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Steven Turnbull and Stephen Willis image

Our new Chief Digital Officer Steven Turnbull (left) with Chief Operating Officer Stephen Willis.

Our University is getting a new digital leader for the first time in more than 18 years and in the computer age, the role is pivotal for everyone at Otago. Communications Advisor Gail Goodger decided to find out more about the Wānaka-born man who will lead us into the technological future.

Our new Chief Digital Officer has wanted this role for years but did not apply when it first came up because he was “having a lot of fun doing some incredible stuff” setting up the new nationwide polytechnic, Te Pūkenga.

The second time the job was advertised, the timing was right because the current Government had decided to disband Te Pūkenga in favour of retaining the regional polytechnics.

The 42-year-old has always been passionate about tertiary education and the retirement of our Information Technology Services Director Mike Harte gave him both the opportunity to stay in the sector and to join our University.

Steven had been thinking for years about applying for Mike’s job when he retired – “I get on really well with Mike, we’ve known each other for a very long time”.

Who is our new Chief Digital Officer?

Steven is not someone who wants to “blow his own trumpet”, but the pieces do start falling together when he starts answering questions.

His most recent role as Chief Digital Officer at New Zealand’s largest tertiary organisation, Te Pūkenga – New Zealand Institute of Skills and Technology, involved meeting the technology needs of the new online organisation’s 270,000 students and 14,000 staff.

“It was incredibly busy. I’ve never worked so long and hard in my life. The past 12 months have been some of the most challenging but exciting of my professional life,” he says.

That ambitious digital transformation project included navigating multiple changes to achieve an integrated digital model while adopting best practice tools and processes, with the aim of better supporting ākonga (students), kaimahi (staff), employers and partners.

While having the Te Pūkenga team working online from around the country was very different to being on a campus, “it turned out to be a great way to work when you have tight timeframes”.

However, so much travel was also involved that people at Ōtepoti Dunedin Airport knew him by name and his wife Madelene took a year off without pay from her job as a librarian on our Dunedin campus – she is back now.

Growing culture

When Steven built his team as Chief Information Officer at the Otago Polytechnic, it was a finalist in a national CIO Best team Culture Award only three years later.

The team had become so tight, when the executive called for two IT staff to be cut, everyone volunteered to take a pay drop. The executive responded by keeping them all and not reducing their pay.

The IT crew was such “a fantastic team of people, they had an incredible culture where people were very open with each other … about how they were feeling and what they needed to be successful and that they had each other’s backs,” Steven says.

After they offered to take pay cuts, “I thought ‘we’ve got some pretty crazy here’,” so they entered the awards.

But how did his team also develop such a good culture in two years that Steven could drop to being a part-time CIO and run his own business as well?

“The fish rots from the head down, right? You’ve got to be consistent in your messaging, help them see what success looks like, management needs to be a cohesive team on the same page” he says.

“If people feel they’re supported, respected, trusted, and able to do the right thing and make decisions for themselves, the team becomes more accommodating with each other. Culture breeds culture.”

Surely it is not that straight forward?

“No, it does take work and in every team there’s always people who don’t want to be part of it and there’s a conversation to be had and it’s just about getting it done. If everyone is there for the right reasons, there is a path through that.”

“I like staff to be able to see a future pathway for themselves. In general people want to grow, progress through the ranks and be exposed to opportunities that stretch them. This is important to me.”

At Te Pūkenga, in the run up to the general election, when it was uncertain if the organisation would stay or go, “there’s something I reiterated to directors: ‘We’re here to make the staff that report to us and the ākonga that rely on us better, if we keep doing that, we’ve achieved something regardless of what the Government does’”.

Steven Turnbull and family image

Steven Turnbull and his family – son Liam (9), daughter, Briar (25 months) and wife Madelene, who is a librarian on our Dunedin campus.

Leading from the front

As a leader, Steven thinks his Fire and Emergency New Zealand (FENZ) experience has helped: “It takes a fair bit to get me wound up … and I’m pretty clear headed under pressure because there’s no other option when you’re arriving on a red truck.

“Just being calm, the voice of reason, it helps the rest of the team to think calmly and get on with thinking about what the solution looks like.”

He started as a teenage volunteer firefighter following in his father’s footsteps and spent many years as a volunteer Senior Station Officer heading the Fire and Emergency New Zealand (FENZ) volunteer firefighters in Mosgiel.

He has been helping communities build capability for the past 10 years as regional trainer and has been with FENZ for almost 25 years in total.

He is grateful for the framework FENZ gave him, the Coordinated Incident Management System (CIMS) which emergency services and organisations nationwide use internally across functions and externally across agencies to plan for major incidents, manage them, and recover.

Fostering relationships

For day-to-day work, Steven believes in partnerships and that digital is “part of the solution and together we need to solve the problem”.

IT in general used to see itself as a service provider that people came to with a problem, but a modern digital environment is “the flip side of that, where we craft services for the customer and to do that, we need to understand the organisation from end to end, not just IT”.

His own path

Steven has been so busy professionally, his own business, Technology Leadership, is on hold – it had involved providing Chief Information Officer and Chief Information Security Officer support for Ōtepoti Dunedin’s typically small-to-medium-sized businesses by the hour so they could afford the roles.

His consultancy started by chance, then word of mouth kept providing more work, which included vendor management, policy, third-party advice when a consultant was providing internal IT, and security assessments – he was initially Chief Information Security Officer at Te Pūkenga.

That was not his first business though, he created his first in his early 20s, after gaining a Bachelor of Information Technology and while an Otago Polytechnic IT team junior member. His company tested and tagged electrical equipment which “seemed like a great thing because I could go in and do it at night. It was $2 a tag, so it could be quite lucrative”.

The work helped pay for his study, but once other people started flooding into the emerging industry, he sold out.

Now outside his day job, is still a board member at North East Valley Normal School, where son Liam (9) is a pupil, and Steven has 25-month-old daughter, Briar, as well.

“Days go too slow if you’re not busy,” Steven says.

Students using tech image

Steven is keen on exploring how we could enhance the ways our students use technology.

The future
He is now looking forward to a new organisation and the challenges that brings.

Steven wants to get around his entire team and the wider University to find out about people’s concerns and needs. He has already done that with some people during the recruitment process and took notes that he plans to follow up on, saying “I don’t like wasting time”.

He is also looking forward to “investing my time in Ōtepoti Dunedin once again, and “being a little more focused – on one organisation rather than 25 [polytechnics]”.

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