The Open Door

Alignment Award Winner
The Guardian Life Insurance Co. of America

As executive vice president and CIO of the Guardian Life Insurance Co. of America, a mutual life insurance company with $35 billion in assets under management, Dennis Callahan’s project tracking process is decidedly low-tech. “It’s an object of scorn, but it works,” he says, pointing at the dozens of six-inch deep stacks of paper covering his desk.

But for Callahan, whose company was awarded the third annual CIO Insight Partners in Alignment Award in November 2004, the role of CIO is more about communicating and building relationships than pushing paper. Callahan came on board at Guardian in late 2000, and since then he has revolutionized the way IT is viewed at the company. Through countless meetings, both formal and informal, he has cultivated a tightly aligned partnership between business and IT that has reduced costs by 30 percent, and sped the time to market for new products.

His life at Guardian may sound like an endless series of meetings, but Callahan insists that it is his unrelenting focus on communicating, both throughout the IT department and with the business, that has resulted in the successful co-ownership of IT-led projects, which includes sharing fiscal responsibility. Executive Editor Dan Briody spent a morning with Callahan at his office in downtown Manhattan to learn more about Guardian’s culture of communication.

CIO Insight: What is the communications philosophy at Guardian?

Callahan: I’ve observed throughout my career that communication tends to be a weakness of IT organizations. Maybe it comes from speaking techno-babble and having different disciplines, and people growing up in a technical ladder. But communication is an absolute linchpin that enables people to work together. It’s a key to relationship building. It’s a key to effective coordination across IT and between IT and its business partners. And it’s a key to creating strategy, and for those who need to execute on that strategy, understanding what it is they’re doing and why.

Can you describe some of the Guardian’s formal communica- tions processes?

We have an annual report from IT. We also put in place an IT intranet which really was the pilot for an overall corporate intranet. And we tie project status into that intranet, as well as the documentation and artifacts appropriate to the implementation of a particular initiative. It can get right down to a very nitty-gritty level, so that key people participating in an initiative are on the same page.

We also launched town hall meetings where twice a year IT leadership speaks to the entire IT staff, typically about plans and works in progress and developments in technology that are of interest and importance. Those are really for the IT organization. Then we do two other town-hall meetings once a year, where we have one of the heads of the businesses come in and talk to us about the business. It’s really intended to be a tutorial.

We also do bagel breakfasts and pizza lunches with various segments of the staff a couple of times a month.

I get together for lunch once a month with the executive vice presidents who run the various businesses, and then with the profit-center heads who report to them. We’ll have a formal steering meeting for the profit center with me, the profit-center head, some of his key people, and my development lead or senior business systems officer who supports that particular profit center.

For heavy-duty initiatives that are really intense, transforming and tough, we’ll have even more frequent meetings.

Sounds like a lot of meetings.

I view that as the core of my job. It’s all about relationships, and it’s about making sure that you have a cohesive direction, that everyone is contributing what they need to. If an issue develops on either side of the relationship, it pops up fast and it’s dealt with fast, so it doesn’t delay things and burn budget. We don’t operate in a mode where people square off and start finger-pointing. Business and IT co-own getting the job done. When we have a problem, we share the problem, we resolve it, and when we have a success, we celebrate together.

Tell me a little bit about the annual report.

I’m a big believer in running IT like a business. That’s an integrating thread that goes across what we’ve been discussing. And if you run IT like a business, it has to have an accounting for itself. The annual report provides an integrated story. And so we’ve very much modeled this after an actual annual report.

In fact, I’m the CEO of IT, so I put together a story that summarizes the kind of year we’ve had. Then we move on to discussing our major achievements and initiatives, and tie them to our business objectives and our IT objectives. The annual reports tie IT into the overall strategy.

For information on the alignment award criteria go to:

CIO Insight Staff
CIO Insight Staff
CIO Insight offers thought leadership and best practices in the IT security and management industry while providing expert recommendations on software solutions for IT leaders. It is the trusted resource for security professionals who need network monitoring technology and solutions to maintain regulatory compliance for their teams and organizations.

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