO. As such, ICT plays a critical role in helping make the airline one of the country’s most admired brands.
Experience in low level IT, and high level IT-management directly influenced Sir Ralph Norris' award-filled career.
Divina Paredes (@divinap) is editor of CIO New Zealand.
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