Robyn Denholm is the Chief Operations Officer of Telstra, a role she took up in early 2017 after more than 15 years in the US. Robyn had been a senior executive at Juniper Networks for nearly 10 years and was most recently EVP, Chief Financial and Operations Officer. Robyn is credited with a big increase in Juniper’s revenues and restructuring the company between 2014 and 2015.

Robyn is also Chair of the Audit Committee of Tesla Inc. and former Audit Committee Member of Zurich-based ABB. The Australian Graduate School of Management at UNSW offers a Women in Technology scholarship named after Ms Denholm.

Can you summarise your journey to get to this point?

I commenced as the ANZ CFO with Sun Microsystems in Australia in 1996, and then took on the Head of APAC Shared Services in 1998. I was five years based in Sydney with Sun before they relocated me to the US in 2001 and I remained in the US up until last year. My ultimate role with Sun was Head of Corporate Strategic Planning, sitting on the executive committee.

I moved to Juniper Networks as CFO in 2007 and then assumed responsibility for IT, Digital, Facilities, Field Operations and Manufacturing. Having played a leadership role in Juniper navigating through the GFC and the subsequent recovery, I then had the opportunity to play a big role in their transformation strategy and was appointed CFO/COO in 2013.

In 2014 I was approached by Tesla to be Chair of their Audit Committee at a time when I actually had a model ‘S’ on order. I am now onto my third Tesla. I am a car enthusiast and am passionate about innovation, so Tesla is the perfect board role for me.
When I left Juniper in the middle of 2016 I fully intended to take a year off to travel and play golf with my husband. Only five months into that break I was approached to return to Australia for the Telstra COO role, which was an opportunity I simply couldn’t pass up.

How have you found the transition to the broader role you are in now?

As the former COO of Juniper and even in prior roles I have always had operational focus. Adding various operational capabilities to the role such as technology has helped me tremendously. I’m incredibly curious as an individual and want to understand how things work. Any ‘C’ level executive needs to understand how the company works and how all the pieces fit together to understand the financial and strategic consequences of any decisions made.

At Juniper I had many different streams reporting to me. While I don’t necessarily have the same breadth of scope now, Telstra is a much bigger company; a big fish in a smaller pond. What I do have responsibility for is critically important to our customers, the Telstra networks, which is the “heart” of the business. I look after the field force supporting our customers, as well as facilities, customer connect, IT and two of our company wide transformation initiatives: the digitisation program of work and ‘Networks of the Future’. So it is a very broad, operationally focused role.

What are the best parts of the role?

The best part of my role is the people I work with. We have a great executive team at Telstra; not just from a capabilities perspective but we work really well together. Although the skillsets are quite diverse, we have a few with finance backgrounds which means we speak the same language and that does make it easier. I also appreciate the public nature of the COO, CFO and CEO roles and being able to speak the same language means I can become as little or as much involved in any one particular area as I need to be and I find that very energising.

At Telstra there is a deep vein of engineering and technical excellence, as well as a commitment to serving our customers, that I enjoy being part of. I am someone who is a ‘life-long’ learner who loves to discover new things and there has been a lot of opportunity to learn and to explore different areas over the past year.

Also, the scrutiny from the market was probably greater as CFO of Juniper given the quarterly obligations for investor relations and roadshows, annual reports etc. Now I can participate in those things without having to be ‘front and centre’.

What are the nuances of the Tesla Audit Chair role?

I love being on the Tesla board as it marries many of the things I am passionate about, such as energy and technology, given my prior board position at ABB and my roles at Sun and Juniper. Also Tesla is a founder led company and I have been around founder led companies for much of my career.

The exciting thing at Tesla is that it is a company that is disrupting whole industries rather than just a specific technology and it is a very fast moving environment. In terms of the Audit Chair role, it is helpful having been both a CFO and an Audit Chair. There have been a number of things I have modified in my executive roles based on my experience as an Audit Chair. Looking at risk from an Audit Chair perspective does alter your behaviour as a CFO / COO.

I believe being an Audit Chair is a little like evaluating a movie by sitting outside the movie theatre. Every now and then somebody is assigned to come out of the theatre to update you on the movie plot and to suggest how the plot will develop. In order to make judgement on the movie; the plot, the actors, etc you need as much critical detail as possible in a relatively short time compared to those who are operating the company.

How has data analytics and digital transformation impacted your role?

At Telstra we are currently investing up to $3 billion in incremental capital to transform the way we serve our customers, deliver new services and reduce costs. Central to this program are investments we are making in business intelligence, data analytics and digitisation. For example, we are utilising big data to manage our network more efficiently and identify hot spots before they become a problem. We are implementing an agile methodology in the way we work across the whole group. New applications such as ‘Home Dashboard’ are transforming the way we interact with customers.

Investment of this kind is also about delivering new revenue opportunities. For example, the Internet of Things (IoT), where devices in the home and industry are connected to the internet, is a growing phenomenon. Telstra has a big role in providing the connectivity that underpins the IoT, while also providing value add services to our business customers to help them take advantage of the opportunities. I’ve been associated with a lot of technology companies over the years and it is the investments in bringing new technologies to market that drives adoption and revenue opportunities in the future and that’s no different for us here at Telstra.

What are the three top capabilities required for the modern CFO?

The CFO role has changed so much over the past fifteen years. The focus has shifted significantly from compliance and control to being strategic operator and a key driver of the business. The modern CFO is required to be a driver of cultural change and to foster diversity of thought, which I believe is part of the fabric of a healthy business. Also a CFO needs to be able to drive initiatives through to achieve business outcomes. It’s great to have the strategic capability but you need to be able to implement the strategy to achieve results. Finally, a CFO needs to share the accountability with key senior leaders.

Phil McCann

Phil McCann is a Partner in the Sydney office of Odgers Berndtson where he heads the CFO and Financial Management, as well as the Energy and Infrastructure Practices for the region. Phil has a stro...

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