Chris Brown is the Chief Information Officer of the Chubb Insurance Company of Europe, one of the world’s leading insurance organisations offering specialist products to corporate clients. She is also an active member of the Women Leaders in Technology Network, and an Advisory Board Member of the national Girls in IT initiative.
Brinley Platts asked Chris about how she has managed her career to date, what have been the barriers and what her views are on gender balance in IT:
1. How did you get into the IT industry?
Well I guess the first key decision was that I knew that I didn’t want to do anything that was directly associated with my (English) degree, but I wanted to use the capabilities and skills that I had learnt but in a broader sense. My career department at the time had always said that a career in arts would never be appropriate for any high tech, engineering roles. Thankfully we have moved on a lot since then and there is much wider recognition of the broad range of skills and competencies that technology centres need to attract to complement the workforce. Back then I had, and I do still have , a real passion for the retail sector because of the customer intimacy and I just loved that, so joined Sears Group (which held Selfridges and many of the high street shoe shops in the UK) to further my career. I went through all the elements of retailing and practical assignments, learning about advertising and merchandising, working in various departments, then after about 8 or 9 months I got seconded to an IT project to bring some operational insights to an EPOS project. During the course of that project I was given a range of deployment and business analysis activities and from that I realised I had a real passion for business analysis. The rest is history. Business analysis just really harnessed the core skills I had learnt in my degree and also my natural curiosity.
I stayed at Sears Group for about 5 years, getting experience and knowledge as a Business Analyst and some professional qualifications along the way. Then I left largely because my manager said I couldn’t really get any more experience there, so I needed to move on to develop my career. He was one of those really helpful managers and mentors that I have had who was giving advice for my career personally, and not for the benefit of the organisation. So I moved on to telecoms, starting first with Mercury Communications and then my first CIO assignment in the mobile industry with BT Cellnet. All in all that’s 12 years in Telecoms. Since then I have worked in financial services and also had 6 years working as an independent consultant prior to my current role as CIO at Chubb Europe.
2. So during your 12 years telecoms and your early career did you ever feel blocked or plateaued because of your lack of a technical degree?
I’d have to say truthfully, not at all and not only have I worked in 3 distinct sectors, but I have worked in just about every type of role within technology functions – where I have led service teams, application development teams, run major projects and programmes. I have run some very technical teams. So from a personal point of view it has never been an issue for me. It is important to recognise that no matter what your discipline, you are never going to know everything. You’ve got to master the art of asking questions and have a real quest for ongoing learning and harnessing your listening skills – I think by doing that you can make an effective contribution in any sector irrespective of your background. I chose a career path that took me from being a very junior business analyst, through supervisory team management and then project, programme and application development management. I chose not to take a technical programming route, but I can’t say there were any particular barriers that prevented me. I think I have been lucky in respect of that. But you do have to have a natural curiosity and constantly look for opportunities to add to your skills – remembering you are never going to learn everything in a technology domain, it’s such a vast canvas. The art of being effective doesn’t mean you have to know everything yourself.
It’s interesting as I have worked in the high tech industry, where there are a very large number of people who have an engineering background as you would expect. And I would say that those people have been some of the most welcoming, most inclined to share information and knowledge with others who expressed an interest in understanding more. There is obviously a need for that. An organisation should be positioned in that way, it needs to encourage information and knowledge to be shared and not to be used as a power base.
3. Now I want to bring us on to the gender issue. You mentioned your ability to engage effectively with technical people, which are I guess mostly men? Has that ever been a problem, or it does sound that in some areas that might have been an advantage that you were female?
You know I can honestly say that it hasn’t really crossed my mind. Throughout my career I have worked in organisations where perhaps I had wished for there to be more female role models around. But has this been something detrimental to me progressing and developing? Or has it been a positive advantage? I am not sure – I am pretty neutral on this one. To me listening is a core competence, irrespective of gender or any way you would wish to compartmentalise the workforce. I think there are some basic skills and competencies that we all need to learn in order to be successful, collaborate and work successfully in dynamic team environments – in my mind this spans both genders. It may well be the case that one gender has more natural proclivity towards some of those capabilities, but I think that it is absolutely fundamental for everyone. These are issues for everyone in the workforce whether they are male or female.
