CIO Spotlight: Rich Gilbert, Aflac

What advice would you give to aspiring IT leaders? "[G]et comfortable being uncomfortable because it helps you grow…"

1 2 Page 2
Page 2 of 2

What was your first job? When I graduated college, I joined IBM as a supplemental employee providing call centre technical support on the PC/AT and IBM ValuePoint PCs. Shortly after, I was a test engineer when IBM was starting to manufacture desktop, laptop and server computers.

Did you always want to work in IT? No. I actually started my career in the manufacturing/engineering side of the house as one of the youngest managers in that area and over time advanced to a third-line manager. Later, as IBM developed plans to sell that business, one of my mentors suggested I transition into the IT services area, which was an emerging discipline at IBM. 

What was your education? Do you hold any certifications? What are they? I graduated from Auburn University with a bachelor's degree in electrical engineering (War Eagle!). I later attended the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where I received my Master of Business Administration. Earlier in my career, I was certified as a project management professional. 

Explain your career path. Did you take any detours? If so, discuss. Over the course of my career, I transitioned from a technology company (IBM) to banking (SunTrust) and returned to technology with HP and currently to insurance with Aflac. Over that time, it's been interesting to move from a technology core business to a service company, which consumes those technologies. In core technology companies, the pace of change has to be cutting-edge, leading the marketplace, integrating the latest and greatest into your environment to highlight its potential.

On the other hand, in industries like banking and insurance, it's all about applying proven technologies at scale, leveraging them to meet the needs of your customer and fostering adoption, all while driving stable operations. You can almost think of it like changing the plane engine while it's in flight. It's essential to meet changing customer needs, update legacy technologies and reengineer processes that no longer meet the needs of the business. The challenge becomes considering how you strategically change out those technologies with newer ones while maintaining the appropriate altitude or flight level.

Coming from technology to insurance, that's exactly what I set out to do by developing our One Digital Aflac vision and operating model, aimed at meeting this challenge by continuing to put the customer first, drive value quickly and generate results without disrupting the core business.

What business or technology initiatives will be most significant in driving IT investments in your organisation in the coming year? We started our One Digital Aflac vision and strategy in 2019, which is all about using digital capabilities to make things easier - for customers to buy from Aflac, for our distribution team to sell Aflac, for employees to work at Aflac and ultimately for the Aflac promise to be fulfilled. That means we look at everything from the customer lens back and work closely with our business teams to create a customer-centric backlog. Our agile delivery teams are focused on what will create tangible value for the business and our customers.

In order to make the One Digital Aflac vision real, we knew we had to change the way we operated to drive customer centricity. We had to reinvent IT, forming a new service-based operating model and organisational structure by bringing technology and the business together, calling it Digital Services as the next evolution of IT. We've deconstructed technology domains and integrated them with the business to deliver value with agile teams aligned by services such as enrolment, claims, billing and the call centre. Each of those teams has a product owner in the business, ensuring we stay focused on our customers' priorities.

What are the CEO's top priorities for you in the coming year? How do you plan to support the business with IT? Due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the shift to a virtual and remote environment, digital enablement has taken centre stage. Our goal is to help the company reinvent, use technology in new ways and accelerate our digital journey. This means reinventing our products, how we serve our customers, how our independent agents market and sell, and how employees work in a way that is digitally optimised.

Since we normally sell through independent agents at the worksite, we're looking for new ways for them to engage in a virtual world, using technology throughout the value chain as a means to accelerate growth out of the pandemic. It means pioneering new ways to engage our customers as well as bringing forward simple products that can be bought on a mobile device instead of complex products that need to be explained and sold through an independent agent.

Does the conventional CIO role include responsibilities it should not hold? Should the role have additional responsibilities it does not currently include? My current role is the chief digital information officer, which contains both the digital transformation as well as the traditional IT activities. The importance of leading both a business digital strategy combined with the ability to execute that strategy in IT is an advantage. There's a single vision, faster execution and forward momentum toward outcomes.

Are you leading a digital transformation? If so, does it emphasise customer experience and revenue growth or operational efficiency? If both, how do you balance the two? Our business strategy is based on three pillars—growth, efficiency and experience—in order to create a balanced focus across all three. We've infused that directly into our organisational model in Digital Services with a dedicated leader overseeing initiatives and agile teams aligned to support each. This allows our technology delivery to fully align to business strategy.

Describe the maturity of your digital business. For example, do you have KPIs to quantify the value of IT? We have shifted to a customer-centric approach in everything we do, measuring ease, persistency and experience. Even though we have some traditional IT metrics, those are secondary in nature to growth, customer satisfaction, persistency and retention. From an IT perspective, we're focusing on process optimisation and speed to market through both agile and DevOps methodologies. Through our transition to agile, we focused heavily on deployment frequency, reducing that by more than 40% last year. As we continue to mature the model, we're looking at new ways to optimise end-to-end across our value streams, including lead time for changes, mean time to recover and change failure rate. We'll use that to inform how we improve our speed, quality and resiliency. 

What does good culture fit look like in your organisation? How do you cultivate it? Aflac's culture is all about relationships, and the key to navigating it successfully is a relationship-based model. When we hire people, regardless of background, we look for interpersonal and communications skills, those who are successful delivering value as part of a team, and people who put the vision of the organisation ahead of self-interest. We're always looking for great technology talent that will help us innovate, drive change and keep customers central, but more than that, we're looking for people who care about how they do things as much as what they do. 

