The average executive may assume that he or she can immediately seize upon what counts in a conversation and run with it. However, the most successful executives develop the indispensable art of listening closely, suggests Barbara Koster, CIO, Prudential Financial, Inc. (Newark, NJ). “Some people will catch a soundbite and not really hear the rest of a sentence, even though it sometimes changes direction,” she observes. “It’s important to hone your listening skills so that you can hear what’s really on others’ minds and be able to distill it afterwards.”
Being open to what others have to offer has been a key element of Koster’s achievements across several financial services CIO roles during the last 20 years. She held business group CIO positions at Chase in the early 90s, before joining Prudential in 1995 as CIO of individual life insurance. In 2004, Koster became the company’s enterprise CIO, reporting to the chief operating officer, and in 2009, she became a member of the company’s senior management team, reporting to the vice chairman.
Taking on Challenges
Koster’s progress to senior IT roles was fostered by her willingness to take on any work that came her way. “I never minded rolling up my sleeves and getting involved in problems,’” she relates.
That was an especially useful characteristic in the early days of the Information Age, when emerging technology constantly presented challenging obstacles to effective business use, Koster recalls. “Being able to work analytically to find the right solution was critical,” she says.
But the bigger the problem, the harder it is for a single individual to crack. Thus, an even more important prerequisite for success is the ability to recognize the contributions – actual and potential – that one’s colleagues can make. “It’s important to pay close attention to what people are good at and to identify people who can excel and get them in the right spot to get jobs done,” Koster asserts.
Koster herself benefited from people who were willing to see her potential, starting with her father. “He saw no difference between me and my brother, and he believed that technology allows you to do just about anything,” she recalls. “He loved technology and never had the opportunity to go as far as I have, but he had a great influence on me and my drive.”
In her professional life also, Koster had the benefit of mentors at critical moments in her career. During the Chase years, she was able to grow rapidly in her technical acumen owing to an executive who took the time to both show and to listen – helping Koster increase her grasp on the subject matter. “You need someone to help you understand, and she was terrific,” she says.
Another mentor helped Koster learn many essential management techniques over a period of years. “The key is that you find people you can trust and ask them difficult questions,” she advises. “Serving as a mentor to others is now very important to me. It’s a way to help individuals grow and also is a way to give back to the technology field.”
The people-oriented culture at Prudential helped Koster thrive, and it is a critical factor in what has kept her there, she attests. “At Prudential, we think about the individual holistically,” she says. “We recognize not just that everyone has a work life and a home life, but that each has a strong impact on the other.”
As an expression of this ethos, Prudential emphasizes personal objectives and makes sure that associates get the appropriate training for their career path, according to Koster. The company also supports alternative work arrangements that allow people to manage work and life holistically, she reports. “People sometimes complain that we’re never disconnected today, but I think technology has actually made life easier,” says Koster. In that regard, technology has helped Koster always be there for her two daughters. “One has given me my first grandchild, and the second is about to get married – it doesn’t get any better than that!” she says. “And I have been able to stay in touch because of technology.”
One of the major accomplishments cited by Koster is her involvement in Workforce Opportunity Services (WOS). Initially, Prudential and WOS developed the program in collaboration with Columbia University to provide opportunities for inner-city high school graduates who were unable to go to college. “The program makes it possible for them to go through a training program to earn a technology certificate, qualifying them to work at Prudential or other participating companies,” Koster explains, Encouraged by the success of the program, Prudential and WOS adapted it to meet the needs of returning military veterans who needed training to transfer their skills to the civilian work environment. “We have now trained five classes of veterans in technology operations and testing,” Koster reports.
Koster also is proud of the LaunchPad Project. Undertaken between 1997 and 2003, to provide automation tools to Prudential’s sales force, LaunchPad replaced a traditional manual, paper-based environment with automated capabilities which persist at the company today. “With LaunchPad, I consolidated a broad array of technological capabilities – network, hardware, software applications – to create a new environment,” she says. “It’s rare to get the opportunity to create a new environment from scratch – especially one that has stood the test of time and remains very strong today.”
Business Strategy Comes First
Koster says the secret to her success has been her openness to tackle any task and her ability to see the possibilities in the people she works with. She says a crucial element of technology leadership within a corporate environment is simple: Never let technology lead. “Technology should be involved at the beginning of new projects because we can bring to the table ideas on alternative ways of doing things with the available technology,” she acknowledges. “We can inform business leaders about how technology can help them achieve their goal, but technology is an enabler – the business strategy always has to be first.”
Table of Contents: IIR February 2014: CIO Survivors
Profiles in Longevity: