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The Customer is King

The Hartford's David Annis wants to enable his company to meet ever-increasing customer demands.

With a 200-year history, The Hartford (Hartford, CT); $172 billion in assets) has been surprisingly nimble at adapting to changing times. From 1984, when it signed a co-marketing agreement with the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) through this year's affinity deal with Sears, the company has been a trailblazer in multi-channel distribution. On the agency side, the carrier was the first to go live with a real-time SEMCI (Single Entry Multiple Carrier Interface) link, enabling agents to complete applications and get quotes online in real-time.

It all stems from a philosophy of never taking the customer for granted, and that the Internet is causing a shift in power in the buyer-supplier relationship to the buyer.

"What's happening in the economy that's fundamentally different is this notion of automating the consumer," according to David Annis, CIO of The Hartford. A 19-year company veteran, Annis has played a key role in shaping The Hartford's technology strategies even before he took the reins as CIO a year ago.

"Automation makes the customer more knowledgeable, more efficient," he says. "You've got to have technology that will win the consumer, whether it's providing information, service, anything. If you don't give them a satisfying experience, somebody else will."

Added to the classic roles of a CIO-systems honcho, technology strategist, change advocate—is that of business strategist, or a full partner with senior management in using technology to develop winning business models, says Annis.

Still, the basic requirements of a CIO—technology knowledge combined with an understanding of the business—haven't changed much, suggestsAnnis. "You've got to know how to build and architect technology solutions. And you can't effectively partner and collaborate unless you have a good fundamental knowledge of the business," he says.

Annis spends a good part of his time with business heads—exhorting, imploring, pleading and listening. "I love talking about how we can bring some capability to market that's going to give us an edge," he says. But in order to be effective, a CIO must have first established a sense of credibility and trust. "They have to believe that you're going to do your part as a technology organization. You build trust by delivering consistent results."

Annis also devotes a fair amount of time to outside business groups, especially those involving other CIOs, where he takes the opportunity to network and just unwind. But the lion's share of his attention—and where he gets the greatest fulfillment—is devoted to leading a large technology organization. Annis tries to work with each of his 14 direct reports on a one-on-one basis. "I like to talk about what their priorities are, what progress they're making, how do we break down obstacles, how do we find creative ways to move forward.

"I am driven by the idea of making a difference one person at a time. I want people to be better off for having worked with me," he adds.

Annis encourages the 3,500 members of the IT organization to communicate with him through e-mail, which he tries to answer personally. "I try to be honest. Sometimes they're asking me to do things that I can't do, and I try to tell them why. Sometimes they're giving me feedback, good and bad, and I try to acknowledge and respond to it."

It's important, he continues, "for people to see the company they work for not as a faceless organization, but as people who are facing tough problems, and doing their best to solve them and be fair."

Again, it all revolves around trust. "The more you explain to people the rationale that went into your decision-making, the more trustworthy you become—even if you're sometimes telling them something they don't want to hear."

Leadership, he says, is about learning how to influence people rather than command them. "To be a leader, you've got to be able to communicate a vision of where you're trying to go and why it's important to get there," according to Annis. "They expect you to provide hope, a sense of genuine optimism—and a sense of trust. People have got to trust your word. You've got to act with integrity. People won't work hard for you if don't have that."

Annis' attitudes about management were influenced in large part by Warren Bennis, author of numerous books on leadership. "What really stuck with me was Bennis saying you've got to have all three"—direction, hope and trust. "It's not enough to be good at two if you want to be the kind of leader that people will follow," he observes.

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