by Matt Villano

Cargou Manages Thousands One at a Time

Jun 01, 20014 mins
IT Leadership

Home to embassies, tony row houses and the ƒlysŽe Palace, the eighth arrondissement is one of Paris’s oldest and most celebrated neighborhoods. This is where Claude Cargou, executive vice president of information systems and e-business for Paris-based AXA Group, feels most comfortable. At a time when many IT executives are basing their careers on a mastery of new technology, Cargou is a Renaissance man, combining battle-tested business acumen with broad-sweeping technological expertise. His favorite thinker is no business prophet or tech guru; he’s the 17th century mathematician, physicist and religious philosopher Blaise Pascal. Cargou heads a massive global IT organization, yet in his spare time collects antique adding machines.

“I guess you could say I am old-fashioned,” Cargou offers in English with a French accent as thick as a hearty bŽchamel sauce. “I see it as this: I like what I like, and I lead in the way I feel most comfortable.”

For Cargou, this means frequent contact with his direct reports and an accent on teamwork rather than technology. He sees himself as a godfather, growing the business by nurturing the people who make it run. This leadership philosophy has yielded some strong results. Since Cargou became CIO in 1991, AXA has engineered a slew of mergers and acquisitions to become the largest insurance group in the world, grossing $73.7 billion in 2000. During that same span, he transformed the group’s IT organization from a centralized, insular operation to an international force with outposts in more than 60 countries. He now oversees 11,200 IT professionals and a budget of $1.9 billion.

Cargou spent most of his early years at AXA integrating the systems of the new acquisitions. When the group’s M&A spree slowed in 1998, Cargou seized the opportunity to consolidate, developing the group’s first global technology strategy, along with a five-year implementation plan. He set up a complex and decentralized structure for IT planning, consisting of standardization committees and across-the-board reinvestment policies, two groups that bring CIOs and CEOs together.

The crux of Cargou’s IT edifice is a CEO and CIO governance team, comprising business and technology leaders from all 50 of AXA’s operating companies. This group is charged with planning the group’s IT future. The Information Services Board, a subgroup consisting of CIOs and CEOs from AXA’s 10 largest operating companies, decides on groupwide IT investments. These two teams prevent fragmentation among far-flung business units and create a unified plan for IT, Cargou says.

Trust in one’s colleagues is essential for this approach to work. For that reason, recruitment of trustworthy people and employee development are Cargou’s top priorities as a boss. He meets with new hires to plot their career advancement, then spends much of his time traveling to London, New York City, Tokyo, Singapore and so forth to keep in touch with commanders in the field. Colleagues say that this face-to-face attention, coupled with monthly video and telephone conferences, keeps everyone involved and engenders a sense of openness that makes AXA’s entire IT operation run like a team.

“Ninety percent of strategy is in execution, and 90 percent of the execution is in communication,” says Ed Miller, president and CEO of New York City-based AXA Financial (formerly the Equitable Companies), which handles most of AXA Group’s U.S. business. “Claude understands the pragmatic approach necessary to implement a groupwide IT strategy and the communication necessary to pull that off without a hitch.”

Cargou, who chairs CIGREF, a group of CIOs at France’s largest companies, attributes his leadership approach to lessons he learned early in his career at multinational companies such as Rockwell International, Banque Nationale de Paris, CrŽdit du Nord and Stanford Research Institute. These experiences taught him that managing people from divergent cultures and in different places requires open-mindedness and patience, honesty and trust.

“These are the sentiments that make people do their best work,” he says. “Just because you are a CIO or a technology executive doesn’t mean you can’t strive to accomplish these things.”

Still, Cargou knows there is more to being a successful leader than simply ensuring that everyone is feeling bien. He’s working on a plan to reuse middleware to reduce installation times by more than 35 percent. He hopes to launch a proprietary knowledge management model to use the collective skills of everyone in the worldwide IT organization.

Cargou says that he finds it exciting that “a CIO’s job is never done.” Then he switches gears completely, linking reinvestment and innovation to the genius and technology behind his most prized possession: an 1820 adding machine designed by Thomas de Colmar. For Cargou, a man with feet in numerous eras, the analogy makes perfect sense.