Is IT Leadership and Sizzle an Oxymoron?

Pat Speer
Insurance Experts' Forum, June 18, 2014

The long-held belief that members of IT leadership are less “touchy-feely” than those in sales or other functional areas doesn’t just apply to the insurance industry. True, the finesse required of the human side of management—the “people” skills required to lead today’s diverse IT workforce-- may be lost on managers from all vertical markets. But it’s a particularly important challenge in insurance, and at a time in history when the industry can least afford to reduce its IT workforce.

There was a lot of chatter about losing valuable IT talent at IASA’s 2014 Educational Conference and Business Show, and a lot of the same old concerns voiced: we are forced to keep the AS/400 but can’t find RPG programmers; our aging workforce is creating a black hole in our department; we can’t seem to attract the interest of top IT graduates—they want to work at Google, Twitter or Amazon, and the list goes on.

Until this year’s conference, there was less of a connection made between the dearth of IT talent and the leadership skills required to attract and retain it. The industry has come a long way from its myopic view of IT as “bodies” that can write code for legacy systems, to “talent” that can help an insurer embrace the digital world, its new consumers and beyond.

Also see: Keep Your IT Staff, Or Someone Else Will

But the difference now is that the industry is finally recognizing the role IT executives can play in being the champion of technology causes, innovation and maybe most importantly, the workers who help make the IT leader’s vision a reality.

Diana Price, Chief Encouragement Officer (that’s right) of Diana Price & Associates, presented her views on this topic to a room full of business and IT executives this week, challenging them to stand up, shake their hands in the air, and move to Pharrell Williams’ song “Happy.” Her initial message, how to become a more “sizzling” leader, played to a tough crowd. But as the session progressed, more attendees seemed to embrace her argument: If “sizzle” is how you make people feel, consider how “sizzle” can be used by insurance business and IT executives to attract top talent and then encourage them to do their best.

Price played off of several common themes, such as how to connect, convey and convince your employees that they’ve made the right choice as to where they work and who they work for, giving those workers the opportunity to learn and grow.

More specific to insurance IT, Price challenged attendees to foster creative tension. “It sparks innovation, and you can’t afford not to innovate.”

Not surprisingly, attendees shook their heads at Price’s call to embrace new kinds of risk. “So you’re afraid to find your inner edge?” she braved back. “Don’t be afraid to step outside your comfort zone and embrace something that makes you do something new and different.”

Price suggested attendees take a good, long look at their interpersonal communication skills as a way to recognize and break out of ineffective and damaging patterns that make them appear unclear, unsure, impatient and even arrogant.

Insurance IT executives that assign themselves an additional “chief encouragement officer” title may be the subject of some pretty lame jokes at the watercooler, but recognizing the role they play in retaining great IT talent is an imperative. And breaking out of ineffective interpersonal behavior patterns may not relate directly to “touchy-feely” but it’s certainly a great first step to lead today’s diverse insurance IT workforce.


Pat Speer is president of Speer Consulting, a communications and content management consulting firm. She is also the former editor-in-chief ofInsurance Networking News

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