Gerard McGovern, Director of Digital, Tony Blair Institute
From selling sandwiches to leading technology for an institution that advises global governments, Tony Blair Institute’s Gerard McGovern attributes his ascension into digital leadership to the dot-com bubble, and a focus on data and customer needs.
In a wide–ranging interview that spans the pervasiveness of digital, the value of data and a new-found love of dogs, Gerard McGovern is mulling his best attributes. And despite 20 years in information technology, he thinks back to a time when his role was less about servers, and more about sandwiches.
“My first ever job was as a sandwich artist at Subway, which didn't really involve technology, but it did involve making sure you always cater for the customer's needs,” he told HotTopics at The Studio, adding that the experience showed him the importance of good leadership and teamwork.
“Fast-food is a challenging working environment, and having someone that trusted and supported me was wonderful. It’s something I’ve always done with teams I’ve led, and it’s helped everyone grow, thrive and succeed.”
Watch the interview highlights with Gerard McGovern below
‘Digital is embedded within society’
McGovern says that he was lucky to begin work in technology just as the dot-com boom began in the 1990s.
Investors were quick to cotton onto the potential of internet-based companies, such as Amazon, eBay and Google, and McGovern, who grew up using the world wide web and went onto study computer science at university, felt like he held an advantage over those that were less technically literate.
“When I started in 1997, 70 million people were online worldwide; now it’s over 5 billion. Very few people had internet access at home, and the concept of mobile internet did not exist,” he says.
Over the next 20 years, McGovern would graduate from Coder and Programmer roles, to Head of Technology and Interim CIO positions. In 2015, he became CIO at Great Ormond Street Hospital Children's Charity, and two years later, he took on the same position at the Institution of Mechanical Engineers. In 2019, six months before the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, he joined the non-profit Guide Dogs Association, initially as Interim CIO.
Now, he’s the Director of Digital at the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change (TBI), the non-profit organisation advising political leaders and governments in more than 40 countries on strategy and policies – and hailed by some as the UK’s ‘most significant’ thinktank, having forged strong relationships with the current Labour opposition government.
Through this time in industry, McGovern believes that technology has become deeply ingrained in every aspect of society, and democratised in the workplace.
“I don't think there's a differentiation any more,” he said. “Digital is so pervasive and embedded within our society and culture… it is like water, it's like air, it is everywhere.
“The value of digital and IT has increased dramatically, and it has been democratised to allow everyone to benefit.”
McGovern says the proliferation of digital services — perhaps best exemplified by the adoption of cloud services – means that digital leaders must keep pace not only with the demands of business, but also consumers, paying particular attention to changing attitudes on how they engage with brands.
“Consumers may be happy to share their data with social media platforms, the same is not always true of businesses and their intellectual property,” he told HotTopics.
“A great digital leader is able to be aware of what’s coming, keep up with latest technology, all while keeping data safe, secure and a great user experience.”
From Guide Dogs to TBI, and the first 90 days
McGovern reflects fondly on his time at Guide Dogs Association. Joining pre-pandemic, the Guide Dogs would go onto embrace flexible working, emerging technologies and become more data-centric; centralising previously-siloed data and establishing better insights to pair guide dogs with their service users.
McGovern, who says he has one dog and will “probably end up with two”, expresses some sadness about moving on.
“It was very hard to leave. But there was a real opportunity to work at the Tony Blair Institute… to do a lot of the things I'd already done at Guide Dogs on a larger, more global scale,” he said, adding a particular emphasis at TBI on data and insights— and scaling a think tank which grew from 200 to 750 people through Covid-19.
“My remit is to make sure that we can continue to grow at the same pace, whilst not losing that entrepreneurial drive and that spirit to get things done”, he said.
Explaining his 90-day plan at the Tony Blair Institute, McGovern said that his first steps were to get to know the people, and by default, the organisation. McGovern says he sought to identify their pain points and internal challenges, as well as the champions and advocates he could rely on. He says it was critical to gently influence and persuade, in order to build trust.
“There’s no way you can come into an organisation and stamp your feet and start pointing and saying ‘this is what we need to do’,” he said.
McGovern remarked that you need to understand your peers, take “quick wins” where applicable and shy away from making promises that you can’t deliver on. Establishing transparency, and clear communication, is essential.
“You don't hide away from any challenges, and you make sure that they are your partner in any project, and it's not being imposed upon them”.
The future is about data
At the Tony Blair Institute, McGovern and his team are focused on trying to work out what data they have; dismantling existing siloes across CRM systems, databases, long-forgotten Excel spreadsheets and PowerPoint files.
However, he also wants leaders to recognise that data isn’t a free-for-all; there needs to be clear lines of accountability and ownership, and an intent to only store and utilise data which has a business benefit.
“We're not just collecting data for data's sake,” he points out. “It is about relating it back to our people and the clients we serve. Every day, we create, use and adapt data, and could not do our roles without it. It is not about saying ‘no’, it’s about showing how we do something differently to benefit the whole organisation.
“A key part is the journey is from departments “owning” data, evolving into data being a true organisational asset. I strongly push the concept of people being responsible for data they use themselves and provide for others, and that it is all owned by the whole organisation.”
Unsurprisingly, his next 12 months at the TBI is about ‘data, data and a bit more data’.
“There are many other important areas; knowledge management, AI/ML, reporting platforms and internal communications, but they all come back to data,” he said. “There will be a lot of consolidation of existing products, implementing new platforms and building a new technology team.
“We want to make sure we have the right technology in place to carry on delivering for our clients, and support any new phases of growth.”
Dream job growing up? Tottenham Hotspur’s goalkeeper
What keeps you up at night? Two children and a dog
What excites you about the next 12 months? The journey we have started at TBI to really make technology a catalyst for innovation.
What do you do outside of work? Aside from the two children and dog above, photography, football, travel and collecting BMWs.
Best advice you’ve ever received? Other than investing in Apple (thanks Dad), it was to always spend more time listening than talking.
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