Editor's Note: Michael Fergang (above) is answering your questions this week at IT Martini on LinkedIn. 

Michael Fergang: Fire Your 'Tech Talking' CIO
By Terreece Clarke, December 6th, 2011

Michael Fergang, CIO of Grange Insurance doesn't talk tech.

"Fire every CIO that doesn't know how to talk business," Fergang said. "The company's business partners don't care about bits and bytes. They care about the business value IT delivers. It's unfortunate that we still have all of these conferences and articles on it [business and IT departments communication]."

Fergang said he's been told by people he doesn't fit the typical 'IT Guy' profile. Those people are right, and that difference is why Fergang has been so successful in his career. He revealed his path to CIO success as one paved by the failures of others to communicate.

"I worked with CIOs who were very technical people. Business leaders were frustrated with them because every time they wanted to discuss business, these guys would launch into statistics. You know its a problem when CFO's come to you about reducing spending. If you can't communicate you're going to get left out of meetings."

Ease of Doing [Insurance] Business

With no previous insurance background before moving to Grange, Fergang said he learned the most by spending time with customers and learning.

"I find it very interesting that people have a choice not to do business with us. Everyday we have to do it better and different. Other companies spend billions [in advertising] and it comes down to whoever makes it easiest. A lot of that depends on the technology."

In fact, the tradmarked Grange commitment to "Ease of Doing Business" (EODB) is what guides the IT department's service to their three types of clients: internal, agents and customers.

"With a motto of EODB, you better understand customer service. In our department we approach our partners at Grange like this: 'We have an idea you haven't thought of and this is how it will enable the business to be successful."

Internally, we execute and deliver as promised. We meet on a regular basis with our business partners, so nothing is being formulated without IT at the table..." he said. "[With agents and customers] we use focus groups, whiteboarding...We go into the agents offices frequently to see how they are connecting with customers, what they need and how to make that easier."

Risk + Reward Style

Fergang's management style helps drive the department. He discussed using humor and how it's important his team plays hard because they work hard.

"My [leadership] style is informal. I use guidance, coaching, being available...you get older and wiser. I lead with my gut and my heart. This [industry] is data-driven - you have to step outside the numbers and take the risks."

Fergang likes to take risks on new technology and people. He enjoys giving people opportunities to do something they've never done before.

"When you give someone an opportunity, they do a fantastic job and come up with something new because they don't have a set notion on how others have done it before."

He doesn't see a skills gap in the Columbus market that others have pointed out. "The demand's high, but there's no skills gap. This is a great market - people who have it are learning the businesses, they read the Wall Street Journal and Computer World. They have to know the business value of technology. If their resume is full of tech buzzwords and they are wanting to be a lead project manager, etc., I'm going to overlook them. I'd rather talk to someone who's done something different."

Challenges

Fergang's team looks for something different when it comes to managing the challenges as an IT department. Some of those challenges include managing expectations and demand.

"When you deliver, expectations and demand goes up. It would be great to do more..." he said. "It's no different than what other IT departments are experiencing. Everyone is learning how to do more with less, it's not unique to Grange."

Career Advice

There are few key steps those thinking about choosing a career path as a CIO should take, Fergang said.

  • Define your management style

  • Spend time with other CIOs

  • Let the business know you are there to help them

  • Understand your purpose within the business


Despite his high-profile position and responsibilities, Fergang is characteristically direct and surprisingly humble when he talks about the people he works with everyday.

"It's about the team. Make sure you put that in, it's not about me...it's about Grange. I just want more people to know about Grange. We've got a great group of people ...unique opportunities. It's a great place to work and we have a good time."