Angela Donohoe’s lessons learned from a non-linear CIO career path
From clerk to CIO: how Angela Donohoe's adaptability took her from accountant to NSW Department of Enterprise Investment and Trade Chief Information Officer
When Angela Donohoe graduated from UNSW Business School with a Bachelor of Commerce (majoring in accounting, finance, and systems), little did she know what path her career journey would take. Ms Donohoe, who currently serves as the Chief Information Officer (CIO) of the NSW Department of Enterprise Investment and Trade, reflected on her career journey to date and the need to be adaptable, resilient and open to opportunities.
With a mind for numbers and an eye for detail, her first role was as a Class B clerk in the New South Wales public service with the NSW Corporate Affairs Commission (which later became part of ASIC). Here, she gained experience in company registrations and investigations, exposing her to the intricacies of corporate affairs and financial regulations. “Working as a clerk taught me the value of meticulous attention to detail,” recalls Ms Donohoe, who recently spoke with Professor Nick Wailes, Senior Deputy Dean and Director AGSM @ UNSW Business School as part of an AGSM Director’s Lunch. “Every document I handled was part of a broader regulatory framework. It was a foundational experience that honed my skills.”
Ms Donohoe’s career took an international turn when she ventured abroad, but this transition was not without its challenges. Her first job in London didn’t go as well as expected. Even though she had a degree in accounting, she had never worked as one – which presented some unforeseen challenges for both her and her employer. “I was sacked from my first job,” she recalls. “I found myself in a job that was far from my expertise. Instead of giving up, I bought a book on basic bookkeeping. It was a humbling experience that taught me the importance of self-directed learning,” she recalls.
This proactive approach to learning became a hallmark of Ms Donohoe’s career as she adapted to new roles and industries. She subsequently joined the Bank of New York, which had a joint venture with ANZ Bank. The bank (which employed just 25 people in its local office at the time) offered a unique opportunity to learn about and take on a range of responsibilities, from accounting and company secretary duties to the dealing room and implementing computer systems. A hands-on approach allowed her to garner knowledge across various aspects of banking.
“This took me down the route of moving into technology management,” she said. “I learned about the basics of running a bank, from day-to-day trading operations, financial reporting, corporate governance committees and secretarial functions, to dealing with bureaucracy, buying equipment, and dealing with an international organisation.”
Navigating a hostile takeover
Ms Donohoe faced a significant challenge when the local arm of the bank underwent a hostile takeover. At the age of 27, she was thrust into a leadership role as general manager of the newly acquired entity, in which she learned the art of resilience and the necessity of making tough decisions. During this time she understood the fine balance between leadership and unpopularity, a lesson that would serve her well in her future endeavours. “I was expected to have a key role in managing the transition of the merger locally with a very hostile workforce, a very diverse business, and I was totally out of my depth. So that was something where I sort of had to fake it,” she recalls.
“It was a very heady time, and one where I was grateful for the opportunities extended to me. I had to learn to be incredibly resilient, and I came to the understanding that you didn’t have to be friends with everybody at work, you didn’t have to be popular to get things done and push through and deliver on the job. You’re asked to do that sometimes and you have to make tough decisions. And to be the leader, sometimes you are the unpopular person in the room, but you also need to be very human in the way that you do that,” she said.
A decade with Societe Generale Group
Following a career break to start a young family, Ms Donohoe was looking for her next role when she bumped into a previous professional acquaintance (the CIO of Societe Generale in Australia) at a café. The bank had a sizeable operation in Sydney and was looking for a deputy CIO, and Ms Donohoe joined the bank and spent a rewarding decade working in a variety of roles. The local business went through a significant amount of business transformation, as it shifted from being a local outpost with its systems and processes, and gradually adopting more of a regional than globally oriented structure. In addition to helping the bank navigate Y2K, Ms Donohoe spent a lot of time migrating the bank to become a digital business.
“I was able to move across different parts of the business, which enabled me to explore different interests and leverage my skills and experience. I always like a challenge,” she said. “I’ve always had an interest in transformation and change and making things better, whether that’s through better processes, new technologies, changes in the regulatory landscape, or new products and services, so that’s something that I’ve always relished the opportunity to play a role in and help lead.”
