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Name: Sarah Bennett
Company: Mercator Group
Job title: CIO
Date started current role: July 2021 (joined company 2007)
Location: Crowborough, East Sussex
Sarah Bennett is the CIO of Mercator IT Solutions. She has worked in IT for over 20 years as an administrator and has helped develop Mercator into a multi-million dollar IT consulting company. Her passion is to improve employee retention and wellbeing while helping the company grow.
What was your first job? My first job was as a teenager working at a private stables. My first full-time job was in the mail order department of a publishing house. I took orders for books and magazines and entered them onto their system. (It was called Paragon and was a DOS programme!)
Did you always want to work in IT? Absolutely not! I have a BA Hons in Dance (with Geography) and my original intention was to be a dance teacher for secondary level pupils but I fell out of love with education when I started my PGCE and was on placement – it became evident very quickly that it was less about the teaching and the love of your subject and more about the admin and what you were and were not allowed to do.
What was your education? Do you hold any certifications? What are they? I have GCSEs and A-Levels (Geography, Chemistry and Physics) and as mentioned before, I have a BA Hons in Dance (with Geography – very much there to keep me in a salary if I became injured or too old). I don’t currently hold any professional certifications but this is something I am looking to do. I like to attend seminars (or more recently webinars) and learn in that way, I don’t believe that everything needs a certificate – look at the certifications I do have…purely looking at those you wouldn’t think I could do the job I do and yet…here I am. As an organisation we place equal value, or possibly more, on demonstrable knowledge rather than certification. We encourage apprenticeships and on-the-job learning because for some people this is the best way to learn.
Explain your career path. Did you take any detours? If so, discuss. I got my first taste of the world of technology when I got a job for a web design/development company. I created the writing and sometimes worked on FrontPage and Dreamweaver to lay things out. I then worked for an IT recruitment company as an administrator and worked my way up to being the Contracts Manager there. I was responsible for reading contracts, adjusting clauses in our own contracts and learning about changes in legislation which affected the industry. It was there that I met the Founders of Mercator. I left the company to have one last attempt at using my dance degree again but I always regretted making the change. When I received a call a couple of years later asking me to come and work for Mercator as the first employee – admin, accounts, contracts (in short, everything that wasn’t sales), I jumped at the chance. That was 14 years ago and I really haven’t looked back.
What business or technology initiatives will be most significant in driving IT investments in your organisation in the coming year? Mercator is growing at quite a pace both here and in the US. One of our key initiatives will be to ensure that our global locations are aligned in terms of infrastructure and procedures and to ensure that all procedures are able to be scaled up significantly.
What are the CEO’s top priorities for you in the coming year? How do you plan to support the business with IT? The CEO’s top priorities will be scaleability. In 2020 I helped to move the company completely over to the Cloud, both with our licenced CRM and our internal systems. These were followed by the release of our bespoke timesheet and self-billing system. This system has been developed further to include additional functionality and a reporting function. This system is an ongoing project as we are growing and the system needs to grow with us. In addition to this we are developing new systems to automate some of the manual processes. It is going to be incredibly important for us to identify inefficiencies and the potential for human error. These areas are manageable when you are small but need to be addressed prior to any significant growth. This year will be about making all of our processes scaleable. Growth for Mercator is happening both sides of the Atlantic and so we will also be concentrating on replicating our infrastructure, systems and procedures in the US in order that the US entity is able to scale at the same pace as the UK.
Does the conventional CIO role include responsibilities it should not hold? Should the role have additional responsibilities it does not currently include? I think the role of the CIO varies greatly depending on the company. Traditionally it is a technical role but the emphasis should probably be on understanding business needs: the mission of the CEO, what customers want from your business and the requirements of the staff to reach those goals. The technology is what links these things. I would say that people management, the ability to link the needs of anyone with an investment in the company (be that financial or otherwise) and some of the softer skills are more important than technical skills. The CIO needs to be a creative thinker and a problem solver. The responsibilities that fall within that scope will also depend on the particular person in the role; at the end of the day you make the most of the talent in front of you, whether that is part of the conventional role or not.
Are you leading a digital transformation? If so, does it emphasise customer experience and revenue growth or operational efficiency? If both, how do you balance the two? We completed an internal digital transformation in 2020 but digital delivery is what we do day in day out for our clients. In terms of customer experience versus efficiency, the timesheet system was a classic example of both elements being important. The system had to be simple to use from the user’s point of view and the UI had to be clutter-free but as a result it made life easier for employees working on the back-end of things and for the accounts department – timesheets and invoices rolled in much more quickly and reduced man-hours in the accounts department and our clients found the approval process and project tracking easier. Our external projects continually strive to achieve a positive outcome for both experience and efficiency – they are never mutually exclusive.
