John Holley: Leadership lessons from the frontline

Back from his stint as planning officer for the UN Mission in South Sudan, John Holley shares how the Army’s approach to strategic planning and operations can apply to the business environment.
A six-month offshore stint highlighted to John Holley a key area he feels most New Zealand organisations can step up on - strategic planning and organisation.

In this assignment, he was involved in the process for a “really complex environment” in South Sudan, as deputy planning officer for the militiary component of the United Nations in the newest country in the world.

He worked with an international group that included Danes, Norwegians, Americans, Germans, Swedes, and Australians. The multinational contingent undertook planning for around 10,000 people in the mission that included 7000 military and 900 police.

The real takeaway there, he says, because they were all fundamentally trained in the planning process, the team was able to work quickly together.

“It was not just an academic process,” he tells CIO New Zealand. “We need to respond now, because people are dying, but also we need to plan for the emergency crisis response, and for the future going forward.”

He adds that, “The plan for the next six months has to set conditions for the next two years. You have got to be thinking long-term as well."

Holley also says that for the military, SWOT - which stands for strength, weaknesses, opportunities and threats that is used for a project or business - is just a small part of the planning process, a quarter of one of the several steps used in planning. “It is not an end to itself.”

He believes one of the challenges for New Zealand organisations is how to do better planning, and how to change the culture around it.

“Crisis management is thinking quickly and clearly, and making decisions. Otherwise you see paralysis,’ he states.

He was second in command for planning for the force, and effectively he was doing both strategic and operational planning. “We were doing it not just for the military staff, but for the mission.”

According to Holley, they were providing protection for civilians, supporting all the humanitarians and the ‘internally displaced persons” the UN term for “internal refugees”, or those who were forced from their homes but did not cross an international border.

“The tools the army has given me in planning and delivery in crisis mode stood out to the fore,” he says.

“We have contingency plans for when things go wrong,” he says, “It is like the BCP (business continuity planning) for an enterprise. The challenge is for any organisation is to practise it.

“Once the crisis started,” he explains, referring to the crisis in December 2013, “you had literally thousands of internally displaced persons coming to your camp."

There is immediacy when you know that members of the mission are under threat.

“If you make a mistake, it will cost lives. It was really a great experience and confirmed to me how good the military is, especially Army Training in New Zealand.”

It was not just an academic process. We need to respond now, because people are dying, but also we need to plan for the emergency crisis response, and for the future going forward.

Related: The CIO as peacekeeper John Holley ventures into an unfamiliar territory to most CIOs - to South Sudan, as a planning officer for the United Nations Mission.

This is his second stint as an Army officer in an overseas area of conflict. The first one was in East Timor, in 2001, where he was a planning officer for the New Zealand Battalion, with 700 members.

His observation then and now is the dearth of training on strategic or operational planning in local organisations. This involves a formal training process, he says, and during the mission to South Sudan, it was obvious how the group of officers who were trained for it easily stepped up to the role.

He discloses that before going to South Sudan, he had done, through his military career, close to a year of training and exercising in planning.

“There is a depth in military planning that does not happen in civilian planning.”

But this does not mean those principles cannot be applied to a civilian or business environment.

He says in the military, the officers who have different specialities are all trained in the planning process, and then go back to the business or their respective division.

“Whereas in a civilian organisation, you tend to have some special people pulled to one side,to do the planning. They don’t have direct deep engagement in the organisation.”

In the military, the person who is the head is in charge of the planning of the organisation. There is a planning team, but they work for the CEO. In this case, the CEO is the military commander, he or she has to be involved, and constantly give feedback along the way.

Taking this “mindset” in the enterprise, he adds, “If you are serious about strategic planning, bring some of your staff to work in the planning unit for a year or two. Then let them go back to the organisation.”

“This gives the planner a wide understanding of the whole organisation. The planners are embedded and part of the whole organisation.”

Holley says this means planning is a “much more holistic process. ”

“You are not doing operational planning for a divison; you are working with the most senior person in the organisation.” This will be the CEO, who then presents the plan to the board.

He says larger organisations will find it easier to implement this approach, because they could build a team of planners. This team can work constantly on business planning, and after a year are embedded into other parts of the organisation.

“You establish a team, bring them in, seed them into the organisation.You have experienced people [in planning] moving back into the organisation. So you bring a culture of understanding on organisational planning.”

Next up: John Holley talks about the other leadership imperative for CIOs

Page Break

Leaders should find time to mentor

John Holley relates when he was in South Sudan, he was working with junior planners, in essence mentoring them.

“You have to be always growing the organisation,” he says, on why organisational leaders should find time for this role.

“CIOs have to make time to mentor the young stars you see coming through. That is important for the industry as a whole.”

Otherwise, he asserts, these people may leave overseas.

“I just gave them guidance, I set expectations for them,” Holley explains.

CIOs have to make time to mentor the young stars you see coming through. That is important for the industry as a whole.

John Holley

He uses the following analogy when he was an instructor in the Army, and when working with his staff at the Auckland Regional Council, where he was CIO.

“Typically, there is an eight-lane highway. How you find your trip on the road is up to you. I just want to make sure you don’t get off the road.”

“It is a sanity check. You are just giving them something to bounce ideas off, providing your experience or knowledge in the industry contacts.”

He stresses that this is especially true when working with young graduates. “They are fresh out of university, they are idealistic. Let us harness that idealism and not destroy it, but give them the realism in the world.”

According to Holley, one of the challenges for young start-ups, for instance, is they go to organisations and will be told their product is innovative, but are asked to provide references. “If you are a small organisation, you have just started, who is going to be your reference?”

When he was CIO at Auckland Regional Council, he worked with two software developers, Sheenu Chawla and Sulabh Sharma, and gave them a range of assignments. The two eventually left to start their own company, and asked Holley to be their reference

He agreed, because he knew both of them. “And they became successful,” avows Holley of the startup that is now known as Sush Mobile.

Related: Finding your true north

John Holley, general manager of operations at Visible Results, is emphatic about preparing for a post-CIO role.

Send news tips and comments to

Follow Divina Paredes on Twitter: @divinap

Follow CIO New Zealand on Twitter:@cio_nz

Sign up for CIO newsletters for regular updates on CIO news, views and events.

Join us on Facebook.