While he has every right to bOAST about his many professional accomplishments, modesty is the modus operandi of David Saul, CIO of Zurich North America (Schaumburg, Ill.). In fact, he considers a lack of hubris to be one of the keys to being a successful technology executive, and he advises people who are interested in pursuing a CIO career track not to take themselves too seriously. "Humility is something that might not be obvious, but you have to work hard to demonstrate that as you move into the CIO position," Saul advises. "If every successful idea was mine, you'd have never met me. As you move up, the ideas aren't all yours any more, they're everybody else's."
However, that humility has to be balanced with what Saul describes as a "high-performance attitude," which brings business strategy, collaboration and process improvement into play to create an environment of IT accountability. In his 10 years with Zurich North America, overseeing about 1,100 IT-related employees, Saul has driven the organization to become a leader in e-business, implemented complex business mergers and systems integration initiatives, managed large cost-reduction programs, and designed and developed innovative tools such as RiskIntelligence, which provides online real-time loss and location information to customer risk managers.
Other competencies a CIO needs to be successful, according to Saul, include business acumen, communications skills, human resource management, technology awareness and discipline.
This perspective has been essential in recent months as Saul has coped with sometimes competing business priorities. In fact, he says his biggest challenge is managing today's changing environment with multiple, but not always aligned, goals. At the same time he is striving "to generate new capabilities with business partners, I'm walking into other meetings focused on the 'I-really-don't-want-to-pay-for-that' discussion."
So Saul isn't swayed by the latest trends. "You can't just react to the technology hype," he says. "You've got to be front and center in strategy discussions and budget processes, and make sure the company is looking collectively at how much to invest in IT. From a macro sense, if you can get everyone on the same page in terms of 'How much should we invest in IT? What are the four or seven things we have to get done?' then the micro decisions you also have to make can tie back to that."
That's why aligning IT closely with Zurich's business units is central to Saul's management philosophy. But it wasn't always that way. "My business skills were suspect when I entered the business; now I naturally think like a business executive, versus a technologist," he reflects. Although he was "very technically oriented" when he started his career, "I have an interest in learning. As I moved into different management levels, I shifted the focus of that learning to get an advanced perspective of the business."
Accordingly, Zurich's strong performance directly benefits from Saul's approach. "We've become the number two commercial P&C writer in the US, and I think IT has a role in that," he says. "It's about alignment and getting the cue from the business areas in terms of what can differentiate us in the marketplace-and they feel that technology is a key differentiator." However, business success depends on IT ensuring that technology pitfalls are avoided. Saul observes, "You only need one catastrophe to put the IT contribution to the business in the red, so I try to get away from technology chest thumping. Appropriate due diligence up front is mandatory." This also means managing expectations about how quickly an initiative can be launched.
This has been translated over the past 18 months into a formalized governance process. Previously, relates Saul, "senior management was somewhat disengaged from the overall technology perspective. But there's been a lot of hard work and information sharing, and now discussions are very relevant. Our senior management group can literally prioritize where IT investments should be made, down to a fairly detailed level." The technology investment process at Zurich now follows "a more federated, collaborative model. The steps are the same all the time, and there's a much greater comfort level in the company around this now," Saul says. "We work hard at having 100 percent transparency on everything related to IT."
What hasn't changed is that those involved in the process will continue to deal with fairly lean technology budgets, Saul forecasts. For the coming year "we've looked at IT business processes, relative to support, maintenance, new product development, etc., and are finding where we can improve our processes to improve output but not necessarily increase spending. Ultimately, the business determines the level of the IT investment," says Saul.
One of the more significant changes to Zurich's IT business model is the linkage of people who have responsibility for setting system specifications with those responsible for QA (quality assurance)/testing and deployment into one organization called Application Services.
ELITE 8 FACTS
David J. Saul
CIO, Zurich North America, Schaumburg, Ill., $13.6 billion in premiums written in 2002; 1,100 IT employees.
Education: University of Maryland, undergraduate degrees in economics and computer science. Attended executive education programs at Northwestern's Kellogg Business School and the Center for Creative Leadership (Raleigh, NC).
Work History: Prior to joining Zurich in 1993, Saul served as director of strategic planning for Blue Cross of Maryland and director of marketing, logistics and distribution systems at Black & Decker.
Personal: Enjoys college sports, exercising, and playing the guitar; "I play, just for me, and I think I'm pretty good."
Katherine Burger is Editorial Director of Bank Systems & Technology and Insurance & Technology, members of UBM TechWeb's InformationWeek Financial Services. She assumed leadership of Bank Systems & Technology in 2003 and of Insurance & Technology in 1991. In addition to ... View Full Bio