There's no shortage of advice for executives joining new companies. Some observers caution against making big changes to established practices, lest a newcomer risk alienating longtime employees. But TIAA-CREF's Annabelle Bexiga, who has been the company's senior managing director and CIO for a little more than a year, proves that with the right touch, a fresh perspective and the right ideas can energize a team and take a company to new heights in a short time.
"IT is about people," Bexiga says. "You need to get the people to up their game, focus on what they're accomplishing and be clear on what they're accomplishing."
Bexiga kicked off her first major IT change shortly after joining New York-based TIAA-CREF ($453 billion in total assets under management as of Dec. 31, 2010), in June 2010. The program, known as "IT Accelerate," focused on shortening IT project life cycles to increase speed to market for the company's life insurance, annuities and other financial services products.
According to Bexiga, her approach to identifying areas in which the company could streamline processes wasn't based on top-down dictation; rather, she opened a dialog with the IT staff and asked them a simple question: How can we make this easier to do? "When you ask people what slows the process down, they're really happy to tell you. People are very happy to offer up ideas on how to make their lives easier," Bexiga says.
"The challenge is getting it together and agreeing on it, then getting it rolled out," she continues. "It's not three people in a room coming up with a process, saying, 'Here's what we're going to do.' You get much better adoption when team members are involved with the process. It's about developing a high-performance culture that includes business alignment, clear goals and tight teams empowering people to get things done."
Of course, the point of creating faster processes is to get new infrastructure and new capabilities up and running quickly, which has been another major focus for Bexiga. Transforming TIAA-CREF into a 21st-century company with a robust web presence and real-time data capabilities was nothing less than an existential issue, according to Bexiga. Customer expectations were high and the corporate reputation demanded it, she says.
"Ninety-three years ago, we were started by Andrew Carnegie as a retirement plan for teachers, something no one had done before. We are a company that started in an innovative way, and we've continued to be innovative over the years," Bexiga explains. "We have some products that other financial services firms don't offer. With technology, we have to be innovative there as well -- gear it toward what our clients want and how they want it."
According to Bexiga, the TIAA-CREF IT department is making a number of back-end changes to enable this greater access for its clients. Bexiga and her team rolled out an operational data store earlier this year, which involved decoupling the data warehouse's source systems from the web to reduce downtime and increase scalability. This is part of a program to address data and information quality at TIAA-CREF called IRIS, or Information Resource Improvement Services.
"It enables a lot of the functionality that we do -- things both for our clients and for our internal users around data," she explains. "What we're doing is building a standardized data capability on the back end -- we collect data across the firm and align the plumbing toward some of our initiatives. As we're rolling out things to our clients, we're building out that back end."
Bexiga also is working on upgrading the company's network, a project that should be completed by the end of this year and that promises to improve performance. Part of the work involves access upgrades, but the system also is being streamlined; as many as 200 databases will be decommissioned and removed from the environment, Bexiga reports.
"Performance and availability have become some of our highest objectives," she says. "Some people might see the network as an off-the-shelf commodity, but we consider that a core competency. We have to be great at our network -- [otherwise] it's like not having a good storefront. Your network is your connection to your clients now. This has enabled us to scale as we grow and gives us good performance on the web for our clients, so that has been a tremendous success and really positioned us for the future."
In the Name of the Customer
Consumer preferences are driving the focus on performance at TIAA-CREF, Bexiga adds. In times of high market volatility, people are anxious about their financial services products, she observes. Meanwhile, the Internet has become a default self-service channel, so customers flock to their financial services providers' websites to monitor and manage their accounts, and clients want to be able to make account changes of all kinds via the web, Bexiga says.
Enabling this kind of seamless and immediate customer experience requires holistic data management, Bexiga notes, adding that she is piloting a program to address these processes for clients. "I have a data group that is centralized and we're looking at data from across all businesses," she says. "Clients expect their data to be consistent from point to point. Why should I have to call five different places to update my address? We have to get the data from those source systems more accessible to the web."
Once the data and channel bridges are built, the customer-facing portal has to provide a clear path to the information that users seek, Bexiga continues. To that end, she says, her team worked in concert with TIAA-CREF's marketing department to build a new front end for the company's website as well -- just one of many ways in which IT and the business work together to achieve common goals.
"We don't see ourselves as the IT team, but as an extension of the business team, and [we see] the web as just another channel to our clients," Bexiga adds. "We participate in the staff meetings, we participate in their planning sessions; and they participate in every aspect of our projects and monitor our metrics."
This tight collaboration has smoothed many of the bumps that are to be expected when introducing change, Bexiga suggests. But her ability to flourish in a new situation shouldn't come as a surprise. Earlier in her career, Bexiga was a managing director at JPMorgan, where she served as COO for the Asia Pacific Foreign Exchange (based in Singapore) and as head of technology for investment management in Asia (based in Tokyo). She lived in Asia for a total of four years.
But as challenging as the adjustment to a new culture can be, Bexiga says, returning to the U.S. was equally difficult. "I moved with a company, so there were a lot of support systems they give you, and it's easy to spot people who have been displaced and don't have friends," she says. "Coming back was quite interesting because your friends are used to you not being around. You feel like a stranger in your own home."
Together, these experiences have culminated in an executive whose ability to rally a new team with inspiring leadership while applying in-depth technical knowledge has resulted in truly meaningful, positive change for her company in only a short time. "We've had so much change going on in the past year, and people are happy because things are getting better for them," Bexiga concludes. "Creating innovative products and changing things for the better are inspirational things."
Nathan Golia is senior editor of Insurance & Technology. He joined the publication in 2010 as associate editor and covers all aspects of the nexus between insurance and information technology, including mobility, distribution, core systems, customer interaction, and risk ... View Full Bio