According to William Payne, UK CIO of Veolia’s waste recycling business, we are often confronted with a lot of large tasks which can be so daunting that we tend to put them off.

But if you break the big projects up into small, meaningful chunks, you’ll probably get started quicker. Furthermore, when you have a series of small units of work, you’re constantly finishing things, and you can derive satisfaction from the intermediate successes.

“You want to be continually delivering something,” says Payne. “This applies to me personally, but also to my team. We break things up into small tasks, which not only helps individuals, it also helps us as a team deliver products to our customers.

“If the customer sees you delivering things on a regular basis, there’s a tighter feedback loop and more interaction. That’s better than going off to do a large amount of work and telling the client you’ll be back in six months with the results. It’s a more collaborative approach.”

Payne advises spending most of your day working on one chunk at a time and zoning out all distractions.

“If you focus on a particular task, you’ll get things done,” he says. “One task might be to sift through your inbox and get all incoming messages out of the way.”

He has a simple rule on prioritising. If a task, meeting or email is not relevant to the business strategy or to delivering satisfaction to a customer, it’s not high priority.

“That’s a defensible position,” he says. “When people ask you why something didn’t get done, you can always show that you prioritised it lower because it wasn’t related to a particular customer or issue we consider important right now. It’s very hard for somebody to come back and say they disagree.

“People on my team know that’s how I operate, so we don’t have to go through each item in turn. All they have to do is apply the prioritisation rules.”

Payne has been at Veolia for five years and has around 80 people in his IT department. He says having a good team is crucial, so you should never procrastinate on people issues. He spends time out in the field with the workers he supports through IT, and he insists that other people on his staff do the same.

“Fortunately, the majority of the 13,000 people in our UK business are blue collar workers. I go out and spend time talking to them. How you support blue collar workers is completely different to how you deal with a group of people working in an office.”

Frontline experience
“You can learn an awful lot from working with blue collar workers and taking that back to the office environment. These are frontline workers. They collect the garbage, sweep the streets or work in industrial plants. They perform a lot of different activities, often in a hostile environment.

“Whenever you go out and spend time in an operational part of the business, you learn how to interact with people across a wide spectrum of responsibilities. It’s completely different to the office environment. It even teaches you how to handle meetings, because you learn to cut through the nonsense.”

This is consistent with Payne’s view of the CIO role, which he thinks is undergoing dramatic change.

“It’s a lot less technical and has a lot more business focus,” he says. “As a result, the CIO of the future is somebody who is quite comfortable running and operating a business.

“You have to understand the technology too, but often you have specialists in different areas who can cover most of the details.

“Where you add value as a CIO is having a discussion about the services you provide to your customers and why they are needed. For example, I also work on innovation within the company. That’s not technological innovation, it’s innovation full stop.”

He does feel, however, that the ‘CIO’ title on a business card isn’t automatically indicative of a business-savvy IT leader.

“There are a lot of CIOs out there right now who are what I would call IT managers or IT directors. They aren’t CIOs. A CIO is an essential part of the success of the company, whether the business is something physical, like what we do, or something more service- and transaction-orientated, like a bank.

“The CIO has to be very aware of how the organisation makes its money and translate that understanding of the needs into processes that support the business. I come across a lot of people who are just IT directors. They’re at home with networks and technology.”

High flyer
On personal productivity, Payne thinks you need to stay healthy. He runs three times a week, and while doing so does a lot of thinking. Thinking time is important, but it’s not the only way he takes a mental holiday.

“If you’re going to have a hobby that gets you away from work,” he says, “you need to find something that drains your brain and takes you away one hundred percent. That’s why I fly helicopters. You can’t concentrate on anything else. If you let go of the controls, you are in serious trouble very quickly.”

Payne flies once or twice a month, usually around Essex, but he has gone as far as Paris. It all started when his wife once bought him a trial session in a light aeroplane, but it wasn’t a big enough challenge for him. Inspired by the idea of flying, he tried piloting a helicopter, which he found much more difficult to learn.

“I love it,” he says. “For me it’s one of the most relaxing things to do, because you can’t concentrate on anything other than flying the helicopter.”