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A CIO With Passion

Nationwide's George McKinnon has created a workplace where staff can learn and grow.

There are a number of characteristics that make a good CIO. Some are obvious—an understanding of technology and a solid grasp of business strategy—and some are not.

"Passion is the number-one thing-above all," says George McKinnon, vice president and chief information officer for more than two years at Columbus, OH-based Nationwide Insurance ($115 billion in assets). "To work on this level, you have to be passionate about your work. There arecolleagues I have met over the years who think of their job as just a way to make a living. You really have to enjoy the opportunity of the challenge. If you don't, you are an also-ran."

Other traits may not come to mind as quickly. "You have to have very good listening skills," to communicate with staff members and also to gather information on new technology, says McKinnon. "And part of listening is being strong with relations- listening to the IT staff." If those skills are mastered, "the leadership aspects come into play," as employees and colleagues will have more respect for the CIO-something vital for a leader.

At Nationwide, McKinnon has regular staff meetings, sometimes over breakfast, where people "feel free to communicate in an open manner," he says. "Creating an open, dynamic environment where people want to work is very important."

The creation of Nationwide's workplace environment, McKinnon says, is one of his proudest achievements. "Our leadership team has created an environment where all of our associates are positioned to be successful and to deliver success to the business units," he says. "It is not just one project. It is that project leaders have the ability to go in and be successful. That is all a subset of creating an environment where we can let people grow and expand their knowledge. We are competitive with compensation, but that alone is not going to make people stay."

While Nationwide's IT staff has grown in knowledge and expertise, McKinnon says he regrets not personally taking advantage of opportunities to grow professionally. "I have not taken advantage of external programs and I have opted not to do so because I wouldn't take time away from my job," laments McKinnon. "I have had the opportunity numerous times to take the six-week executive program at Stanford. I would like to do it to broaden my experience and learn more. A CIO must realize that, at this level, the organization can run without you for a few weeks. You have to be comfortable with that."

To ensure Nationwide's employees keep growing, McKinnon spends a great deal of time on employee retention and hiring. "We are competitive with compensation, but people stay because of the environment that we have created," he says. The favorable environment for IT employees, says McKinnon, stems from the insurer's hiring practices. "We want to have a third come from internal hiring"—employees coming from other divisions. Another third come from external sources—people already in the business, insurance or technology sectors. And the remainder come from college recruitment.

"We are involved with 14 campuses in the Midwest," says McKinnon. "We had 80 interns this past summer. We set specific hiring targets for college people because we want to merge the experience and tenure of long-time employees with new employees that may have fresh ideas and perspectives." McKinnon notes employee retention in Nationwide's IT department is in the low 90 percent range. "We actually hired 91 people last month. That is pretty high for a medium-sized Midwestern town," he boasts. Nationwide has an IT staff of approximately 1,200 staffers and a contracting base of almost 300.

He says students are also attracted to Nationwide because of the wide variety of IT projects the company manages. "Our goal is to become a world-class IT organization. That means we are going to get involved in many different technologies," he says. "We have technology running everywhere. The opportunity is almost unlimited" for Nationwide's IT staff to learn and work on new types of technology, he adds.

McKinnon also oversees a buddy system in the IT organization, something he says helps develop new employees. "Anybody new to the organization is assigned a buddy," says McKinnon. "As a programmer, it is someone close—probably a manager in your group. As a manager, it will probably be a buddy outside the group. People who report directly to me have buddies in other parts of Nationwide." As the accountability expands, the fostering comes from farther away, he says, so managers and executives get exposed to broader views and other ways of conducting business.

One thing that McKinnon stresses to new employees is, "Make sure you understand the big picture of project. Ask the question 'Why?' so you can understand how your work fits into the larger scheme," he says. "Understanding how the entire operation runs is important."

In a way, McKinnon has extended the buddy program to IT projects. He has implemented the Nationwide Insurance Sponsorship Model, a plan that aligns the IT organization with the organizational structure of the business. "The partnerships between IT and business are critical," says McKinnon. "We have it for every initiative—and we have 500 active projects. We have somebody who reports directly to the CEO be a sponsor—usually a senior vice president. We need one single person because we want the right accountability."

The sponsorship model makes sure business and IT focus on the same goals. "It allows us to have priorities that are in line with the company and it won't let us chase every new technology out there"—something many technologists love to do.

Following up only on technology that will be useful for the company is important for any CIO, points out McKinnon. "As CIO, you have to be strong in financials," he says. "The demand for new technology is always stronger than what the company can afford" and the sponsorship model ensures all IT projects have a well-thought-out plan—both from the IT and business sides, he adds. By using the sponsorship model, McKinnon makes sure his $200 million-plus budget for development goes to good use.

Greg MacSweeney is editorial director of InformationWeek Financial Services, whose brands include Wall Street & Technology, Bank Systems & Technology, Advanced Trading, and Insurance & Technology. View Full Bio

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