Aussie executives share their biggest lessons from 2019 – and what to look out for in 2020

Executives share their biggest lessons. Image: Supplied.
  • Australian executives share their biggest lessons from 2019, such as the importance of being aware of AI and the importance of putting your customers first.
  • They also shared advice for the future, like embracing higher standards of security and ensuring they are resilient and flexible.
  • Executives from companies include OzHarvest, McAfee and Cognizant weighed in.
  • Visit Business Insider Australia’s homepage for more stories.

There are only two and a half weeks left of 2019.

As the year comes to a close, we reached out to business executives to share the biggest lessons they have learned from 2019 – and what they’re taking with them into 2020.

Here are the lessons they learned in 2019:


Ronni Kahn AO, CEO & Founder of OzHarvest and Chief Visionary of ForPurposeCo.

Ronni Kahn. Image: Supplied

OzHarvest’s Ronni Kahn has learned the importance of hiring people based on more than their skill or experience.

“I’m a strong believer in the power of ordinary people doing extraordinary things,” Khan said. “While I have the personal drive to make a change, I’m not an extraordinary person, nor do I need to be. By surrounding myself with magnificent people, OzHarvest and our innovation arm ForPurposeCo have been able to achieve extraordinary things in 2019.

“As a business leader, if your drive and purpose are to be matched or realised, you need to have empowered your team to trust their own ability and act as boldly as you do. For me, this means hiring based beyond just skill or experience. You can learn skills but you can’t teach attitude and generosity. This is a practice I will take with me into the new year and beyond as our ambitions and impact continues to grow.”


Robert Schwarz, Managing Director, Enterprise, Nuance Communications ANZ

Robert Schwarz

Schwarz looked to the future and advised stronger security processes.

“As a leader of a business deeply involved in digital security, it saddens me that 2019 has again seen a large number of local data breaches from brands handling millions of consumers’ details,” Schwarz said. “Australia’s digital world is now at its most dangerous, exposing the population to an unprecedented level of crime in the way of fraud, and should be where efforts from the public and private sectors are directed. I hope 2019 serves as a lesson to organisations that in 2020 they should reacquaint themselves with their broader obligations to consumers.

“I advise they put into place higher standards of security and authentication processes, going beyond PINs and passwords that have become cumbersome for consumers to manage, and child’s play for hackers to bypass.

“Regardless of their size and maturity, all organisations should look at their potential flaws and reach for better standards. Involving at a minimum, two-factor, and ideally three-factor authentication and including biometric technology in the mix is a must in 2020.”


Jeff Olson, Head of Applied AI & Analytics for ANZ, Cognizant

Jeff Olson. Image: Supplied.

Olson highlighted the need to be “AI-aware”.

“One of the key things we’ve learned in 2019 is that artificial intelligence (AI) is well and truly here ― and it’s having a profound impact on our everyday lives. The stand-out moment was when the world Go champion, Lee Se Dol announced his retirement after conceding to AI. This AI, in particular, learned how to play the game using new techniques called evolutionary AI.

“Evolutionary AI creatively learns by exploring many strategies in parallel. This means it learned new strategies from its experiences rather than being trained by people. The big takeaway here? This evolutionary AI capability is now being used in businesses to help formulate the best possible decision. So what does this mean for those in charge of making critical decisions for their businesses? The reality is that the way we make decisions now may very well become as outmoded as typewriters and fax machines.

“The lesson here is that business leaders need to be AI-aware. To do this, they must embrace data as the source of wisdom and value for their business. They need to ask better questions and expect more ― don’t ask for another report or spreadsheet, ask ‘Why?’ until you understand the root causes.”


Nathan Knight, General Manager ANZ, Lenovo Data Centre Group

Nathan Knight. Image: Supplied.

Knight sees the value of nurturing all business relationships.

“It may seem obvious, but it is incredibly important to nurture the relationships that are critical to the success of your business,” Knight said. “By collecting diverse feedback at all stages of the product cycle, we’re able to engage customers every step of the way. For any business that wishes to grow with its customers as they scale, investing in your network of partners is crucial. My advice is to take the opportunity in the new year to reassess what you’re bringing to the table in your most important relationships.”


Jason Baden, Regional Vice President, ANZ, F5 Networks

Jason Baden. Image: Supplied.

Baden looked back at the impact of the Royal Banking Commission, which he said changed the way consumers felt and viewed their financial institutions.

“This points to the significance placed upon trust and security within the financial sector, which happen to be the two main drivers forming the decisions of today’s consumer,” Baden said.

“We recently conducted a survey that shows 60% of Australians cited security as the biggest concern when banking through an app, whilst 69% would disown an app if its security has been compromised.

“With the banking royal commission making waves across financial services and open banking initiatives inviting further security concerns, banks that put the priorities of their customers ahead of anything else will have a much better chance at building and maintaining trust. Trust is vital as the nation rapidly moves towards digital payments within a cashless economy.”