What roles or skills are you finding (or anticipate to be) the most difficult to fill? The digital era has driven a renewed focus on customer centricity at Aflac, which is at the heart of our ODA vision. To that end, we look for people who can help us define the ideal customer journey in terms of digital experiences. 

Data and analytics, robotics, artificial intelligence and machine learning are also becoming part of how we run our ecosystem. Therefore, people who can write and tune data algorithms are becoming critical to the success of our operations as we find ways to optimise, streamline and reduce errors in our business processes.

We also need enterprise architects who can understand how digital systems should work end-to-end and navigate the technology ecosystem to set a strategy to achieve a defined result. As companies become more and more digital, "good housekeeping" through the maintenance of technology standards and careful integration of new technologies is an investment that helps to ensure the stability of technology ecosystems, reduces costly technical debt and complexity, and ensures IT services operate efficiently.

What's the best career advice you ever received? A mentor once told me to always be willing to move in and out of management on your career path. In other words, be willing to take on projects outside of a direct management role that challenge you and increase the breadth of your experience. 

Secondly, use the shopping cart model of leadership. Whether you have a good or bad leader, your experience provides you with a learning opportunity. Find the traits you love, and put those into your shopping cart and consciously decide what you will leave on the shelf. Leaders who are inspirational, visionary and offer mentorship show you a few traits that are worth picking up and taking with you.

Do you have a succession plan? If so, discuss the importance of and challenges with training up high-performing staff. Succession planning is something that we are continuing to mature. We're always looking to cultivate the next level of leadership potential within the organisation. A part of this is developing a balance between leadership skills, business acumen and technical talent. We actively develop the capabilities and skills of our employees with an enablement program that focuses on growing key skillsets such as product owners, scrum masters and full stack developers. 

What advice would you give to aspiring IT leaders? To those who are seeking to build and advance their careers in IT, I would advise that it's more important to learn how to lead people rather than technology. At its core, every business is about its people. Learning to lead people in a way that leverages their strengths and empowers and motivates them is central to achieving outcomes as you move further in your career.  

Secondly, if a job doesn't scare you, it's too small. Each new role you take should challenge you in a new way. In short, get comfortable being uncomfortable because it helps you grow.

What has been your greatest career achievement? Thus far, my biggest challenge and achievement was supporting the separation of Hewlett-Packard into two Fortune 50 companies - Hewlett Packard Enterprise and HP Inc. - which is the biggest corporate divestitures ever undertaken. It took the full alignment of the company to do what people thought was impossible. This made us rethink the art of the possible and invent new ways of doing things. 

For example, one of the biggest challenges from an IT standpoint was separating six data centres with 65,000 servers and more than 80 PB of storage. To support that, I led a team that deployed more than 15,000 servers over the course of 6 months to ensure a successful and on-time launch of both companies in 2015. As part of the separation, we did a major shift to a private cloud; migrated, cloned or eliminated 3,500 applications; optimised our compute; and dedicated a pair of the data centres to each separating company.

Looking back with 20:20 hindsight, what would you have done differently? Every experience teaches you something new, and that shapes the person you become, and my past experiences have helped me to grow. For me, given that I came from a technical background, I knew that I needed to diversify my thinking and develop my business acumen, so I did that by going back to school to get my MBA and expand my horizons. It helped prepare and balance my skillset and open up opportunities, so I would encourage others to do the same.

What are you reading now? My latest focus is on COVID-19 blogs. I'm keenly interested in what other companies are doing in relation to the COVID-19 pandemic and how they are strategising their response. As a result, I've come across three themes: companies that are retreating back to "run-only" operations, companies that are focused on maintaining the status quo and companies that are using the circumstances as an opportunity to reinvent. I find the last of those most fascinating: companies that are finding new ways of going to market, serving their customers and coming up with new ways of running business operations. This shift to virtual interaction has changed the world and the way businesses engage their customers. For Aflac, our independent agents are used to face-to-face interactions and selling in the workplace. As a digital organisation, I have to think about how we do things differently, including how we market and sell our products digitally. It has uncovered the need to pioneer and find new ways to engage our customers as well as arming our independent business owners with a whole new way of working. I see this as a launch point for digital. We have an opportunity to shape the future of the business with digital transformation by harnessing the power of creativity and innovation.

Most people don't know that I… am a closet mixologist! I love to experiment with making drinks. Although I have never been a bartender in my career, I secretly hope to retire to a beach somewhere in the Caribbean and serve as a bartender.

In my spare time, I like to…spend time at the lake with family and friends. The lake is my happy place where I can recharge. I also enjoy getting out on the road in my sports car. Since I was 16 years old, I have always been a sports car collector. I have always had something to tinker with to make it go faster than it's designed to go. I believe that trait carries over to leading my team.

Ask me to do anything but… maintain the status quo! Even in my personal life, I can't stand still. I am always on the go, looking for the next best action. I think it drives my wife crazy, but she has put up with it for 25 years, so I guess she is used to it by now.

1 2 Page 2
Page 2 of 2