4. It is undeniable, that there are far more men in IT than women and a lot of people see this as a problem. Are we missing out by not having more women in post?
For sure we are, I don’t think IT is unique in this, it is the same as any other function, at the end of the day diversity brings more broad organisational engagement, harvests richer knowledge and experience and allows the organisation to better represent its employees and customers. I think it is a bit of a no-brainer. I am personally really passionate about the unique skills and competencies that women bring to IT. That is why I have been engaged with a number of activities throughout my career to broaden the community of expertise that we can bring up through the ranks, not only at the junior levels, but continuing that momentum up through the management and senior leadership posts as well. And yes we probably do have a long way to go on that. I would say we are no different to some of the other professions that are around, that have the same sort of characteristics and have the challenges of keeping female talent on board and engaged through an extended period of time.
Just talking about my own organisation, within the last two years, two senior managers who directly report to me have been appointed to my leadership team, both women. And interestingly we had an annual assessment within the IT cohort to elect a number of awards and the pinnacle of that is the IT professional of the year. In 2013 it was one of my female emerging talent, a project manager, but I must stress that everyone got their awards on the basis of merit not through any positive discrimination. That said, I am absolutely sure that being a female CIO does promote an environment that creates a self sustaining belief that the career path is there and it is proven. It does make a difference for women that they can see: yes, it is possible, it is real, it is tangible and possible because someone else is there leading the path for them!
5. When I was doing the field work on CIO role-types 10 years ago I think you were the only female CIO in the sample, alongside 21 male FTSE 100 CIOs. I remember you telling me that that you felt you had to put on your amour each morning, like a knight going into battle? Do you think it is still this tough at the top of IT?
Interesting question and I do remember the comment. Being a CIO in any modern business environment is fantastically rewarding, but it is challenging and I don’t think it was any more or less challenging then when we had that conversation. You know you are working with colleagues with completely different insights and that is wonderful, but that itself brings its own demands.
So here’s me, I work in the insurance market. Chubb values collaboration, it really understands the importance of the professional skills and experience that we all bring to the work place and that’s fantastic – but I have reflected on the conversation and I do remember talking about having an amour. I do think amour is not a defense mechanism at all, but about the capabilities that you need to bring to do the very best job that you can. I guess firstly it is about being really clear on the strategic plan and objectives, knowing where you are going – being able to think strategically but intersperse that with thinking and operating tactically – balancing the demands of where you want to get to with how you want to operate on a minute-to-minute basis in order to achieve those objectives. Part of this is undoubtedly about being emotionally intelligent and curious. So to be effective you have to look out for the signals and ideas as well as at the facts and figures – you know IT people, we love facts and figures, but as much as anything else it is about the things that aren’t so fact based. It’s about how people respond, or the questions they might ask that indicates to you that you may need to adjust your approach. Part of the amour is about bringing leadership and direction, personal energy and, without a doubt, resilience to everything you and your team has to do – so they can deliver and support you. It is about bringing knowledge and insight, making timely decisions and above all communicating clearly and purposely to your own people and the people around you whether they be customers or colleagues. If you can harness all of those things then I think you will be very well equipped and successful in a modern business.
Chubb has 26 offices in 11 European countries. Chris describes herself as a seasoned IT and business change leader with over 25 years’ experience in senior and board level roles. She has a BA in English Language and Literature from Oxford University. This interview is also featured in the North Highland CIO 2020 magazine which can be found here.
CIO Development Ltd works with CIOs and their executive teams to equip them for corporate leadership. It offers executive coaching, diagnostics, business and leadership development, Talented Women programmes, the CIO Mentoring Scheme, Boston University CIO Pocket MBA and the Digital Academy for IT leaders.
The Girls in IT initiative is a not-for-profit campaign to give every 11-14 year old school girl in the UK an inspiring 45-minute insight into a career in IT.