Describe the maturity of your digital business. For example, do you have KPIs to quantify the value of IT? Whilst we are a relatively mature digital business we don’t tend to set KPIs. We take a more holistic view of our projects – the main aim is that they are successful.
What does good culture fit look like in your organisation? How do you cultivate it? Cultural fit is one of the most important things at Mercator – after the initial screening or technical test it is the thing we look the hardest for. For Mercator that means mucking in, wanting to be part of something and being happy to invest yourself in the company. We never see our staff as numbers on the payroll. We want to be part of their journey as well as have them be part of ours. It’s common to hold social events within a company but possibly what is less common is the ability for a more junior member of staff to put forward their ideas and not have them shot down. Everyone here has something to add and it doesn’t matter how far up the pay scale they are, if they have an idea we want to hear it. We also foster an “everyone is approachable” philosophy; senior staff are not off limits. This kind of environment gives everyone a voice and if everyone has a voice they are more likely to feel part of something. Part of our culture is to give staff the ability to make a decision (whatever level that may be at). When they feel comfortable making a decision it moves the company on and prevents procrastination. We nurture an active involvement in the business. As a result we have an excellent staff retention rate and impressively our staff return rate is also high.
What roles or skills are you finding (or anticipate to be) the most difficult to fill? User Research seems to be a difficult area at the moment. It’s hard to find a User Researcher who has done the job before at the level we require. It has become a more and more competitive space as other companies have begun to recognise its value in digital transformation projects.
What’s the best career advice you ever received? The best career advice I received was from the CEO – “Concentrate on the things you are good at and surround yourself with people who have the skills you don’t – together you will make a great team.”
Do you have a succession plan? If so, discuss the importance of and challenges with training up high-performing staff. There is no formal succession plan in place but we like to hire from within so that any heads of department or leaders have a really good understanding of the culture of the company and our client relationships. They can then be the voice that filters downwards to newer employees.
What advice would you give to aspiring IT leaders? Don’t be afraid to put forward your ideas to those above you but don’t take it personally if they aren’t used; you may have sewn a seed for later use even if they aren’t put into action straight away. Don’t be afraid to challenge the senior team – a healthy discussion is incredibly important in business and the CEO isn’t always right (but equally neither are you so make sure you listen to your team).
What has been your greatest career achievement? My greatest achievement is being part of Mercator from the start. I joined after 1 year of trading and have helped to grow it to the business it is today. We have come from a team of 3 to a multi-million pound group of global companies. Not many people can say they have been part of that kind of journey.
Looking back with 20:20 hindsight, what would you have done differently? Looking back I think the obvious thing would be to have come at my career from a different angle. I’ve taken a very scenic route to get to where I am and if I had known I was going to do this role I would have taken a more direct (and possibly certificated) route. That said, the journey is just as important as the destination and I think I would have met some barriers if I had taken the conventional route for a CIO. I also think I would be in a different company environment as a result and I’m not sure that would really suit me. I think on balance that means I wouldn’t have done anything differently!
What are you reading now? Does this mean for my own leisure or in my professional life? I have to read to switch off – I could get home at 3am and would still read before going to bed, it’s just the way my brain works. I’m currently reading the Larkrise to Candleford trilogy by Flora Thompson. I am finding it particularly interesting because of the job I do – this was an era when the best a mother could hope for for her daughter (but for which she would be jealous of when she obtained it) was a good role in service, starting as a maid at the age of 11. Their first role was called their “petty place” and it was considered vital to move onwards and upwards after a year, lest they get stuck in that role. I wouldn’t be where I am now if I had left any of my roles after 1 year.
Most people don’t know that I… Have an unnatural hatred for certain words. “Hun”, “babe”, “love”, “darling” etc, it doesn’t even have to be in reference to me, they make me physically wince! More recently I’ve taken to hating the overuse of the word “unprecedented” (blame covid for that one!). I suppose that makes me a bit odd but I’m OK with that. Our language is so varied, I would love for it to be fully utilised.
In my spare time, I like to…Dance, walk the dog, read, go horse riding, cycle…and eat!
Ask me to do anything but… Break a rule!
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