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Management Strategies

05:14 PM
Suzanne Fairlie, ProSearch
Suzanne Fairlie, ProSearch
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The Qualities of the Elite Insurance CIO

There are many talented CIOs in the insurance industry, but the best are decisive managers who excel as communicators, team builders and drivers of significant change, says Suzanne Fairlie, founder and president of ProSearch.

As Malcolm Gladwell notes in his book "Outliers," intelligence is only one of many qualities necessary for success. That observation rings true for those of us charged with identifying the highest quality insurance technology executives. The candidates we present to insurance clients looking for proven CIOs have a variety of backgrounds -- hailing from companies small and large, with roots in both business and technology, and with experience ranging from insurance-specific to varied industries. All have excellent communication skills, creative energy and brilliant minds. But so do many other CIOs who are not so well recognized by their industry. So what are the distinguishing traits that identify leaders capable of leading insurance technology organizations through change?

Chief among those qualities is the desire to achieve transformation in areas that have seen little change in the past. The elite CIOs look for the difficult areas to change, where there will be a major impact. CIOs good at maintaining the status quo have valuable talents but not the ones needed in a rapidly changing business environment. Insurance companies today want change agents who can make a bottom-line impact through departures from the status quo. Top insurance CIO candidates have a track record of both identifying and accomplishing significant transformational change.

The best insurance technology officers also have the ability to create strong teams to support their visions. Sometimes this manifests itself in successful retraining efforts or redistributing current staff; at other times it is represented by a record of decisiveness in replacing ineffective staff with new talent. In every case, it means the ability to motivate staff and maintain low rates of turnover in the teams they establish. Change agents are consistently able to recognize talent and create cohesive, highly motivated, productive and loyal teams. They have mastered the art of recognizing and rewarding the achievements of their subordinates and, as a result, the people within their organizations are among their greatest advocates.

Another common trait of the elite technology officer is the ability to forge strong partnerships with their users. Persuading a colleague, such as a claims executive, to completely transform his division's way of doing business requires a high level of respect and trust. No major transformations are achieved without credibility, which must be established first with the senior leadership. No CIO achieves great things in the absence of the CEO's confidence, and CIOs who lack that support may need to find employment elsewhere if they are to achieve their potential.

Promises to Keep

Successful CIOs establish and reinforce their credibility to senior leadership and internal customers through performance. They tend to be measured in their promises -- which not only reinforces an impression of prudence but gives them the opportunity to over-deliver. Every CIO sometimes faces unforeseeable obstacles, but the best maintain their credibility by always following through on specific promises within specified timelines. They also confront potential setbacks early, pointing out dangers before they become unmanageable and always delivering bad news early. Business leaders hate unpleasant surprises, and perhaps no one likes them less than those engaged in a business that is all about managing risk.

Finally, for those insurance technology executives who have tackled business transformation, built strong teams and earned the respect of leaders, peers and staff, one other trait distinguishes the most successful CIOs: the ability to build external collaboration networks. The communication skills essential for getting things done internally have an important role to play in how CIOs engage with the outside world. Effective networking makes for better CIOs in various ways -- for example, by fostering greater currency on the evolution of business and technology and by providing the means to avoid others' mistakes and develop metrics to track one's own success.

Good communicators collect valuable intelligence about vendors and solutions; and collaborate with partner institutions, such as industry associations and universities, to address a range of issues, from standards to staffing. But one of the most important aspects of external networking is to spread one's reputation in the industry. No CIO would consider running his or her organization without a strategic plan, but few create a strategic plan for their own careers. Greater visibility increases the chance to match great CIO potential to an organization that can benefit from his or her talents. Insurance companies often struggle to find CIO candidates, and a CIO's well-developed reputation makes their job (and, yes, mine) easier. As several Elite 8 honorees have attested in the past, it is important to maintain both internal and external networks of key contacts -- these people will become your champions. n

ProSearch is a Philadelphia-based executive search firm specializing in IT and finance.

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