Leading With Head, Heart, and Guts: A CIO Perspective

Sponsored by Netskope

Photo courtesy of Netskope.

Photo courtesy of Netskope.

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“Working with great people” is Ilona Simpson’s favorite part of her job as the CIO EMEA at Netskope. “I truly found my calling in cybersecurity” she continues. “Protecting people, organizations and, ultimately, society is very meaningful to me, and it has a true purpose. I love the culture. Brilliant minds, warm hearts, and collaborative and open people. And, last but not least, we are moving fast! I enjoy the pace.”

In her over 20 years of experience in IT, with some 15 years in various CIO and tech leadership roles, Simpson has focused on helping organizations deliver business outcomes leveraging technology - as a discipline, and as a function. She worked across a number of sectors: from automotive to supply chain logistics, from utilities to sports apparel, and aligned technology agendas to business priorities in times of fast growth, consolidation, acquisitions and divestments.  .

And, at Netskope, she has the ability to utilize her extensive knowledge to truly make a difference. “Netskope is the most rewarding place for me,” shares Simpson. “I can have a positive impact on how many organizations build their digital resilience and make the world a safer place.”

In her first leadership role, Simpson understood that she can only impact change through others. As a leader, most important to her was ensuring that her team has “a safe place to succeed, and to excel while knowing I have their back.” Whilst formulating a compelling vision and setting ambitious goals is essential for organizational performance,  “giving them trust and flexibility in how they get results, and respecting individual circumstances and preferences” is an imperative, Simpson tells us. She also makes it a point to create a collaborative and fair environment and is open to being challenged herself.

Here, we caught up with Simpson to learn more about her career growth techniques, leadership strategies, and more… 

To start, how can others develop their careers like you did?

The essence is to stay curious! Have the eagerness to contribute, look for ways to make an impact, and to grow. The right doors will open — whether within the company or outside. Growth only happens outside the comfort zone, be clear it will be uncomfortable! And do not underestimate the power of “inner circle” - actively look for mentors. You are not alone, but (another step out of the comfort zone?) you do need to take initiative. 

What opportunities did Netskope provide that ultimately helped you land your role?

My company actively looked  at a different profile to join the organization: instead of someone who excelled as a CISO, they wanted someone who delivered as a CIO.

And, since joining, I’ve had the opportunity to connect with leaders within Netskope who inspire me and help in situations when a third opinion is valuable.

How has having a mentor or sponsor enriched your work experience?

Enormously. One mistake of my early career is that there was no mentorship (or I was unaware of it), and I did not actively pick up mentors myself. It would have been less lonely, and I am sure it would have saved an occasional bruise if I had a mentor from early on.

What’s been your most valuable career mistake?

In my early career, I accepted a promotion without a formal step up in HR grading and job level as well as salary. And I have been holding grudges against myself for this for many years. I was not assertive enough, and not confident enough to “fight my corner”. However, I now do value the experience itself, and I also see that long term, these things even out. This experience also gave me the courage to not find myself underpaid in a more senior role which I took on some years later.

Next, let’s talk about leadership. How did your day-to-day work change when you went into leadership? What about your overall approach to work?

My first leadership role (not taking into account project and program management) goes back to 2006 when I became CIO at Porsche UK. My biggest realization at that time was that the most important part of my job was people, and the most important skill was listening.

It’s important to have dialogues with business leaders to understand their priorities and challenges. Engage with teams to make sure that they understand the why, and make sure they are empowered and enabled to execute on the vision and the strategy. Listen to partners, and learn from everyone.

Also, if getting everyone on board means slowing down a little, this trade-off is well worth considering.

Leadership is about influencing, inspiring, removing roadblocks, and building bridges. It’s about making smart decisions, with people at heart, and having the courage to change the status quo.

How would you describe your leadership style?  

I love seeing others succeed, and achieving this requires different styles in different organizations with different teams. For example, managing a “mission impossible” cost reduction program requires a different style to lead through a future-paced transformation. Versatility is the key, and clarity and focus are always must-have ingredients.

What’s one strategy you’ve used when managing an individual (or team) that you think has been particularly effective? 

Step back and be open minded to different perspectives. Hold back judgment.

Also, as a tactic for when teams are stuck and don’t see the way out, I make them write down “the list of miracles” — what miracles need to happen for us to achieve an outcome that otherwise seems impossible.

Finally, what is your No. 1 piece of advice for other women who are moving into or want to move into leadership? 

It is not an easy path, but you are drawn to it because you know that you can do it. Remember that you always have the freedom how to interpret and what response to choose to any adversity coming your way

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