Cilsy Harris lives and breathes the scientific method. As a young woman in Massachusetts, her neighbor, an MIT professor, invited her to work in his industrial biology lab at the university.
“That’s how I was taught to think and solve problems, and I use it every day in my leadership philosophy,” says Harris, who went on to study chemistry at Boston College. But after almost seven years, the allure of the lab began to fade — she laughingly blames the smell — and she developed an interest in business.
“The Dean told me that one of the most powerful things I could do was combine a technical degree with a business degree,” says Harris, who is VP of personal lines delivery for The Hanover.
To get the business experience necessary to be accepted into the business degree program, Harris applied to become a business analyst for life and health at Sun Life Canada.
While at Sun Life, Harris worked with business representatives, IT staff and vendors on a new dental claims system. In an effort to communicate more effectively with her team, she learned how to code and her trajectory was set.
“I just loved that dynamic” of working with so many different stakeholders, Harris says of the project.
When she arrived at The Hanover, the insurer recognized her ability and desire to lead complex projects early on, Harris says. Before long, she was selected by the CEO to lead an initiative to develop and launch new auto insurance products in new states. Harris was also tasked with implementing a multivariate rating algorithm — all on legacy systems.
“It was a defining moment for the company, and one of my most difficult and proudest moments,” Harris says. “That established me as a senior member of IT, but also as a senior member of the business community. I’m really lucky that I am at both tables.”
More recently, Harris was tapped to create a five-year technology roadmap for the company. In no time, she says, people across the company volunteered to become part of her working group.
“It matters to them that I listen,” she says. “Collectively, we came up with a series of investments we needed to make.”
As part of that plan, her team is building a new point-of-sale platform: a portal with real-time rating, underwriting, quote and issuance capability for the independent agency channel. Harris says that by embracing Agile development techniques, she has been able to advance the dialogue between IT and the business partners.
“There’s a much greater appreciation for the complexity of the business decisions that need to be made and, on the business side, for the complexity of the technology to be developed,” she says.
In addition to her disciplined approach to problem solving, Harris attributes her success to a focus on building winning teams and breaking down the barriers that sometimes exist between business and technical people.
“I want people to understand that they are part of this company — I am every bit a person in personal lines as I am in IT — and what we are about is achieving results,” she says. Harris, who started a Women in IT networking group at The Hanover, also was chosen as one of 20 top emerging leaders at the company for its Leadership In Action inaugural executive leadership forum.
She also earned her professional coach and leadership development certifications this year from the Institute for Professional Excellence in Coaching. Harris believes women are on their way to a greater role in shaping insurance, as more women enter the industry with advanced degrees.
“Women are highly educated and capable, and have a lot to contribute at the executive table,” she says. “We believe talent wins the game every time.”
(This article appears courtesy of our sister publication, Insurance Networking News)
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