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CIO to CEO: Career advice from Rob Fyfe

Divina Paredes | Jan. 14, 2014
‘The CIO can be an incredibly powerful position' – the relentless pressures of the job are also opportunities to forge a great career and help the organisation outrank the competition.

Being a CIO can be an "uncomfortable position", says Fyfe. "You have your foot on each side of the fence."

As well, he says, "It can be an incredibly powerful position if you can act as that connection point that ties the opportunity together with the need.

"Use that opportunity to engage with and learn about the challenges, the dynamics going on and all those other functions in the business," he states. "You are in a perfect position to get a really broad understanding and perspective of the business and that is a great way to position yourself from moving potentially into one of those roles or moving across the organisation rather than staying within the IT and communications space."

At a recent CIO Leaders' Luncheon in Auckland sponsored by Fronde, Fyfe shares his experience as one of a handful of CIOs who have made the leap to the top role.

Fyfe was CEO of Air New Zealand from 2005 to 2012, and at the time of the interview, was on sabbatical from a full-time role. He is also executive chairperson at Icebreaker, and is on the board of jewellery chain Michael Hill and Antarctica New Zealand.

Rapid prototyping
Fyfe says the airlines industry is by very conservative and risk averse, but at Air new Zealand, the mantra for taking on new projects is this: "If they are not actually potentially fatal to the business, if they don't risk flight safety, let us be prepared to take some risks, try some things and prototype and adapt quickly if we find those things don't work."

"If we were prepared to rapidly prototype and use trial and error, we can make material progress far faster than our competitors were able to," he says.

"It is about rapid prototyping," he says. "Being prepared to make mistakes and learn [from these] is absolutely critical."

One of Air New Zealand's most successful products, grab a seat, started, for instance, as a pilot.

Fyfe flew Irish budget airline Ryanair on the way to a wedding in the UK. Back in New Zealand, he asked the local team why they cannot offer similar "one pound fares".

After two weeks, the marketing team came out with a plan that is now known as grab a seat. The finance team, however, disagreed with the concept, as people may think every seat should be between 10 to 20 dollars. "With a 1 or 2 percent profit margin, there will not be a lot of room for error, it will be a disaster," they told Fyfe.

He got the two teams in the room and discussed the worst that can happen if they push through with the idea. They decided to run the idea for eight weeks. After that period, if the finance team was right, "and we are haemorrhaging revenue, then we can call it quits and say it is a promotion."


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