Stewart Brannan: the accidental CIO

In a manner of speaking, Stewart Brannan became head of IT at the UK business of the global Italian-owned insurer Assicurazioni Generali by accident.

In a manner of speaking, Stewart Brannan became head of IT at the UK business of the global Italian-owned insurer Assicurazioni Generali by accident.

That accident happened in summer 2002 when he was knocked from his bike in a head-on collision with a car.

"When I came to, there was a lot of screaming, sirens, bleeding, grazing and cuts, and I couldn't move," he recalls.

Despite ending up under the car, his only permanent injury was a broken shoulder which needed a plate and six pins to hold it together. But he wasn't fully fit for work for weeks. And this was a problem, because Brannan had been working as a self-employed interim manager on an important project which was nearing its go-live moment.

Contractors don't have the same rights to sick leave as permanent members of staff, and when it comes to dealing with contractors who can't deliver, employers tend to favour efficiency over compassion.

Brannan's employer was better than most. Because of the urgency, they appointed somebody else to implement the project and, when Brannan was fit to return, they kept him on for a short time. It didn't work out. So at the age of 46, for the first time in his life, he found himself out of work.

Worse, he found himself unemployed at the nadir of the bust following the dotcom boom, a time when IT posts were thin on the ground. Brannan's experience in navigating his way back into a top IT post could prove valuable to other IT professionals who find themselves heading for the Job Centre during the current recession.

Networking

He recalls: "Because it came out of the blue, I hadn't prepared. I'd done no networking. I hadn't looked to see where my next step was because I wasn't expecting to leave."

So, lesson number one: you can't anticipate an accident, but you can factor the effects of a recession into your career plans. Now is the time to step up networking and think about where your next move might be - should it become necessary.

Brannan had to prepare a CV. He'd had plenty of experience doing this for all his previous contracting jobs (see panel) and he'd seen plenty of CVs from people he'd recruited.

He says: "I had what I thought was a good CV - concise, two pages, and focused on achievements. And it showed that I was a manager with strong experience of delivery. Unless it grabs their attention, recruiters may not read past the first page."

Lesson two: take some time and care over your CV. Make sure that it shows your full potential and projects the image you want prospective employers to have of you. Bring out the full breadth of your capabilities and stress your business and management credentials, where relevant.

Interview technique

Then there was the question of interview technique. Again, Brannan had sat at both sides of the desk on many occasions and been put through his paces when being interviewed for previous appointments. He says: "In terms of interview technique, I think it's important to be relaxed, open and honest. IT is a service industry - it's not a subservient industry. If you're going to provide good service, saying no is sometimes the right answer.

"In an interview, I think it's sometimes OK to disagree with something the interviewer says or to make a point in your own way." It's better than ending up with an unsuitable job and then having to find a way out of it.

So, lesson three. Even if you're desperate for a job, you shouldn't come across as one of life's boot-lickers. In the difficult times ahead, employers will be looking for bright employees with a mind of their own and the ability to contribute their own ideas. In an interview, you should show that you have some.

Back in 2002, Brannan had his CV in place and his interview technique brushed up. There was still a problem. There weren't many jobs around. He was offered an interim post in Edinburgh. But the money was poor and, more importantly, it would have taken him away from his family from Monday to Friday each week.

So, lesson number four: don't jump at the first job if it's not right. Brannan kept up his search until he found a vacancy at Assicurazioni Generali on a jobs website. And, yet, perhaps he might not have landed that post had it not been for the most important point of all.

Adding value

In his career, he'd set out to become an IT professional who adds value - the kind employers jump at. To discover how he did it, we need to return to the very start of his working life.

Fresh out of York College of Further Education, Brannan signed on with the then largest employer in the city, Rowntree Mackintosh. He'd thought of becoming an accountant, but they asked him if he'd be interested in IT.

His first job was as a computer operator. One of his least favoured daily chores was to push a trolley loaded with mainframe printouts round the offices. "I was supposed to deliver them to pigeon-holes on each floor," he recalls. "Instead, I looked to make the best of the opportunity so I made a point of separating them out and taking them to the desks of the people who needed them. I instinctively tried to add value to what I was doing. I learned about the business processes and the business staff learned about me"

It got him noticed and he was promoted successively to programmer, system analyst, project leader and project manager roles. After 15 years with Rowntree Mackintosh, he decided that he didn't want to have an entire career in a single company. There were limited opportunities to build an IT career in and around Yorkshire so he headed south.

He was offered a job at Municipal Mutual Insurance in Hampshire to head up the mainframe development team. "But, in time honoured fashion, when I walked through the door, I found they'd given the job to somebody else and I was put in charge of the PC development team."

It provided another opportunity to add value. Although he'd had no previous PC experience, in 1989 PCs were the future and mainframes the past. "This was a significant career moment because I could no longer fall back upon my technical knowledge and had to rely on my management skills," says Brannan.

Honing skills

He honed his team leadership, motivational and communications skills at MMI. He learnt to focus on his team and delivering through their combined efforts. He left only after MMI was acquired by Zurich Insurance.

The next career epiphany came two years later when he was contacted by an ex-colleague. He was encouraged to quit permanent employment and take a contracting post with Royal Insurance in the City.

Brannan admits it was a difficult decision because he had a young family to support and the initial contract was for just three months. "I talked it over with my wife late into the night for several evenings." This was a decision which required confidence in his ability.

But it paid off handsomely. Shortly after Brannan delivered his first project for the company, Royal Insurance merged with Sun Alliance. He had demonstrated his value-adding ability to bring in projects on time - which made him a natural choice for some of the post-acquisition integration projects which kept him gainfully employed for four years.

This ability to deliver meant that Brannan was in high demand as a manager to head a number of innovative projects at a variety of companies, one of his favourites being Virgin Financial Services - until he ended up under that car.

No doubt his ability to bring in complex projects on time - and add value - were factors which impressed Assicurazioni Generali when the company gave him the job of systems development manager.

Ten months later, he was heading the firm's IT in the UK. Adding value pays.

Brannan's role

Stewart Brannan heads the UK IT function of around 25 people for the Assicurazioni Generali insurance business. He reports to the UK chief operating officer, Steven Spano.

Brannan has three direct reports within the IT function. The first is an applications development manager. The second is a service delivery manager - this function includes operations, infrastructure and networks. The third is a business process manager.

The UK IT function makes use of external development partnerships and employs managed services companies for selected business applications.

 

CV: STEWART BRANNAN

  • 1974: Leaves York College of Further Education and takes job as computer operator with the city's largest employer, Rowntree Mackintosh.
  • 1989: After 15 years with the company, during which he progressed through programmer, systems analyst and project leader to project manager, leaves to join Municipal Mutual Insurance as project manager.
  • 1993: Becomes a business development manager at MMI before the company goes into administration and is eventually acquired by Zurich Insurance.
  • 1994: Leaves to join Commercial Union Assurance as a senior project manager.
  • 1996: Takes a step out of permanent employment and into contracting by accepting a three-month programme management role at Royal Insurance.
  • 1996: The three months extends to nearly four years following Sun Alliance's acquisition of Royal Insurance. Works on integration projects.
  • 2000 (January): Starts an eight-month contract at Virginmoney in senior role on the company's start-up project.
  • 2000 (November): Moves to AMP UK company Pearl Assurance to work as IT manager on a project to develop their first transactional internet service.
  • 2001: Moves to AON UK to become programme manager for an intranet-based insurance development project.
  • 2002: Returns to permanent employment as systems development manager for Assicurazioni Generali.
  • 2003: Becomes head of information technology for the company in the UK.

 

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