Leadership

M.R. Asks 3 Questions: Karl Gouverneur, Northwestern Mutual's Head of Digital Innovation

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When you’re successfully reinventing a 160-year-old company, the business world sits up and takes notice. Karl Gouverneur has actively transformed Northwestern Mutual into a technology- and innovation-driven leader in the financial world. As VP of Digital Workplace and Corporate Solutions and head of Digital Innovation, Gouverneur completely reorganized the IT function and moved it from the “back office” to the “front office” as a driving force for all business strategy, improving agility in the process.

I spoke to Karl about Northwestern’s digital transformation process, how he works with startups to stay on the leading edge of innovation, and why his latest pastime – “Coco” –  has nothing to do with technology.

M.R. Rangaswami: How has the role of the CIO/CTO changed in the 30 years you have been in IT at Fortune 500 companies? How does the role help to transition and transform the company to stay ahead? 

Karl Gouverneur: Simply stated, it has changed completely. The role of CIO used to be grounded in managing and running a data center and delivering on project scope, schedule and budget, back when all of a company’s IT was focused on back office functions. Now it involves driving the company strategy with digital technology, the front office (all “offices”), delivering valuable insights using undiscovered data sources, and creating awesome experiences that create customer loyalty.

In short, it’s a bigger job and a more rewarding one. We’re out of the back office and at the forefront of company strategy. CIOs today must be well-versed in a range of technologies, be ready for the cloud, and understand how to identify and retain the talent it takes to operate in so many spheres.

We’ve been in transformation mode since 2009. That’s when cloud and mobile technologies, along with advanced analytics, were emerging as the driving forces in technology. Northwestern Mutual is more than 160 years old, and we didn’t thrive for this long by sitting still and letting trends overwhelm us. So we incorporated a new client experience, powered by digital, into the company strategy. Our technology organization was at the center of our digital transformation as new plans and strategies were developed.

It was a big change for a company that has done things in traditional ways (pen, paper and heavy risk management), but in a relatively short period of time we have gone all in on agile and lean methodologies, and we acquired a fintech startup, which helped accelerate our transformation. Just as I talked about the changing role of the CIO, our technology teams were core to our strategy to transform our client experience and engage in our transformation.

M.R.: How do you track all the innovation happening in Silicon Valley?  How do startups work with a large company like Northwestern Mutual? Do you have a specific process?

Karl: There’s innovation happening on both coasts and lots of places in between—being centrally located in the Midwest gives us somewhat of an advantage in being able to not just keep track of what’s happening among all the startups that are breaking new ground, but also to grab a plane and get out there to meet and see for ourselves. We have teams and systems in place focused on identifying and anticipating emerging technologies, trends, and companies. It also helps that I am personally on the boards of our two VC funds that invest in companies that are in tune with our priorities—Northwestern Mutual Future Ventures invests in companies across the country that could contribute to our transformation, while Cream City Venture Capital focuses on startups in a variety of sectors in the Milwaukee region, with the aim of building a vibrant, successful startup ecosystem in our Midwest base. With all of these efforts, we are able to stay well-connected and networked into the startup communities in the Valley, New York’s Silicon Alley, Austin, Chicago, and here in Milwaukee.

M.R.: What’s fun in the life of an IT executive?

Karl: I have always enjoyed creating value through the use of technology.  My position has given me the opportunity to mentor new talent, which is something I learn from as much as the mentees do. I’ve also been able to contribute to the community by serving on the board of Discovery World, a local STEM center/museum focused on exposing kids to science and technology. Seeing some of their plans take flight is very rewarding and, yes, fun. And on a less serious note, now that our kids are both in college, my wife and I have entered the world of empty-nesters. We decided to get a puppy—a Dogo Argentino (a type of Argentinian Mastiff) named “Coco”— who keeps us moving and has brought a new sense of fun into our lives. Everything doesn’t have to be about technology, though we are having fun making short videos of Coco and sharing them with our kids at school.

 

M.R. Rangaswami is co-founder of Sand Hill Group and publisher of SandHill.com.

 

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