Warren joined Cairngorm Capital as an Operating Partner in 2017. In January 2020 he took on the new role of Chief Portfolio Officer, working closely with the CEOs of all their portfolio companies to ensure the each has access to the right resources to deliver their transformation plans.
Warren has extensive technology, financial, operational and leadership experience, typically in environments requiring transformation, rapid growth and/or international expansion.
He has spent the majority of his career in financial services including as Group COO, UK CEO and other senior executive roles in the FNZ Group.
Hamilton Forth’s Angela McCann recently caught up with Warren to find out more about his career path to date and experiences working with businesses requiring rapid growth and business/digital transformation.
What does a typical day look like for you?
Often with a dog walk and always with coffee! I’m lucky that my work is extremely varied and that I get to work with lots of different people, so there’s no typical day really. I might be in one of the portfolio companies working through the detail of a transformation project, or thinking about how transformation of a potential new investment might work, or meeting people who might be able to help with some of that transformation. A big part of my role is making sure there’s alignment between our portfolio company CEOs, the Cairngorm Capital investment team, and the transformation team which means a fair bit of time on the phone or on Teams.
Tell us a bit about Cairngorm Capital…
We’re a private equity firm who operate in the lower mid-market. We partner with management teams to deliver transformational growth, for example through commercial optimisation, geographic roll-outs, service line extensions and digital transformation.
The team of operating partners and operating associates that I’m part of play a big role in our approach, providing our portfolio companies with expertise and experience that businesses of their size and/or sector may often not otherwise have had easy access to.
We think hard about how to be a good custodian of a business – respecting its heritage and legacy, while seeking to deliver exponential growth.
What were your ambitions when you first graduated from Victoria University of Wellington with your bachelor’s degree in commerce and Administration?
If I’m honest, I’m not sure I really knew what I wanted to do when I finished my degree! I’d always been interested in business and knew an accountancy degree and qualification would give me a good grounding for that. With the speed at which the world changes these days, a university degree in my mind really just proves you’ve got the ability to learn and broaden your thinking and shouldn’t limit your career choices going forward.
As a qualified Chartered Accountant do you feel that it is essential to be ‘classically trained’ in technology to pursue a career in this field? How did you make the transition?
I suppose it depends on what you mean by “technology” – there are so many different roles under that technology umbrella, that for me it is more about the way people think about the application of technology and how it will impact a business or its users than what formal training they have had.
I’ve always focused more on how a technology can improve a process, so it has been more about getting something that works for the business as opposed to being technically correct. That being said, I was lucky to have some really good ‘classically trained’ people around me when I started in software development who could make sure we got the balance between ‘business ready’ and ‘technically safe’ right.
In today’s digital landscape, everyone needs to adapt to succeed. Businesses that are unable to keep up with the ever-advancing digital capabilities risk getting left behind by their competitors. What do you see as the most common barriers to the success of digital transformation projects in order to shed some light on the growing problem that is transformation failure?
Digital is often thought of solely an IT thing, so getting business involvement in a transformation project is vital – after all, it is the business that will have to live with the outcome of any decisions made. That business involvement throughout a project is a hard thing for a business to commit to though, as it often means taking your best people out of the day-to-day roles which can have an impact on short-term performance.
That’s a priority call that must be made however or you’ll end up with something that doesn’t fit the business requirement, or falls over as soon as business users engage with it.
The other big barrier to digital transformation is business leaders having an exponential mindset and holding their nerve. Transformation is by nature hard, and often very expensive. There will always be ups and downs in a transformation program so it is important not to over-react to issues or to over-celebrate successes. It is also often the case that the invisible “foundation” work required to underpin a transformation soaks up a large chunk of the early time and money in a program, and it is easy for a less informed or experienced business leader to fall into the trap of losing faith in the program due to not being able see and touch something tangible for the business during the earlier stages.
Transformation should be about exponential change, expecting something vastly different to what you are doing now. That requires business leaders to have courage and patience. I read an excellent HBR article earlier in the year that I keep going back to on this subject – well worth a read here – https://hbr-org.cdn.ampproject.org/c/s/hbr.org/amp/2016/07/how-to-create-an-exponential-mindset
During the pandemic, many organisations have accomplished what had previously been thought impossible. What have you learnt about yourself through this crisis?
That I’m surrounded by a bunch of committed and talented people and that the power of combined and aligned thinking is much more powerful that one person.
On a personal front, the pandemic reinforced how important family and friends are to me and also how fortunate we are here to have green space locally to use.
In your opinion, what learnings from the pandemic should we bring forward into the organisation for the future, and how will this change for Technology Leaders day to day?
I’ve been amazed at how quickly change could be delivered through necessity – think businesses shifting from paper to sign on glass for delivery, the way all these screens over shop counters have gone up, etc. That has made me challenge the way I think about risk against delivery timescales even more than before.
How has your leadership style evolved over the course of your career?
I’d like to think I’ve become a more empathetic leader over time. Earlier in my career, I always expected people to almost blindly get behind the cause and to be on board with what was being delivered.
Experience teaches you people have different motivations, anxieties, and perspectives and as a leader, it’s still important to make sure your team are aligned but just as important for you to understand how to keep them aligned. Leadership isn’t about hierarchy as much as an ability to mould a team all driving to the same goal.
You participate in a number of events, volunteer groups, steering committees etc – what do you gain from this?
You can learn a little bit from anyone you come across, even if you don’t necessarily agree with them.
If you were able to give your younger self some advice or tips for the future, what would you say?
Hmm, drink and work less, exercise more?? You learn so much through your mistakes, so I think my main message to my younger self would be to be decisive but unafraid to change course if that is needed. I’d also try to explain how different experiences, views and approaches can be moulded into successful teams.
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