Pieter Danhieux, CEO and Co-Founder of Secure Code Warrior

PieterDanhieux. Image: Supplied.

Danhieux pointed to the importance of chief information security officers.

“In 2019, we saw a surge of organisations working rapidly to improve their approach to cybersecurity in the software they create. Part of this movement would be in response to increasingly tight legislation around privacy and data security, but the reality is that these days, every company is a software company. And with that comes the responsibility to keep personal data safe, with or without government intervention.

“In 2020, leaders should work closely with CISOs (chief information security officers) to make security synonymous with software quality. Tools alone cannot remove all software vulnerabilities and risk, so ensuring a balance between tools and security intelligence across development and AppSec teams should be something actively accounted for in budgets and strategy.”


Gregg Ostrowski, Regional Chief Technology Officer, AppDynamics

Gregg Ostrowski. Image: Supplied.

Ostrowski saw greater use of AI in IT operations in 2019.

“Consumers expect elegant, high performing applications that serve their needs which is surpassing the human ability to triage and troubleshoot in a rapid manner. I have learnt that adopting new technology means changing internal ideology and processes to adhere to these rapid advancements, otherwise a business risks being disrupted.”


Ed Harrison, CEO, Isentia

Ed Harrison. Image: Supplied.

As the CEO of media intelligence company Isentia, Harrison emphasised the need for business leaders to “be prepared”.

“Our experience and data shows, due to the ongoing acceleration of the news cycle, business leaders are on the clock like never before when crisis strikes. We certainly had plenty of examples in 2019 where the public’s trust was breached and companies’ responses were deemed inadequate.

“Our first bit of advice is to be prepared in advance, which means building trust with employees and customers long before a crisis event. Secondly, once a crisis is underway, timely and transparent communications are essential. If you don’t have the answers, be honest about that. Finally, we encourage organisations to not underestimate the role of the CEO in communication, because this is ultimately who people will want to hear from in times of crisis.”

Jaime Nelson, Managing Director Strategy & Marketing Services, Hotwire

Jaime Nelson. Image: Supplied.

For Nelson, “change” is the new normal.

“Throughout 2019, ‘change’ has become the new normal, and my belief is that to be a successful business leader you must allow yourself to be comfortable with uncertainty – don’t fight it. The Australian marketing landscape is evolving quickly, affected by mergers and acquisitions of agencies, decreased consumer and business confidence, as well as global political uncertainty. As such, the way of doing business is shape shifting. With shorter client tenures, agencies have to be nimble and work even faster to build strong relationships to become trusted partners, often providing strategic counsel.”

Nelson also advised business leaders to “work collaboratively with their teams to reach solutions”.


Rory McNeil, Head of Marketing Communications, Brennan IT

Rory McNeil. Image: Supplied.

The biggest takeaway for McNeil centred around transformation.

“We operate within an industry that’s never static, and Australian tech and business leaders must have the ability to learn, adapt and adopt to new ways of working in order to keep ahead,” he said.

“The biggest topic of 2019 has, once again, been digital transformation and my advice for leaders coming into the new year will be to look past this concept and drop the ‘digital’ bit to instead focus on service transformation. This involves taking a whole-of-business and outcomes-focused approach; starting with the service that you want to provide and then working backwards to determine how you can deliver it. You need to consider much more than just a single technology, but the people, processes and technologies that are needed to create and run it.


Mike Featherstone, Managing Director, ANZ/APAC, Pluralsight

Mike Feathertone. Image: Supplied.

“My biggest learning from this year centres around the importance of proactivity,” Featherstone said.

“While the technology industry continues to evolve, the local tech skills dilemma has remained static and is at risk of worsening. The reality is that technology is now pervasive across all industries and will continue to expand and evolve at a rapid pace, increasing the need for more tech workers.

“As we move into the new year, tech leaders, and CIOs specifically, are urged to consider a proactive plan of action to address the skills gap—sooner rather than later. With 89% of companies deploying a digital-first strategy over the next five years, the responsibility is on the CIO to deliver this plan.

“Over the next year, or even five years, a part of their role will be to lead organisation-wide training in ICT, cloud, cybersecurity and all other relevant areas of technology. To get ahead of the game, CIOs can lead the way by implementing a recommendation-based skills development platform that’s offered to anyone willing to learn.”


Gary Denman, Vice President, ANZ, McAfee

Gary Denman. Image: Supplied.

Denman reinforced the importance of knowing how to prevent a cybersecurity attack.

“This has been a significant year for cybersecurity, and everyone in the industry has witnessed just how active the threat landscape currently is. Not being complacent has been a major learning for me. Complacency within cybersecurity can be risky, if not damaging to any organisation.

“Data breaches are moving away from on-premise architecture to the cloud. Businesses are being valued based on their data, and cybercriminals want a piece of that pie.

