Len de Villiers’ journey as a CIO, a problem solver and a mentor

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Len de Villiers’ career has largely been dedicated to serving the greater good of the IT industry.

Len de Villiers is a retired CIO, with a 40-year IT history, and the chairman of Moyo, a digital business consultancy. He now resides in Swartkopmund, Namibia, where he enjoys fishing and other recreational activities.

Len was a group CIO in some of the country’s most reputable organisations, including the JSE, Telkom, Absa, and Nedbank, when he was still active in corporate. “If I had to describe my journey, it would be a journey as CIO and a few firehose assignments,” he says. When CIOs left a company, Len was called in to put out the fire and bridge the gap.

After paying his dues in the corporate world, he decided to make another meaningful contribution to the IT industry and established the CIO Council of South Africa along with industry peers. “The CIO Council was founded in 2004 by 100 CIOs – myself included. The idea behind it was to put together a council that could look out for the interests of CIOs in the country,” he says. “The council would essentially support CIOs, assist them with guidelines on best practices and how to manage relations with the board.

“We would host quarterly CIO Council events and invite CIOs to these sessions and have robust discussions on interesting topics and the world of the CIO, which were quite successful. And then in 2014, Microsoft decided to refocus their sponsorships, which resulted in the sessions no longer taking place,” he says. “The council is in existence, but not a progressive as it used to be.”

Len often got calls from CIOs seeking advice from him, which inspired him to start a CIO mentorship programme that would help CIOs to overcome certain challenges in their organisations. “CIOs, in most cases, face similar challenges: it could either be a funding issue, a delivery issue or relationship challenges with exco,” he says.

“The average lifespan of a CIO globally within an organisation does not exceed 18 months,” he says. According to Len, organisations tend to anticipate quick results from their CIOs too soon. “The expectations of a company of their CIO are so significant that if they cannot make a difference and produce positive results within an 18-month timeframe, the company and CIO part ways.”

He believes that it is very important to find solutions that can help to keep CIOs in those organisations and successfully deliver. So he developed a mentorship programme through a two-way approach: on some occasions CIOs would approach him, and in other instances he would seek them out, and they would then collaborate in establishing a framework for the programme. “I ran the programme for some time until Moyo came on board,” he says. “Moyo essentially wanted to support the initiative by finding more CIOs to join and even offered to fund a portion of the programme.”

The mentorship programme has six modules, and considering that CIOs are generally very busy, he has tried to compress the programme. “When CIOs are away for programmes, their absence is quite clear and the company really feels the impact when the CIO is not there – it’s almost like the pilot is not in the cockpit,” he says.

“We have structured the modules in such a way that they last for two hours per module, and run it once a month, over six months,” he explains. “We try to package everything into those six modules over two hours, and it’s a lot of stuff we put in the module: reading, templates, dashboards, and really train them on how to resolve issues as well as being politically astute as a CIO.”

According to Len, 50 percent of a CIO’s career is destroyed by politics – not by delivery or the absence of skills, but purely as a result of organisational politics. “I spend quite a lot of time helping CIOs become politically astute, and helping them see what they can do to resolve problems.”

The mentorship programme usually takes place on Friday mornings. It’s by design, Len says. He believes it is the only time most CIOs feel comfortable being offsite, which also gives them the rest of the afternoon to focus on their plans over the weekend. In addition, if CIOs encounter challenges outside of the programmes: they can either ask Len or Johnny Labuschagne, general manager at Moyo, for any advice and guidance.

“It’s very difficult to be a successful CIO,” says Len. “There is an unfortunate dilemma that CIOs face: most companies are of the view that CIOs in the world are too late, too slow, and too expensive, and tend to go over budget.

“In response, we decided to dedicate ample time on budgeting, planning, proposals, business cases, ROI, and business ownership of an IT business project. Over and above this, we also spend time on project delivery: this is because 80 percent of company projects are IT dependent projects or at least have an IT component in them.”

Len has had an incredible journey and says that at this point in his life, paying it forward is most important to him. “I’d rather not see the next generation of CIOs make the same mistakes I did. Most CIOs struggle with the inability to say no or commit to projects blindly. That’s something I’d like to change.

“What’s been most exciting about my experiences is being able to share them with the youth," he says. "Many CIOs today are in their early 20s and 30s; they are eager, bright, but inexperienced,” he says.

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