Leading diversity through establishing credibility
After a decade with Societe Generale, Ms Donohoe realised that leadership roles often come with a “use by” date, especially when they involve new technologies and changes in organisational leadership. With a growing family, Ms Donohoe was also looking for a role that would provide more balance, and she took on an IT leadership role at Cuscal, which at the time provided services and products to credit unions and mutual banks. “I took ownership of, if you like, unloved parts of the business, particularly on the IT side where there had been underinvestment in technology and a need for attention,” said Ms Donohoe, who was also the first female appointed to Cuscal’s executive leadership team as CIO.
Her CEO of the time was very supportive and encouraged her to focus on establishing relationships with business colleagues and delivering on technology strategy and services. While Ms Donohoe wanted to better represent women and be a stronger voice for gender diversity in the organisation, the CEO suggested focusing on the first two and getting to the third later. “It’s actually important that you establish yourself as a credible leader, with your peers,” he told me. “So put gender aside, just get in there and build those relationships (and by all means, be a strong voice for women) – and you will build your credibility in the process. Those relationships weren’t necessarily easy to establish – but that advice was quite valuable for me at the time, and I went on to lead a significant transformation program that was very successful,” she said.
To the NSW public service and back
After nine years with Cuscal, Ms Donohoe’s next role was the CIO of Revenue NSW, where she took on the task of technology transformation and the shift to shared services and the cloud. In this role, she sharpened her stakeholder management skills in dealing with internal politics and unions, while helping long-serving staff who needed to transform their skills and capabilities. She subsequently took on the role of CIO for BPAY Group, which Ms Donohoe said provided “a different dynamic” in dealing with a board that comprised representatives of the four major banks that owned BPAY. A highlight was the opportunity to sponsor a successful digital identity project that focused on the role that banks could play in enabling identity in a digital world.
Following six years at BPAY, she returned to the public service as CIO of the NSW Department of Enterprise, Investment and Trade. With just over a year of service under her belt, Ms Donohoe is leading collaboration and representation for the department on state government-wide transformation projects. All of her influencing, leadership and stakeholder management skills have come to the fore in this role, she explained: “I’m representing my department and the various agencies that are part of our portfolio, making sure that their considerations are understood, and that they also get behind what the government wants to do. So there’s a lot of influencing, persuading and issues management, and it’s very stimulating,” she said.
Driving transformation through leadership
In her discussion with Professor Wailes, Ms Donohoe reflected on her passion for transformation and change and said that she had learned some important lessons about successful leadership. “First, I think you’ve got to be considered about it,” she explained.
“I’ve learned to give people space. So that is one thing about my peers: if I’m working with business leaders, I respect them and want to understand what motivates them. There’s shadow IT everywhere, technology is now everybody’s business. So it’s not my domain – it’s everybody’s domain,” said Ms Donohoe, who explained the importance of a partnering approach, bringing opportunities to key stakeholders and speaking their language.
“I think of myself as a business leader first and an IT leader second. With new roles, I have to work with the teams I inherit. I’ve never held the view that I need to parachute in people that I’ve worked with before,” she said. “I value the corporate knowledge people hold and prefer to see their innate potential. So I give them lots of opportunities to demonstrate that, and I’ve learned to give people enough rope to do what they need and always be there to support them. And I hold people accountable: I consult with them and expect delivery.”
To help make the right decisions, Ms Donohoe said she is very data-driven and has found that instinct isn’t really the best approach for making certain decisions. While instincts can provide a sense of issues that need to be addressed, she said data is valuable because it informs your position and can help argue your case if need be. In her current role, for example, she has to meet a certain efficiency dividend across the board, with limited to no capital.
While at Revenue NSW, with significant objectives to achieve for her department, Ms Donohoe consulted with the Commissioner at the time and advised of the need to request funding. “He said: ‘good luck,’ so I created a multi-year spreadsheet of what we needed to invest in, and we went to NSW Treasury to present our case. We received support at a time when it was extremely difficult to do so. But it was really data-driven, and I was able to demonstrate to the decision-makers that there was an inherent risk if we didn’t receive funding. We weren’t being unreasonable, so being data-driven is important,” she said.
Her last piece of career advice is to always focus on continuous learning. “One thing I’ve learned is that I need to keep abreast of what’s happening and keep my skills sharp. I’d say that, almost every night, I’m looking at something: I subscribe to newspapers and various sites from MIT Boston and I also like to do short courses, as I don’t have the appetite to do long courses anymore. That’s something I do to keep things fresh and myself current,” Ms Donohoe concluded.