When he isn’t in his South Bank office with its views of the City across the River Thames, Gavin Michael can often be found on a plane between London and Sydney.

It’s a commute that puts three hours on the M25 well into context. But home is where the heart is, and the genial Australian who is CIO at the UK’s Retail Banking and General Insurance arm of Lloyds TSB, would never see his wife Susan if they weren’t prepared to take it in turns to clock up the air miles.

He wears the mileage lightly, despite a long, lean frame that surely makes extra legroom a necessity. “We will be moving here soon but at the moment it’s the only way,” he says.

“We have our own VoIP server at home. I’m passionate about the technology, of course. But for Susan, it’s just a way she can call me for free and know that the phone bill won’t hurt. As an Australian, you get so used to having to travel long distances anyway. Fortunately I can sleep easily on the plane, and I’ve just got into a routine over the last two years.”

Michael’s arrival at Lloyds TSB in -October 2006 – initially as CTO – was a kind of homecoming. He was born in London to Australian parents in 1965. So when the call came that persuaded him to leave his job as general manager for strategy and architecture at National Australia Bank and start those regular 13,500-mile commutes, it wasn’t a complete leap into the unknown, and realised Michael’s ambition to develop his career with one of the City of London’s biggest concerns.

“I had a real desire to work in the financial services capital of the world,” he says. “Lloyds TSB is the number one current account-holding bank on the high street. We have 16 million customers and there are only 21 million people in Australia. Put in that context, the scale on which we operate fascinates me. And it was always about wanting to work with the biggest.

“I don’t think there’s that huge a difference between the adoption rates of technology in the two markets. When I look back at the issues and problems, there are a lot of similarities. Things are more aggressive here, which is more about market forces and customer demand; the consumer infrastructure, broadband and high bandwidth speeds, is more developed although Australia is catching up. With a large population, things can move faster.”

Michael moved into the CIO’s seat in February after just 14 months as CTO, a promotion preceded by his appointment to the Retail Bank Executive Committee in January. To the casual observer, it looks like the classic, smooth, upward trajectory of the well-planned career.

But his arrival in the financial services sector, and most recently at the nexus where technology and business are most closely aligned, is a relatively recent development in a high-velocity CV. Michael could equally well have been an academic: in 1996 his PhD thesis in Computer Science at the Australian National University in Canberra was noted for making a substantial contribution to learning.

He then spent seven years cutting a swathe through the big names of the IT vendor community – Fujitsu, Bell Labs, IBM, internet infrastructure software firm 724 Solutions, then IBM again – initially as an engineer and eventually as a consultant, before National Australia Bank headhunted him to lead the development of a service-oriented architecture in 2003.

Did I ever tell you you’re my hero?

Michael’s role models are eclectic: Steve Jobs for understanding the technology consumer’s behaviour like nobody else; the late US academic Richard Feynman for his impact on parallel computing; and Barack Obama, for the way in which he managed to raise most of his campaign money from donations of $200 or less.

“That’s a phenomenal achievement. How do you build that character, that spirit, in a way that has such an effect?” he asks.

He also admits to a fascination with Amy Winehouse (below), as a singer and a human being, which may compel this besuited CIO to hike down to Glastonbury next year as he immerses himself further in British culture.

It’s all academic

He says that both previous lives continue to be an important influence on his view of the CIO’s role: academia was about bringing a structured approach to solving problems that are often ambiguous by nature – something that business people with their eye on the endgame don’t always -understand. And consultancy meant working with a wide range of clients and developing a wealth of experience that could be cross-referenced and applied to similar problems in different institutions.

His first contact with the financial services industry came when he joined IBM Business Innovation Services in 1998 as senior manager in customer relationship management. He saw for the first time how much technology touches the customer. It proved addictive. “There’s no other sector where technology plays such a big role in the business and where it’s possible to have such a positive effect,” he says.

“One of the advantages of having been a CTO is that you get to work very closely with the CIO and understand the issues that affect the business. Coming in as CIO, I had a good idea about what our challenges and problems would be: making sure the legacy systems don’t get in the way of what we want to do now.

“The CIO’s role has moved beyond just focusing on the IT operation. We need to lead the effort to get real business -benefits from our IT investment, find ways for IT to change the company and not just run it. And that is absolutely the CIO’s -conundrum at the moment, because we end up having to balance the supply side of our job – delivering a series of services that allow the business to operate – with the demand side, which is all about influencing and shaping the business. You have to do both and not let one agenda subsume the other.”

Michael suggests that the financial services sector has led the way in recognising the value of information, and this has helped to bring IT into the business fold. But there is still a long way to go in converting that recognition into increasingly sophisticated knowledge – and that is where the CIO comes in, both as a -leader with business clout and a champion of new technology.

“One of the first things I did as CTO was change our IT operating model to become more commodity-based, so we would have true competency in a particular technology, platform or toolset,” he explains. “The establishment and recognition of the architect’s role meant we could start to attract really strong talent to the organisation. And the establishment of a strong innovation team recruited specifically because of its experience means we can talk to the business and bring innovation on to the agenda so that it becomes part of the day-to-day discussions. And that could be anything from establishing intranet search through to the more dramatic side of innovation like virtual reality, and marketing it to the business.”

Customer relations

For Michael, everything comes back to the customer and using the bank’s unique insight to generate more information, which will allow it to enhance customer experience and build ever-more intimate customer relationships. He cites the bank’s use of interactive voice response systems as an example of how the organisation can take a new piece of technology and put it in the customer context.

“I’m passionate about technology, but the challenge is being able to make sure that the discussion I have when I’m at the business table is aligned to the sense of direction we need to get for the business, rather than just coming at it from the direction of the technologist,” he says.