“While each sector is at risk of new threats every day, my advice is for IT and security leaders to have a thorough understanding of whether their organisation is at risk, and what threats they’re up against. It’s never been more important for organisations to know how to prevent an attack, with a strategic, cyber resilient plan of action in place. Nowadays, data is the lifeblood of not only threat intelligence, but organsiations today, and we’re committed as a company to helping organisations make the critical move to an action-oriented, proactive security posture.”


Leah Pope, CMO Datorama and Head of Product Marketing for Marketing Cloud, Salesforce

Leah Pope. Image: Supplied.

“In 2019, we saw data continue to proliferate across industries,” Pope said. “Companies have become increasingly overwhelmed by the amount of data coming in from numerous channels and systems. Many faced challenges in capturing and unifying it all to ultimately gain a better understanding of their customers. As a result, more and more businesses are embracing intelligent technology solutions to solve these challenges and make smarter data-driven decisions.

“In 2020, business leaders will see customer experience and growth accountability as cornerstones to success. Data plays a core role in delivering both. 80% of customers say the experience a company provides is as important as its products or services. Meanwhile, leaders are being held more and more accountable to measuring and reporting back growth to key company stakeholders. Today’s leaders are encouraged to leverage technologies that make it easier to extract, unify, and utilise their data to engage with customers at every touch point throughout the journey from marketing to sales to service to commerce. Further, they should seek solutions that create a foundation of accurate measurement, while driving real-time data analysis and insight around growth.”


Prasanna Gulasekharam, Area Vice President, ANZ, Commvault

Prasanna Gulasekharam. Image: Supplied.

Gulasekharam believes weather-related natural disasters will drive greater demand for recovery readiness.

“Climate change around the globe is leading to more intense natural disasters, Australia CCA reported 206 temperature records broken this summer, bushfires in winter and prolonged droughts. If there is one thing we can learn from these climate changing events, it’s that weather is becoming more unpredictable and damaging – for communities and enterprises alike.

“That means enterprises need to be ready – ready to recover from a damaging bushfire or devasting flood, ready to transfer backups of mission critical applications over to another cloud region, ready for unexpected lower outages that require them to put their disaster recovery plans in motion.”

He added that data analytics, with a focus on compliance and security will become a major priority for companies.


Danny Lessem, co-founder and CEO, ELMO

Danny Lessem. Image: Supplied.

“What struck me in 2019 is the growing sophistication in the expectations that businesses have about technologies in general,” Lessem said. “This comes from organisations I have had the opportunity to meet, regardless of their size.

“Because these expectations are constantly evolving, my advice to business leaders for 2020 is to build their solutions — whether products or services — collaboratively with customers and prospects, to bring the right innovations to life.

“Create a cycle where your organisation receives feedback, iterates, exposes potential users to each iteration and innovates, to create a virtuous cycle where you can ensure what you develop is the fruit of customers’ expectations.

“In order to achieve this, heavy investments in R&D [are] necessary, and I can’t stress enough how this should be a priority for business leaders who wish to create a competitive advantage and to achieve long term growth. Evolving the product with customer feedback and a customer-centric approach is the foundation that will enable excellence in other areas of the business such as, from sales and marketing to overall business growth.”


Jonathan Kenny, Chief Financial Officer, SiteMinder

Jonathan Kenny. Image: Supplied.

“Rapid change is the new normal, and in 2019 we saw that global Australian businesses were increasingly forced to change their game plans on the run as the speed of disruption gained pace,” Kenny said.

“Driven by technology, more and more we live in an age of complexity. Analysing how the world economy will look in 12 months’ time is challenging, and instead of bracing for known risks, organisations have to live in the unknown when imagining the details of their future. Going into 2020, I believe this reality will heighten for leaders, who must ensure that their businesses are built to withstand any pressure.

“The key to facing rapid change in any global business is building a company that is both resilient and flexible, and this will mean different things to different businesses. For SiteMinder, it equates to diversifying our revenue streams, entering new markets, employing the best talent possible and anticipating the needs of our customers in advance. Most importantly though, by building a culture of adaptability within every team in the business, we create safety long-term in the face of any major external change that seeks to disrupt us.”


Alper Turken, SVP, Service Provider Sales, Asia Pacific, CommScope

Alper Turken. Image: Supplied.

For Turken, 2019 saw the introduction of several IT products and services like 5G.

“Enterprises are quickly learning that the demand for sufficient bandwidth to support these technologies and the applications will become even more of a priority in 2020,” he said.

“As we embark on a new year, business leaders should start thinking of connectivity as a utility. Much like the everyday utilities of gas, water and electricity, broadband infrastructure has become an enterprise essential that contributes greatly to our collective interest. To enable unmatched connectivity for everyone, from employees collaborating within smart buildings or campuses to people in parklands, leaders should look to focus on fibre evolution and network convergence.”

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