When you look at a job—any job—from a distance, it
looks a lot different than it does when you’re actually doing
Early in my career, I had an image of what being a CEO was like.
You showed up in a nice suit; you waited for the next meeting;
people ran ideas by you; you managed the company according to
The reality, of course, is much different. My job is to add
shareholder value, make sure we have great employees and give
them the best career opportunities, go to every meeting I can
and communicate with business units around the world. I spend a
lot more time coming up with new strategies than managing
according to established rules. It’s a lot less glamorous than
it looked from afar. And a lot more work and
responsibility—particularly the responsibility I feel for
our 18,000 employees.
I joined Farmers just out of college as a claims adjuster. After
relocating nine times, getting transferred to the sales and
marketing department and eventually becoming senior vice
president of property and casualty insurance, I got one of the
biggest challenges in my career.
It was a $300 million project to reengineer legacy back-office
systems. It was the early ’90s, and there had been a breakdown
in business and IT communications. The CEO needed someone to
parachute in who had no preconceptions about how best to remedy
the situation. He appointed me CIO and charged me with turning
Just like my current job, the CIO position was different than I
expected. As a businessperson, I thought it would be easy to
draw a quick conclusion about an IT application—good or
bad, fast or slow. I didn’t appreciate the complexity of the CIO
role and IT’s impact on the business.
I think my experience as CIO helped to prepare me for the CEO
job. (I was promoted to COO and president in 1995.) As CIO, I
had to go out into the business knowing that the people there
knew I was not from their business unit. And then, I had to earn
their respect while making difficult decisions. I learned about
leadership, project management and prioritization. In business,
you always have a few balls in the air, but in IT, it becomes
apparent very quickly that there’s an absolute need for clarity.
What doesn’t get measured doesn’t get done. I gained a love for
metrics and the clarity they bring, and I use them today as CEO.
More than the CIO’s, the CEO’s world is made up of shades of
gray. As CIO I could add staff based on programming hours
needed, purchase telecom equipment based on ROI, or decide
whether to buy or lease hardware based on cash flow. As a CEO, I
may have to implement a new product or business strategy based
on little more than intuition, decide how to allocate budget
dollars to areas where results are hard to measure, or enter
into a business partnership based on shared corporate values or
relationships rather than strict financial analysis.
And most CIOs probably won’t believe this, but the hours are
longer. As CIO, my days ebbed and flowed with the lifecycle of
IT projects and problems. As CEO, it’s in early, out late. Every
day. At least for me.
—As told to Stephanie Overby