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Openness Spurs Marsh's Recovery
“People didn’t want to go home. They wanted to stay with their teammates and help.”<br>
November 30, 2001
6 Min Read
Ask four IT executives what they think of their boss--while that person is sitting in the room with them--and you expect to hear compliments, not raucous laughter and mock demands for glowing performance reviews to be signed before anyone will talk. But the folks at risk-management and insurance company Marsh Inc., a subsidiary of New York professional-services firm Marsh & McLennan Cos., are perfectly comfortable goofing around with CIO Ellen Clarke. "Sometimes there are pranks, like snakes on my desk," Clarke says, shooting a look at Ed Taylor, managing director of global infrastructure. Taylor shrugs, claiming ignorance. "I'm just a humble provider of technology and services," he says with mock innocence. "I don't know anything about that."
There's an openness throughout the wings of the IT organization at Marsh that's evident in the smiles and hallway chit-chat. It's an atmosphere Clarke has worked hard to develop in her group during her two years as Marsh's CIO. But recently, that familial environment was put to a test no one could ever have imagined.
Marsh was one of the hardest-hit companies in the Sept. 11 attack on the World Trade Center. Clarke, Taylor, and other executives were in London on business and were on a conference call with their staff in New York when the line went dead. Within minutes, half of Clarke's IT staff, including three direct reports and 15 senior managers, were gone. Of the 295 people lost at Marsh & McLennan, which had offices in both towers of the Trade Center, 129 worked in IT.
Being an ocean away when the tragedy hit was difficult for all the managers in London, Clarke says, but her faith in her people never wavered. She coordinated multiple conference calls each day with her remaining U.S. employees and relied on Marsh's U.K. CIO, Elizabeth Owen, and her team to help with round-the-clock execution of contingency plans. Aside from coping with her own feelings of loss and attending to the emotions of her employees, Clarke had to deal with two demolished data centers that had housed the 255 servers, countless applications, and unquantifiable amounts of intellectual capital that were crucial to running Marsh's business. By using the resources of the company's global staff, internal business partners, and technology vendors, Clarke and her team kept Marsh operating. "It was through the leadership of Ellen that we harnessed the energy of our remaining staff of people to rise to the occasion," says Donna Makow, the newly named chief operating officer of Marsh's technology group.
While her strengths as a business manager have been evident during the last three months, leadership has been the core of her ability to build an IT organization that could--and did--handle anything. "Ellen's team style isn't [hiring] people who say 'yes,' or micromanaging," Taylor says. "She's built a group of people who are enabled, who before might have been afraid to make decisions." These qualities are what make Clarke a chief of the year.
The IT staff in New York was unflinching in establishing and implementing a recovery plan, buying equipment, and establishing a new data center.
The dedication of those employees and others across Marsh & McLennan grew out of Clarke's efforts to foster relationships outside her own division. David Fike, managing director of enterprise computing and communications at Putnam Investments Inc., a sister company to Marsh, didn't hesitate when asked by Marsh's IT group to rally his team to help shift data-center functions to Putnam's facilities in Massachusetts. Because of this collaboration, Marsh told its clients on Sept. 14 that the company was fully operational and ready for business--all because Clarke's employees knew what to do to get the job done.
Despite her resistance to micromanaging, Clarke, a graduate of the College of Mount St. Vincent with an MBA from New York University, keeps her eyes on the details. While her senior IT management team was fluent in the workings and details of all applications, Clarke had a mental file on every application Marsh was running--essential knowledge, as it turned out, because many of those managers were killed. Now that the applications are mostly back in order, Clarke isn't taking chances. She asked chief operating officer Makow to document every application in Marsh's inventory so that future recovery efforts would be easier.
The road to business recovery was paved with challenges. One especially tough call: Clarke mandated that every surviving IT worker show up to work at the company's Sixth Avenue office building immediately after the attack. Space was made in conference rooms and offices, from which the company continues to operate. Tight quarters aside, Clarke thought her team needed to work together and support each other. She also led multiple daily conferences by phone, and then in person when she returned to the United States five days later, for IT and business employees to establish and reassess recovery checklists. Clarke expected input from each member of her organization.
Then there was the gut-wrenching task of leading her staff as they dealt with the loss of so many friends. In addition to working round-the-clock, employees attended dozens of memorial services and made trips to visit the families of their lost colleagues. "There's a value system and integrity in this organization that's very different," says Clarke in admiration of Marsh's IT staff. "People didn't want to go home. They wanted to stay with their teammates and help. The team was the greatest contribution to the success of the recovery."
The results of this recovery already are influencing the company's approach to the future. At the mid-November global budget meeting, Clarke and other IT managers presented a strategic technology plan that addresses 10 business issues defined by her team, including an expanded disaster-recovery strategy. A year ago, the budget meeting was about cutting IT costs; this year, it was about making business-value decisions and smart investments. And Marsh's CEO and chairman John Sinnott listened to what Clarke had to say with new appreciation. "One of the things that happened because of Sept. 11 is that we [the IT people] gained a tremendous amount of credibility in the organization," she says.
"You look desperately for a silver lining in all of this," says managing director of applications development Michael Darviche, who, along with many of his staff, wasn't in the office on the morning of Sept. 11 because they worked late the night before. "We've learned how to do things and think about things in new ways." The organization now thinks more about issues such as tighter integration and standard architectures across global business units, and building new efficiencies into the technology infrastructure that will be useful in disaster-recovery situations while saving money in the long term.
Clarke's group is still focused on the future and on remaining inspired and upbeat. Clarke is staying focused on building an organization of leaders who want to work hard. "Leadership has an interesting set of definitions, depending on whom you talk to," she says. "To me, it's about caring about and motivating people." Clarke's actions speak as loudly as her words.
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