“Take videoconferencing. I’m fascinated that we’ve built a data network that allows us to do this over IP. But I’m more fascinated that we can have an enhanced conversation with teams in Gloucester or Manchester, and that I can take that a step further and use it not just to engage with our teams but also to reduce our travel budget – which is great from a financial point of view but also helps us meet some of the green commitments we’ve made to the market. It comes from wanting to understand what you can do with the technology, then placing it in the broader context. Videoconferencing over IP is probably not a very exciting topic as such, but to turn it around and show how we can use it to change the way we collaborate across our organisations is a great conversation to have.”

A change is a gonna come

Gavin Michael expects three key trends to change the way the business uses information during the next few years: the growth of collaboration tools, the use of services like Google Earth and Google Maps to add value to customer-facing apps, and the rise of search technology.

“I love the idea of being able to stretch the physical boundaries of the enterprise through the collaborative technology,” he says. “It will become a way we can work differently, internally and externally. And the whole issue of mash-up, of people being able to restructure the value propositions that are presented to them by various organisations, is exciting.

“But I’m not going to lose sight of the fact that search is still an unknown frontier for us. We hold a lot of information and the ability to build insight from it is important. Search has an interesting dimension within the enterprise as well as the day-to-day.”

And according to Michael, those conversations are becoming more informed from the business perspective, which helps the CIO and his team engage more effectively with colleagues on the other side of what used to be a considerable divide. The challenge is to bring everything back to a business context. He offers blogging as an example. When he first arrived at Lloyds TSB, the word was hardly known. Today, several group executive directors write weekly blogs and they have played an important part in creating a ‘listening’ culture within the bank. The conversation has shifted from simply alerting people to the availability of blogging tools, to how they can be used for senior managers to talk to their staff and inspire them, which leads ultimately to happier customers and shareholders.

“I don’t think there’s a tension in the CIO’s role,” he says. “We all understand the components needed to manage IT for value. We talk about business unit engagement and participation in technology investment, greater business unit accountability for realising the benefits of some of the investments we’ve made, and the increasing emphasis on using IT to change the organisation. So why is it still such a difficult role for us to play? Fundamentally, it comes down to leadership on both the business and technology sides – trying to manage that balance between supply and demand.”

The CIO should be building what Michael calls the ‘Northern Light’ which every-one can follow with a common agenda. As CTO, he restructured the Lloyds TSB Retail Banking Technology Division so that roles and skills became more streamlined, allowing for the more proactive exploitation of application and infrastructure portfolios across the group. Technology silos have been broken down, although Michael says this is partly the natural outcome of an internet-savvy society. People have now been exposed to different -aspects of technology for many years and the legacy of that shift is permanently on the landscape: business is simply becoming more technology-literate.

Team tactics

As expectations rise accordingly, he says, more will be expected of the CIO. Once you have ‘managed out’ bad performance by helping the entire team to understand their roles and accountabilities (Michael is responsible for 200 staff, including contractors), you can raise the bar and encourage people to participate in discussions at ever-higher levels. But a more business-savvy IT workforce comes at a price: its skills become a desirable commodity.

“We need to be nurturing our strongest performers, showing them that there is a career progression here,” he says. “Because there’s a global market for talent right now and we’re all participating in it. Our high performers will be someone else’s target.

Gavin Michael CV

1989: Lecturer on software engineering, information systems and advanced computing techniques while writing his PhD thesis on Computer Technology for Multi-computers at Australian National University, Canberra

1996: Senior engineer at Fujitsu Australia where he led the firm’s object-oriented database product innovation programme

1997: Senior engineer, Bell Labs

1998: Senior manager in IBM Business Innovation Services’ CRM practice in 1998

2000: Joined 724 Solutions as vice president for customer services in Asia Pacific

2001: Built Multichannel/Branch Transformation Practice for IBM Business Consulting Services. Client list includes ANZ Bank, Citibank, Bank of America, Bank of New Zealand and DBS Group

2003: Headhunted by National Australia Bank to head up its global technology strategy and architecture capabilities

2006: Moved to UK to join Lloyds TSB as CTO. Promoted to CIO in February 2008

“At the same time we have to set the right expectations for low performers and perhaps recognise where someone isn’t in the right role. And for the people in the middle, they need to understand that coming to work and doing a good job is a great outcome. It’s about working to all parts of our performance curve.”
Michael says that there is a persistent skills shortage on the strategy and architecture side of IT. And as business recognises the critical role IT can play, so the global pull for strong CIO talent will increase. It all comes down to being able to deliver the best business outcome through the use of technology. “There is a general uplift in people’s skill profiles,” he adds. “The problems we’re trying to solve are so difficult – and the same for many of us – and that compounds the issue of finding good people to solve them.”

The role of finding and retaining IT talent in business transformation is something that Michael admits will keep him awake in the small hours. Losing a talented person creates a great hole, so succession planning and always having the next candidate ready to step in is a priority. But so, too, is deploying technology to improve customer service.

“They’re very different problems,” he says. “But they can both make for a difficult day.”

The dateline on Michael’s CV doesn’t suggest that he is a man who likes to let the grass grow for too long under his feet. But he exudes a sense of having arrived at a destination that is interesting enough to keep him occupied for some time. The CIO’s seat is a natural home for someone who can combine deep-rooted and authoritative technological expertise with 21st century, customer-focused business sensibility and Michael is clearly good at both. Where would he like to be in 10 years’ time?

“In an ideal world, we’ll be having this discussion from my island,” he laughs. “But I can see growth in this role. I think CIOs will cross the consultant line more frequently, because they will become more attractive with their experience on the corporate side. And I wouldn’t rule out a return to academia because I think at some point in time that would be something to go back to.

“For me right now, I’d want a bigger CIO role in the future. But I’m sure this one’s big enough for now.”