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The former CIO of Allianz Global Assistance reflects on his journey to the business side and the lessons it might provide to CIOs who aspire to a role beyond IT.
Allianz Global Assistance is a leader in assistance services, travel insurance and medical health insurance for travelers or ex-patriots. "Assistance" refers to roadside assistance, but it also refers to repatriation services for people who have issues while they are traveling. As Chief Operating Officer of the Americas, Jay Levine notes in this interview with CIO Insight contributor, Peter High, how the assistance label is so meaningful to the company's mission.
Levine has been a CIO several times over, and joined Allianz Global Assistance as CIO of the Americas before rising to his current role. Levine reflects on his journey and the lessons it might provide on those who might follow in his footsteps.
CIO Insight: Can you talk a bit about your responsibility as COO? What is under your purview, Jay?
Jay Levine: I am the Chief Operations Officer for the Americas zone, which includes Canada, Mexico, the U.S., and I share responsibility for Brazil. These zones all have standalone business units serving the products I just described. There are a number of areas of interest starting with organizational management, serving as a PMO. We are responsible for the claims area, the assistance area and travel services, which includes the call center. We also have a financial services group where we do TPA services for specialty products that we provide on behalf of a credit card company. Finally, I oversee administrative services to do staff planning, reporting analytics and budgeting across the business units for which I am accountable.
CIO Insight: Talk about the process transitioning from CIO to COO, especially how the opportunity presented itself to you and what it is about your experiences as CIO that made you ready for this set of responsibilities.
Levine: I certainly aspired to move beyond the CIO role over the last 10 years. I came up through the software ranks as you mentioned as CTO. The more mature I got into my career, the more involvement with the business beyond the technology became more interesting to me. So it was an aspiration of mine and I was unsure whether I would fulfill it as I moved into the last third of my career.
One of my colleagues, the COO, moved out of the company to a great opportunity, at a time when I was fulfilling both the zone CIO role and overseeing a business transformation in Paris. The former COO and I shared the same boss, so when this happened, I threw my hat into the ring. Obviously my boss felt I was qualified and I had attributes he wanted to see more of in the operations area. It is such a technology-driven operation that he was looking for someone with a technology background. I knew the infrastructure, the domain from a business point of view and I had a burning desire to be closer to customers.
CIO Insight: Is it your assumption that at businesses that are going through similar technological transformations, CIOs who are appropriately equipped and have the ambition to do so might follow in your footsteps?
Levine: Yes, I think it is. Historically, it was not unusual to see a business person to take over CIO role. I think we are seeing a bit of the reverse now where people who know what the technology can do can really advance the business if they are more directly involved in the business. Some companies view it as strategic advantage, others view it as an opportunity to cut costs. Allianz is a company that's trying to use it more as strategic advantage.
CIO Insight: Is there advice you would offer to a CIO who might wish to emulate the path that you've gone on?
Levine: I think there are three broad categories. First, you have to know the business and by that I mean, internally you have to understand what you are trying to deliver, not just the service from IT. You have to understand a technical product's use and how your stakeholders perceive it. You also need to know the business from the market point of view and your customers. You have to really be invested in the whole view of what you are trying to do as a company.
Second, you have to want to interact a lot with people. I came in through the software development ranks and I was one of those guys for many years who just sat there and pounded code and did not have to interact with a whole lot of folks. You have to want to be part of the fabric of the business. You have to partner with your stakeholders and extend yourself and be willing to participate in business activities that are not just in your division. It is not just enough to say, "Yeah, I know, it's not my problem." There are a lot of opportunities in most businesses, especially as you get into a more senior role, to step into things a little out of your comfort zone. I have done that by participating in other non-IT, business leadership environments and initiatives. You have to demonstrate you have a desire to be outside your box and find opportunities to do so.
The third thing is to be opportunistic and prepared to put your hat in the arena. Teddy Roosevelt has a quote that I'm really fond of that I'll paraphrase, "Those who never fail, are not the ones to admire. Admire the ones who got in the arena and even if they failed, they gave it a go." So get in there and play. I put my hat in the ring and let my boss know I was interested in the role, and we talked a lot about it and what I knew I would need help with and what I knew that I felt very comfortable with, and off we went.
CIO Insight: I also wanted to ask you about employee engagement and customer engagement. I know these are particularly of interest to Allianz as it ties to a variety of success metrics that are kept. Can you walk through that?
Levine: At Allianz, our credo is we help people anytime, anywhere. It's a very people-centered culture. We really want our employees, especially our frontline employees, to know that we do not ever want performance at the expense of our customer satisfaction. We want to maintain a happy and engaged workforce because we believe fundamentally that they deliver better results to the customer. So, at every level down to the manager level, employees are compensated based on multiple metrics. We have financial metrics as you'd expect, but we also have two other metrics that are very much part of the fabric when it comes to how we incent people. One is customer focused: a Net Promoter Score. We run extraordinarily good Net Promoter Scores for a company of our type, well above the 70 NPS on average. These measures on the customer side are baked into a staff member's compensation.
At the leadership level, we are also measured by employee engagement. That means providing an environment, the leadership and the support for our associates to make sure that they feel not only engaged, but also capable of succeeding wildly. We are held accountable for that in material ways. When making a business decision, we think about whether our employees will buy in and whether it is meaningful for them. I've really enjoyed the fact that there's a multidimensional view of what is success. We drive it all the way down to our associates, so it's not just a highest-level management incentives here.
CIO Insight: What represents innovation in your mind? Especially in a setting like yours, what are some of the trends that are of particular interest to you?
Levine: We have two major technology-driven activities. There is an enormous digitization effort in the larger Allianz organization. We are actively pursuing how to mobile enable a lot of our call center activities and how to make it easier to purchase our products regardless of platform. Allianz was very phone-centric back in the day, up through the '90s. Now, half our interactions are some form of online driven in terms of contact with our call center for benefits or assistance. On the claims side, we are looking at a way to do automated adjudication, and better using technology to get the data and documentation we need to support a claim. This improves efficiency for us, but the real outcome is convenience for the customer.
Every customer says they would like it to be easier to file a claim and be paid faster. People are so used to doing things on mobile now, they would like to just take a picture, push a button, and get their money. We are aspiring to drive innovation around claims to make it as friction free as possible and to reduce latency. That is a critical initiative to us: making it easier for a customer to buy our products regardless of platform, communicating with the customer if they need assistance regardless of whether that's by phone, mail, web or mobile, and third, once the policy holder has incurred loss, submitting the documentation in a simplified manner as quickly as possible so we can pay the customer as quickly as possible.
Peter High is President of Metis Strategy, a business and IT advisory firm. His latest book, Implementing World Class IT Strategy, has just been released by Wiley Press/Jossey-Bass. He is also the author of World Class IT: Why Businesses Succeed When IT Triumphs. Peter moderates the Forum on World Class IT podcast series. Follow him on Twitter @WorldClassIT.