AIB’s Tim Hynes: ‘You have to have the courage to stand up’

31 May 2019

AIB CIO Tim Hynes. Image: Conor McCabe Photography

Tim Hynes of AIB reveals how real leadership and cultural change require courage and gaining perspective, even if it involves ‘sitting inside the fire’ and risking your job.

Four years ago, Tim Hynes took on the role of chief information officer (CIO) of AIB, one of Ireland’s biggest banks. He was coming into the role at a time of enormous upheaval where digital technologies and fintech were transforming the banking world. But it was still a world haunted by the global banking crisis and a recession.

Zoom forward to today and, as he revealed in a recent interview with, 95pc of all customer engagement at AIB is now digital. But what he is most proud of is the cultural shift he brought about in the organisation and how he imbued his technological workforce with a sense of leadership and owning greater responsibility.

It was the corporate equivalent of turning around a battleship.

Adaptive versus technical leadership

Hynes described this conflict between tactical and strategic responses to issues as a battle between technical and adaptive leadership.

He used the analogy of a patient with high blood pressure; the doctor could prescribe a pill in the hope of the patient getting better, which is a technical response to the problem with no guaranteed result. Or, the doctor could take a considered look at the patient’s weight, diet and other factors, and prescribe a solution; one that would take longer but could achieve a better result, as a form of adaptive leadership.

In essence, to solve problems quickly most of us will accept a convenient lie over a more complicated truth. “But if you don’t live in the grey areas, you won’t deliver anything new.”

Hynes recalled his first months with AIB where he adopted a posture of listening. Very soon managers and directors were complaining, asking why he wasn’t moving faster.

‘If you are good at what you do in STEM,you will see everything as a system. So, if you let yourself take the time to do that, you can see society as a system and you can debug it’

“When I came in, there were issues that urgently needed to be dealt with. A large organisation, a couple of thousand people, and you have things that have to be dealt with quickly and you’ve got the board and other people, the leaders in the organisation, saying ‘that’s on fire, you’ve got to fix that, stop the bleeding’. And sometimes you have to react and say it is a technical issue, I’ll fix it with a technical solution. But if you want to actually deliver significant and sustainable improvement in the environment you are working in, you’ve got to be able to sit back and look at it – the concept is called ‘sitting in the fire’.

“So, when I went into my role I spent 90 days doing almost nothing but listening, and there was an attitude from some people in the organisation [that was] action-oriented. And I think this is true of a lot of organisations, that people, you know, you hand them a shovel and they just start digging. And because I wasn’t moving, there were people making rumblings. ‘Well, are you going to do something? You’ve been here a while, why aren’t you moving? There’s clearly a problem there, why aren’t you solving it? Why aren’t you giving a pill to put down the high blood pressure?’”

Hynes continued to listen and observe, and came back with a three-year plan that has yielded impressive results.

Sitting inside the fire

He said that the situation in the bank, where people wanted fast solutions to problems that would not exactly fix the overall problem, is not unlike the challenges facing Government in areas such as health or transport.

“It is never just the one thing. You’ve got to see it as a system. And this is where I think technology people have an advantage in helping the world beyond just STEM. Because if you are good at what you do in STEM, you will see everything as a system. So, if you let yourself take the time to do that, you can see society as a system and you can debug it.”

Hynes pointed out that the tenure of CIOs in organisations is never long – typically between 18 and 24 months – and someone pointed out to him recently that he is the longest-serving CIO of any bank in Ireland.

He told an in-joke about a new CIO encountering the old CIO’s desk and discovering an envelope. Inside the envelope was a note and two other envelopes. It said: “Good luck in the new job and if things go really wrong, open envelope one.” So, six months later things go wrong, there is an IT disaster, and the new CIO opens the first envelope, which contained a note that said: “Blame me and in the event of another disaster, open envelope two.” A few months later there is another disaster and the harassed CIO opens envelope two, which contains a note that read: “Take three envelopes …”

The moral of the story is that gaining perspective and understanding in order to come up with adaptive rather than technical solutions to problems is crucial. “Bringing about change requires the courage of your convictions. It doesn’t always work; it could cost you your job. That’s why it takes courage.

“You just have to have the courage to stand up.”

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John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years