CIO Spotlight: Vinod Kachroo, SE2

Do you have a succession plan? "The first thing I do in any job is to identify two people who could take my position, and I essentially train them to do so."

Name: Vinod Kachroo

Company: SE2

Job title: CIO

Date started current role: June 2015

Location: Bridgewater, NJ

Vinod Kachroo has 30 years of experience driving transformation at leading insurance companies like AIG, Prudential and MetLife. He's the visionary responsible for leading innovation at SE2, to develop a technology eco system that's industry leading and future-proofed. He's committed to generating growth and ensuring that all SE2 associates not only fulfil their potential but increase it exponentially.

What was your first job?  I started my career working for the program management team of a fighter jet development project in India. We were trying to develop a jet superior than the F16 back in 1986. It was quite a mission!

Did you always want to work in IT? I ended up in IT by accident. My first job of trying to put this fighter jet together was incredibly complex with countless sub-projects. It helped me develop stellar project management skills. Additionally, I worked on India's first super computer, and there happened to be air conditioning in the equipment rooms, so I spent a lot of time there given the heat in India. I was exposed to a lot of programming there and eventually ended up creating and sponsoring my own project management software on IBM Mainframe. In the 80s, mainframe development was in high demand, which created a lot of opportunities for me. I went on to be a database administrator for IBM, then joined AIG and got back into IT management.

What was your education? Do you hold any certifications? What are they? I received my degree in mechanical engineering from the National Institute of Technology in India. I did my MBA in the U.S. at St. Peter's University.

Explain your career path. Did you take any detours? If so, discuss. See number 2.

What business or technology initiatives will be most significant in driving IT investments in your organisation in the coming year? Technology plays a pivotal role in how business is done today. That's especially the case in insurance where we don't sell a physical product that someone can touch and feel. It's selling a promise and saying, "I will be there for you when you hit a loss and need the guarantee." To be sure, we are delivering on that promise; SE2 recently went through a $85-million IT future-proofing exercise. We invested heavily in upgrading our infrastructure with a goal of being able to handle what we call our "10x10 vision" which is the administration of 10x the number of polices on a technology platform which is relevant at least 10 years out.

What are the CEO's top priorities for you in the coming year? How do you plan to support the business with IT? Our CEO is focused on driving the most efficiency possible across our organisation and across our customers' businesses. We've invested heavily in modernising our platform and have a vision to drive the future of insurance via an all-things-digital approach. Our CEO and I have partnered closely on making this vision a reality. We are fundamentally changing the way the industry does business, leading with customer experience and completely revamping the end to end value chain.

Does the conventional CIO role include responsibilities it should not hold? Should the role have additional responsibilities it does not currently include? The CIO role is such a critical one because it touches nearly all aspects of the business. Some days I'm helping with growth and sales, other days I'm helping drive marketing messages, while other days I'm looking at operations and finding ways to optimise the business. If you look back 10-15 years, the CIO role was contained in helping with technology projects to enable the business. Now it's so much more. Technology changes so quickly, many enterprises cannot keep up with it. The role of the CIO helps bridge that gap.

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? Yes, I am leading a digital transformation in-partnership with our entire leadership team at SE2. The first step was to create an end-to-end digital platform for the life and annuity industry. Now we're creating new engagement models for customers and balancing that with a level of efficiency to help us run our business and operations in a way that yields the highest value. We're doing so by leveraging AI and machine learning to take advantage of all the data that's out there in order to drive a superior customer, distributor and carrier experience.

Describe the maturity of your digital business. For example, do you have KPIs to quantify the value of IT? We're enabling new paradigms in the marketplace and are working with top customers in the life and annuities space to fully re-think and enable their digital offerings. Our digital business is maturing and booming. Our KPIs are our revenue and the number of clients doing digital work with us. We're scoring well on both fronts.

What does good culture fit look like in your organisation? How do you cultivate it? Cultural change is not easy. It requires not only time, but also heart and mind. It's one thing to drive a technology transformation, but to drive a cultural change, you have to have a certain passion. We're doing a lot of work in this area. We've developed a framework called ARTIC around accountability, responsibility, transparency, innovation and collaboration with customers. We live by this framework internally with our own associates at the same time. Our goal is to be the best "customer centric" service provider.

What roles or skills are you finding (or anticipate to be) the most difficult to fill? We're not having a hard time filling roles on the purely technical side. It's been relatively easy to find the right people, or to train them as needed. What's harder is to find people with the right mix of domain and tech skills plus business acumen. That's a challenging mix to find and develop.

What's the best career advice you ever received? I reported directly to a senior officer in the Air Force early in my career working on the fighter jet program I talked about previously. He always wanted to empower me and would frequently ask for my viewpoint. He gave me challenging projects and tight deadlines, but when I hit them, he'd give me more significant tasks. Leadership is about enablement and empowerment. It's not simply about telling people what to do.

Do you have a succession plan? If so, discuss the importance of and challenges with training up high-performing staff. Yes, I've had one in all leadership roles I've been in. The first thing I do in any job is to identify two people who could take my position, and I essentially train them to do so. This has helped me assume roles of higher importance and dimension because I always have people to fill in. It's an important part of maturity for any organisation and for you, as an individual. It's not about creating risk in your own job whereby you're arming people to take your seat. It's actually been a great lever for my own career growth.

What advice would you give to aspiring IT leaders? You have to be the best at what you do. It's about striking the right balance of technical, business and leadership skills, and being good at all three.

What has been your greatest career achievement? When I was at AIG, I helped the company automate a large and complex book of business focused on risk management around helping large enterprises do self-insurance based on complex data modelling around loss data and reinsurance models. It was very challenging and therefore, very fulfilling. No one had done this before me. It required me to learn the business quickly and leverage my math, tech and leadership skills. It was career changing for me.

Looking back with 20:20 hindsight, what would you have done differently? Generally speaking, looking back at projects I've led, I would better manage expectations of senior stakeholders. I create aggressive goals for my teams and for me personally, but goals aren't necessarily the same thing as plans. Management can sometimes blend the two.

What are you reading now? I consume a lot of news but haven't had a lot of time to read books lately. I've been spending my free time with my college-age daughters and my wife. They teach me more than a book ever could.

Most people don't know that I… am like any other human with a lot of dimensions. This means, like everyone, I have days where I'm feeling challenged or defeated, but I also have days where I want to celebrate reaching a goal or deadline. People tend to forget that business leaders are humans, too.

In my spare time, I like to…cook, travel and spend time with my family.

Ask me to do anything but… I drive a Tesla, so don't ask me to slow down.