Lao Tzu’s teachings resonate with Syed Ahmed, who feels that when the situation calls for it, “a leader is best when people barely know he exists.” For Ahmed, who’s both a practitioner and a leader, he believes if you’re an effective supervisor – and able to successfully fulfill your aim – people will think it happened naturally.
Ahmed, who’s currently the CDO of InnoWell, has already made his mark – fulfilling many leadership tasks – as a business technologist and thought-leader in various roles, including Bupa, RACV and ServCorp. Indeed, he’s resourceful – working as a business tech executive, non-executive board director, start-up advisor, public speaker and author.
He’ll tell you he loves solving problems at the intersection of digital technology, business strategy and people leadership.
Stories Ink caught up with Ahmed to discuss his memorable jobs, his thoughts on leadership, and some of his passions in life. Hint – motorcycle riding.
Growing up, what did you want to be?
For a long time, I really wanted to be around aeroplanes or flying machines. Initially as a pilot, but then as I got a little older, as an engineer. I almost started an aerospace engineering degree after high school, but happily ended up doing software engineering instead.
But I always knew tech was my calling. I have two degrees in it – including a Masters in Artificial Intelligence – and spent the first 10 years of my career immersed in software-related roles.
What were some of your first and most memorable jobs?
I guess I’ve been very lucky to have been able to carve out a career path that has been interesting and full of growth. I’ve always tried to pick roles that allow me to do what I love, and so each has been memorable in their own way.
My first ‘professional’ job (where I earned money) was when I was about 13 – I walked around the neighbourhood knocking on doors and asking people if they wanted someone to mow their lawn. I learnt some good life lessons – pushing a heavy lawnmower up and down the street, working up the courage to ‘make a sale’, and dealing with rejection.
My career to date can probably be split into a couple of chapters – as a practitioner and as a leader. As a practitioner, I built some really cool software. For example, I worked on the early version of the Government Licensing platform that centralises many of the licenses issued in NSW. I remember building one of the early APIs that connected the platform to the RTA (as it was called then) to securely retrieve someone’s name, details, and images of them and their signature. Doesn’t sound like a lot, and it’s not something you anyone would normally notice, but it brings a smile to my face every time I see a driver’s license and think that I personally contributed to that.
As a leader, I must admit that I’ve really enjoyed both the challenge and satisfaction of bringing together people in organisations towards a common purpose. While I do sometimes miss the deterministic and relatively tangible nature of my programming roles, I certainly don’t regret moving into the space that I’m in now.
How did your path take you into your current role: CDO of InnoWell?
It really was a combination of deliberate choices and pure luck. I just kept focusing on finding roles that let me do what I enjoyed and learn things that I felt I needed to grow in, and somehow things kept lining up. My current role brings together many of the things that I love and have now accumulated experience and skills in – health, digital products, software, and people leadership.
Can you highlight your main responsibilities in that role?
I’m responsible for helping the Product, Technology and Data teams build and refine a cloud-based platform for mental healthcare. I have the privilege to work with some really smart and passionate people, so my main job is to ensure that the strategic direction for those functions is sound, coherent, understood, and well executed.
What do you love about your current job, and what’s your big vision for the role?
A few things actually! I know it sounds like a cliché, but I love working with the team. Everyone is very skilled, passionate about the space and our purpose, and we have a lot of fun together. It really is a privilege being part of a team who makes it easy for me to focus on my job. Given that we’re a health-tech SaaS company, my role is pivotal and has a huge impact. Our purpose and vision are to be able to facilitate personalised mental healthcare for everyone, and I feel genuinely excited to be able to contribute to that.
What are some of your big milestones in your career so far?
I feel that I’ve been able to make an impact in every role that I’ve had, and have been able to derive great intrinsic fulfilment in all of them. A couple of the major milestones for me were when I made the major leaps in responsibilities – namely transitioning into management and commencing my first formal Board role. I also went back to Uni and earned an MBA, so that was also a very major milestone.
How would you describe yourself?
Interesting question. I suppose professionally I see myself as a Business Technologist – I gravitate towards (business) problems that can be elegantly solved using technology. Personally, I think as I (arguably!) mature I find myself constantly looking for balance in everything – life, work, relationships, etc.
What’s a fun fact or something people don’t know about you?
Most people are surprised when they find out that I ride a motorbike. I’m not sure why – maybe because I’m mostly dressed in a suit and tie and am reasonably conservative in my approach to most things. But yeah, I ride a sports motorbike (although rather sensibly).
Have you had many challenges or hurdles to overcome?
Not more so than anyone else, I think. There are always challenges – that’s what life is about – but if I look back over my career and all the challenges and hurdles – painful and difficult as they were – always led to immense growth, so I’m grateful for them.
What’s the term leadership mean to you – and what type of leader are you?
For me, leadership is a behavioural trait rather than an explicit role. It’s when you see an opportunity to make things better or right, and you take the steps to make it happen. You can (and should) do that in any role (at work or otherwise). I find the popular ‘Leader vs Manager’ social media posts both comical and naïve – those two concepts are not the opposites on the same spectrum, but rather separate spectrums in themselves.
One of my biggest learnings has been to adjust my leadership style to the situation – and also recognise situations where I might have authority, but there is someone else better suited to lead. One of my favourite approaches to leadership is embodied in Lao Tzu’s teachings – “A leader is best when people barely know he exists, when his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say: we did it ourselves.”
What are your priorities for the next 12 months?
Work-wise, it’s a pretty exciting time for InnoWell. We’ve expanded with our first client overseas, are adding lots of interesting product features, and there’s a growing awareness of the need for a mental healthcare platform like ours. Personally, I’m still toying with kicking off that PhD.
What do you do outside of work?
Lots! I’ve got a couple of young boys so that keeps me pretty occupied. I’m also a Non-Executive Director of the Board at the Westmead Hospital Foundation, and I also somehow try to fit in a couple of advisory board roles.
Looking back on your career, is there anything you’d change? Do differently?
No, I don’t think so. Even things that felt like mistakes at the time led to some very interesting opportunities and in some cases huge growth.
What are some of your passions in life? Favourite things?
I feel like I need to say something deep or Instagram-worthy, but the reality is that I really like the simple things in life. I’m a pretty avid camper and I love cooking – I have four BBQs, but that’s a conversation for another day!
And finally, what do you wish to achieve moving forward?
One of the things I’ve learnt and embraced is that life never works out as planned, so I’m looking forward to continuing to learn new skills, broadening my perspective and contributing.