Technical expertise combined with a vibrant personality has made John Lombard the perfect inspiration to bring business into the digital age.
There’s no denying John Lombard began his career dedicated to data. In fact, his title as CEO of Dimension Data Asia Pacific could suggest his head is still buried deep in technology and computers. And it is, to a point. After years spent delving into programming solutions, John discovered his true talent lay in communicating directly with people rather than software. Today, armed with his technical knowledge and an effusive personality, he inspires the more business-minded operator to transition into the digital age.
Dimension Data, in simple terms, is responsible for implementing hybrid IT solutions, which typically means computer systems on-premise and in the cloud, for its clients. Servicing more than 3,000 clients throughout Asia, the company – a wholly owned subsidiary of NTT Group – manages and operates IT and digital infrastructure, from designing, building and implementing systems to ensuring they are secure and protected from hackers.
“I was the guy at school who thought he was going to be a dentist,” John laughs. “Instead, a long time ago, I completed a computer science degree at Swinburne University of Technology in Melbourne. I launched my career as a computer programmer with the National Australia Bank.”
John continued working in programming for various companies until he discovered consulting was a natural fit for his technical prowess and interpersonal skills. Following a period in Indonesia working with PricewaterhouseCoopers, he moved to Sydney, where he remained working for KPMG Consulting for five years. From there he went to SAP, leading the German software company’s professional services divisions across Australia and New Zealand, before moving to Singapore where he was responsible for the Asia–Pacific–Japan service business.
“I very quickly went from being a technical guy to realising I’m far better talking to people than sitting in front of a computer,” John reflects. Appointed to Dimension Data last year, the new CEO had huge shoes to fill, taking over the role from the legendary Bill Padfield, who moved on to become chairman of Dimension Data Asia Pacific. During Bill’s 13-year tenure as CEO, he quadrupled the revenue for the company in Asia–Pacific. “Bill has been part of the IT industry in Asia for years, is well known and highly successful,” John affirms. “He’s been incredibly helpful transitioning me and introducing me to all the key players.”
Niceties aside, did Bill offer any advice? “Absolutely. The most important advice he offered was to continue with his success. He may have used slightly different language than that, but basically he made it clear not to stuff it up,” John laughs.
“But I had to make the job my own; that was something that was expected of me. The company wanted somebody to come in and not just look at the way things were done – to not only look at the organisation and its structure but to also think about where investment could be accelerated. So I arrived and I watched, making sure I really understood the organisation, the people, their strengths and the culture of the business. I don’t believe that as a new CEO you should arrive, throw everything out, and bring in a whole new team. The reality is that the majority of people at Dimension Data were excellent.”
Meanwhile, John has successfully accelerated transformation within the company in several areas, including developing a strategic plan for the business until 2020, with significant growth in profitability a major focus. “Of course, we are already a very profitable organisation,” John says. “But we want to accelerate that growth, and we’re in growth territory at the moment.
In particular, we have a strategy that’s all about people and our clients because they are our greatest asset. Rather than be an organisation that just sells product and services, we want to become a service-led business. Accelerating the way we interact with our clients is a priority.”
With John’s background in consulting, his proudest achievement is accelerating the consulting-led approach by engaging with Dimension Data’s clients. “In the past, when we went to a client, whether it was a bank, a retail organisation or a telco, we would be more comfortable talking about the underlying technology. The focus now is for us to talk about business outcomes and business value. Our clients want to know our systems are secure, that they’re incredibly easy to use, that they aren’t expensive, and that the time we take to deploy them is very fast.
So the expectation level of our client base is going through an astronomical shift. In fact, I would say adopting a consultant-led approach is our number one focus. We lead with consulting and we deliver outcomes to our clients on our platforms.” While Dimension Data may be fortunate to have a CEO equipped with technical and people skills, John understands that this is not always the case. He realises that carefully crafted consultation is vital to assist those who are not technically minded, and are wary of investing money in a process they don’t understand, particularly when it comes to large organisations wanting to go digital.
“A lot of organisations don’t know where to start,” he says. “So if you talk to an organisation about digital strategy and what their plans are, they really struggle. The first question they have is: ‘Where do I begin?’ They have an existing IT department they don’t necessarily understand, but they hear everyone talking about the latest technology. There is a lot of confusion mixed in with the hype, and it can be very overwhelming. They are frightened they have missed the boat, while wondering at the same time if they have the capability internally to transform.
“We offer a workshop with our clients to identify the low-hanging fruit and create a plan. We discuss where we can have a real impact, where we can focus on new digital areas, and how we can reduce the cost and complexity of running existing IT infrastructure so that they can free up resources and time.”
They are frightened they have missed the boat, while wondering at the same time if they have the capability internally to transform.
John says many companies have the capability to transform and identify new areas to be improved, but lack focus on planning, effort and time. “Often their resources are so busy just managing the status quo and their existing IT needs and infrastructure,” John explains. “They don’t have the time to devote their attention to the digital transformation needed, even when it’s as important as improving security and protecting their companies from hackers. Often they are just so busy keeping the lights on, they can’t see past it.”
Security is paramount for Dimension Data, with John referring to one example where more than a million hackers tried to gain access to data during last year’s Tour de France cycling event. “In 2015, Dimension Data partnered with the Amaury Sport Organisation to provide live feeds of the race to fans,” John explains. “
Every Tour de France bicycle was fitted with tracking devices which enabled Dimension Data to collect information about each rider’s position and speed. It sent coordinates every second, which also allowed fans to see the distance travelled, the gradient of slope they were on, and weather conditions. “There were more than 1.3 million unauthorised access attempts into those feeds,” John says. “Of course, we prevented them from getting access.”
John is adamant that the organisations that think they are 100% secure against hacking are likely too confident. He says that while it is important to ensure companies have the capabilitiesto secure the entire network, it is essential to have a plan of action should there be a breach. “We call that ‘zero day’ response. You can’t have a head-in-the-sand sort of approach; even if you have military-grade security, it’s never going to happen.
You’ve got to have an approach that says you will do everything humanly and technologically possible to secure your infrastructure and your network, but in the event that you are breached, you have policies in place to deal with it. You need a communication plan, both internally and externally. That ‘zero day’ response is critical.”
The one truth for me is that technology will change and the industry will experience different transformations.
When he’s not focused on clients, John pays close attention to his responsibility as a leader to more than 5,800 employees scattered across the Asia region, including Japan, Korea, New Zealand and India. He concedes that achieving the balance of a harmonious work culture across so many different countries, religions, cultures and languages is not easy. “We ensure we’ve got individuals who come from the countries they are leading,” John says.
“While that sounds like an obvious statement, there are many global organisations operating in Asia that parachute in somebody from overseas. But at Dimension Data, to ensure we have strong local leadership and a strong sense of local ownership in the business, we provide leaders from their own countries.
We insist we have strong representation from all of these countries at all of our meetings, so when we are rolling out our strategies, I encourage them all to take that message and use their own language to deliver it. They need to use language and communication styles that work for their particular markets. We also rotate our leadership meetings around the region.”
It’s clear that Dimension Data’s conversion from simply providing state-of-the-art technology to adding more people integration into the mix has been triggered by John’s own personal transformation. He is convinced people will remain at the core of technology.
“The one truth for me, being in this industry for many, many years, is that technology will change and the industry will experience different transformations. However, that human element – making sure that people feel like they are part of the process and not being left behind – is so vitally important. That is a primary focus for us.”
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