The man running CBA's IT shop

Commonwealth Bank's new CIO David Whiteing has some big shoes to fill and his biggest challenge isn't Google or PayPal.

Supplied Editorial David Whiteing, Commonwealth Bank chief information officer

Complacency's the real killer :Commonwealth Bank CIO David Whiteing Source: Supplied

Listen to David Whiteing speak and one could easily form the view that he was working for the underdog, that somehow his employer was desperate to claw its way back into relevancy.

But in reality, Whiteing runs one of the leading and most respected IT shops in the land at the Commonwealth Bank, which holds pole position in the eyes of financial analysts and even some rivals.

The underdog tag is a counter against any possible signs of complacency, which is deemed a dangerous trait organisation-wide.

This keeps Whiteing and his team constantly hungry for more: hungry to perform, to beat the competition and to please customers.

In his first interview since assuming the CIO post, Whiteing gave The Australian a glimpse into his thought process after the bank unveiled a $4 million innovation lab in Sydney last week.

He says while emerging external threats — the likes of Google, PayPal and Alibaba — are obvious, the biggest internal threat is complacency.

“Our internal threat is that we become complacent, we become overconfident, we suffer from some form of hubris. I love the Andy Grove quote of ‘only the paranoid survive’.

“I genuinely wake up everyday saying I’ve only done today the best that I know how.

“If someone comes along and gives me a better idea I’m really excited to understand that and try and see how we might make that work,” Whiteing says.

He has big shoes to fill after replacing the widely known Michael Harte who left for Barclays Bank in Britain a few months ago.

Like his predecessor, Whiteing is a massive rugby union fan and the South African-born Australian is a mad supporter of the Springboks to Kiwi-born Harte’s All Blacks.

Whiteing says the duo began communicating at least 18 months ago before he joined the bank as IT architecture and planning chief in September 2013. He was then with BP in Britain heading its enterprise systems.

“I was working overseas and Michael was thinking about his team and succession and we’d been connected through that and I was planning on returning to Australia anyway.

“We just kept the dialogue going,” Whiteing recalls.

Harte had made some changes to his team and a role emerged for Whiteing “always with a view that I’d come on board with an opportunity to take the role (of CIO)”, he says.

Whiteing hasn’t reorganised Harte’s team, and says the thirst to address customer needs and their requirements which haven’t been met remains. “That to me is the golden sauce.”

He believes that ‘the’ benchmark is “against your own performance”, where “inside ourselves is that relentless measurement of ‘is today better than what yesterday was’.”

“By doing that we constantly set a target of being way ahead in the next 12 months, 24 months, five years so that creates that Olympic fitness that allows us to be ready to compete in whatever way,” he says.

Whiteing’s main takeaway from a recent trip to the Silicon Valley with the executive team led by CBA chief Ian Narev was “done is better than perfect”.

“… not everything needs to take 18 months.

“… we need to really, really test ourselves and not everything needs to be Rolls Royce, gold-plated,” he says.

The seasoned executive holds dear lessons from an ex-colleague who once hiked to the North Pole, which helps drive his thinking and decision-making process.

“… he said the only two things you measure when you’re hiking to the North Pole is that your sled is lighter today than it was yesterday and you travel more miles today than you did yesterday.

“And if you don’t achieve both of those measures you won’t make it.”

To ‘make it’ and ensure his staff are motivated Whiteing has an open door policy where “honest, transparent, and fact-based conversations” can be held.

“I tell people I’m not going to solve the how, that’s their job, and I’m going to give them the tools, facilities and financial wherewithal to go and do that.

“I’m going to provide them with very direct feedback, support and encouragement but I’m also going to have a very strong conversation where the performance or outcome is not what we expected,” Whiteing says.

This story was first published in The Australian