The Guardian of IT

In Frank Wander’s five years at The Guardian Life Insurance Company of America, the technology tools available to his team might have evolved, but the IT executive’s role and focus on creating and fostering an environment of trust, creativity, and productivity has never wavered.

As CIO and senior vice president at the New York-based insurer, Wander emphasizes developing clear-cut governance, responsibility, and the flexibility to try new approaches. All of which benefits not only the approximately 650 full-time employees and 350 consultants under his direction, but also positively affects Guardian–a 150-year-old life-insurance firm, with 2010 revenue of almost $6 billion.

When he first joined the company, Wander almost immediately staunched the employee exodus plaguing the company. Upon his arrival, in April 2006, he was greeted with a turnover rate of 13.6 percent, Wander recalls. In 2007, before he even implemented many of his ideas, that rate dropped to 4 percent, he says. Today, turnover at Guardian stands at about 4 percent, half of which is voluntary, Wander told CIO Insight at the Gartner Symposium ITxpo, in Orlando in October 2011. Across multiple industries, the average voluntary turnover rate, from 2010 through 2011, was 9.1 percent, compared with 10.4 percent two years ago, according to the 2011 BenchmarkPro survey by Compdata Surveys.

Ideas in Action

To foster an environment in which IT professionals would want to work and tackle challenges with creativity and enthusiasm, Wander developed a governance process to determine which groups or individuals would own what roles, responsibilities, and decisions. Productivity success comes from the top, he says.

“Before that [governance process] was put into place, people had to champion an idea. It personalized every decision, so we depersonalized things. I use governance to get a very good result for the company,” says Wander. “Productivity is the result of very good design decisions. You have to make choices.”

Rather than working in an environment of in-fighting and arguments, fear and uncertainty, Guardian’s IT professionals can focus on technology solutions to business problems. After all, their expertise is invaluable to the organization, says Wander, and it’s important to recognize that. “They’re professionals. We like to treat them like professionals, and we like them to feel that way. We really do care a lot about the good people, and we believe we have their backs so they can relax and be productive,” he says. “The traditional corporate environment has a long way to go in thinking that people are a resource instead of an interchangeable part. Human productivity is incredibly complicated.”

Part of that complexity lies in dealing with mistakes. In IT, errors can be costly, which can weigh on employees. All too often, IT professionals are too concerned about the safety of their jobs to attempt a new or creative approach to a problem or challenge, Wander says. At other times, people are afraid to take ownership in case a project hits snags.

This CIO wanted to change all that. “We don’t blame people for mistakes, although we do hold people accountable if they make the same mistake twice–that’s an error. IT failure is a social pathology. It’s not a software-hardware problem. This stuff is not that hard,” says Wander. “We take risks every day. We’re always doing something we haven’t done before [in IT]. We’re adventurers.”

Those headline-making ERP failures and CRM meltdowns? The millions lost to poorly implemented or badly designed data centers? In many instances, says Wander, they were the fault of passive organizations that did not take ownership, failed to make decisions, or experienced other non-technical problems. If employees don’t trust each other or management, IT projects will likely fail, he says.

Wander’s strategy appears to be working. Today, Guardian’s IT team delivers between 92 percent and 94 percent of its systems on-time, he says.

As one would expect of a forward-looking IT operation, Wander and Guardian have adopted various forms of social media to foster community, collaboration, and engagement. But they also keep one foot in the past by retaining some old-fashioned communications tools: Wander personally hand-writes cards to employees to relay his congratulations or thanks on major anniversaries and promotions, for example.

“You’ve got to integrate employees into the social environment and make them feel part of the community. People want to work in an environment that is productive and collaborative, where they can relax and do their jobs,” he says. “We want to maintain that connectedness.”

Bottom-Line Boosts

Enhancing employee morale does far more than make people feel good about going to work or putting in some extra hours to ensure a project is done on-time or on-budget. By keeping turnover low, for example, Guardian dramatically reduces its expenditures on recruitment and training. The insurance giant also holds onto its intellectual property, in the form of knowledge workers who have grown along with the company and industry, which helps improve customer satisfaction. The result is that Guardian’s end-users get fast, accurate answers or service from the tightly knit IT department, says Wander.

“The longer we keep people, the better the return on my investment,” he concludes. “You want to keep a lot of value in IT? Don’t destroy it. I don’t want to break them up. I want them to become tighter.”

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