By the time Sy Sternberg became chief executive officer of New York Life ($138 billion assets under management, New York) in 1997, he had a long acquaintance with technology. "In the late '60s early '70s, I was really on the information systems side of the business," he relates, hearkening back to the systems development responsibilities he managed during his tenure at MassMutual beginning in 1973. The evolution of his career went on to take a more intensely business-oriented focus, but his "legacy" experience equipped him with a permanent "positive bias toward technology," he says.
One feature of that bias is Sternberg's belief that it is the technology people rather than the business careerists who should straddle the two disciplines and serve as interpreter between them. "From the time back in the '70s, I overheard 'We have to educate our users to understand technology,' and frankly some users do understand technology," he says. "But the concepts associated with technology and its processes cannot easily be absorbed by every manager in every departmentyou really need to have a facilitator."
The same year that Sternberg was named New York Life's CEO, he sought such an interpreter between technology and users, and found one in Judith Campbell, the carrier's current CIO. Campbell says that at the time Sternberg took the reins, "New York Life had had a series of technologists run technology, and I think he felt it was time to have tech help change some of the business model issues, and that getting somebody to run IT from a business perspective was important."
For Sternberg, bringing Campbell aboard meant achieving a desired "marriage" of technological expertise with its practical application to the business. "In order to be successful in running an information systems operation, you really have to understand the business, sometimes better than the people you're writing the systems for," Sternberg says. "So we expect not only Judy, but also her key management team to be experts in the businessthat way they can turn out systems to meet the company's needs."
Those needs are served in part by exploiting the opportunity of the Internet, Sternberg says, adding that New York Life is focusing on providing information, limited service transaction capabilities and sales-support functions. "We not only have our Virtual Service Center, which provides policyholder information, but we also have FieldNet, an Internet site that provides a wealth of product information to our agents, and a 'dashboard' where managers can monitor agent performance," he says. New York Life's view of the use of technology for sales is an affirmation of the intermediary's role, according to Sternberg. "We're convinced that in today's world, more than ever, you need an adviser to interpret a customer's needs and identify the products to meet those needs," he says.
In embarking on any major technology initiatives, Sternberg opines, a CEO should not be far from the action. "Major projects which cost a lot and have long development cycles can quickly get off track," he says. A CEO also has to have enough technological competence to evaluate initiatives in consultation with his or her chief technology officer, he asserts. "It's only through understanding what might be possible that a CEO can create some vision."
Of Sternberg's own engagement with technology, Campbell says, "Sy can ask a couple of questions that get to the core of the issue quicklythat's really a delight. I've certainly worked for CEOs who didn't grow up on the engineering side, and it's very nice to work for one who understands how things work."
Chairman and chief executive officer, New York Life, New York, $138 billion assets under management.
NEW YORK LIFE CAREER: Joined New York Life in 1989 as senior vice president for group insurance, became executive vice president in 1991, president and chief operating officer in 1995, and CEO and chairman in 1997.
EDUCATION: BS, City College of New York, MS, Northeastern University (Boston).
INTERESTS: Sternberg cares passionately about children and expresses this through his hands-on involvement with a number of organizations, such as the Breakthrough for Learning initiative and Big Brothers/Big Sisters.
FAMILY: Sternberg lives in Purchase, NY, with his wife Laurie and their son Matthew. He has two grown daughters.
Anthony O'Donnell has covered technology in the insurance industry since 2000, when he joined the editorial staff of Insurance & Technology. As an editor and reporter for I&T and the InformationWeek Financial Services of TechWeb he has written on all areas of information ... View Full Bio