Who better to oversee a life insurer's IT operations than the person who helped consolidate five legacy policy administration systems into a unified platform. Susie Keisler-Munro, chief of operations, SVP with Assurity Life Insurance Company, explains that the company is the combination of three long-standing Lincoln, Neb.-based insurers - Assurity Life, Security Financial Life and Lincoln Direct Life.

"One of the biggest projects I've been involved with, and probably one of the most important, was the merger of those three entities," says Keisler-Munro. "There were a tremendous amount of efficiencies to be gained, both in hard-dollar costs and soft-dollar costs, by consolidating instead of working on five different systems as we were post-merger. That was a project of big proportions."

Indeed, to migrate five systems to a unified platform took four-and-a-half years and a dedicated, albeit fluctuating, team of a couple dozen employees. For Keisler-Munro, it offered first-hand experience with how transformational technology can be. Most notably, the migration enabled the company to improve customer experience and agent relations so that they didn't act like separate entities, sending redundant letters and documents. The multi-year project gave her the chance to witness the potential of the project come to fruition. So it's no surprise she champions a patient but persistent approach to innovation.

"It's great if you can stumble on that next genius idea, but the fact is that very few people succeed doing that," Keisler-Munro says. "Being successful takes a lot of hard work. Talent, knowledge and skills are important, but there's no substitute for hard work. Too often it's easy to overlook the incremental things that, when combined, really do have the chance to make transformational change." After five years on one transformative project, Keisler-Munro has proof.

That feat is representative of the tall order placed in front of insurers; Keisler-Munro admits that the life/health sector in particular has been slower to adopt technologies and approaches for reaching consumers and keeping them satisfied. In the life sector, customer interaction is much less frequent, so the impetus for change hasn't been as strong, she says. However, innovative ideas lurk in every corner of the enterprise.

The WIL judges noted the variety of successful initiatives completed under her watch. Aside from merging the PAS platforms, she led Assurity's conversion to a paperless environment, contributed to the implementation of new systems and processes using electronic and Web-based tools for product management, sales and underwriting and led the team responsible for the design of the new LEED Gold certified Assurity Center.

Discussing her background, Keisler-Munro emphasizes that the type of creativity required to take that next transformative step, especially the need for time to think without distraction is important. "I know that's one thing that Assurity and I are trying to be conscious of as an organization: recognizing that need to do less and think more," she says. "The thing that dovetails with that is experimentation, giving people the freedom to challenge the status quo and to think differently.

"Establishing that climate of innovation is essential for the long-term health of life/health companies, so setting aside the space, time and resources to think about and practice for the future is really valuable."

Keisler-Munro's high-level approach to the enterprise was cultivated through experience as an actuary the first 10 years of her career. The mathematical, analytics skills, balanced with the broad business, communication and critical-thinking skills required were key to her growth, she says. It also didn't hurt, she adds, to start out at a smaller company.

At a larger company, she says she would've risked having a narrower role, especially in her first years. Instead, as part of a smaller staff, she witnessed or played a role in many aspects of business earlier in her career, providing a well-rounded knowledge of the enterprise.

"Unlike in a really large insurance organization where an actuary may be narrowly defined, I had the opportunity and necessity to be involved and interact with all disciplines in the organization. Hence, I got a little insight into everything that made the operation work," she says.

The lesson she passes on most is simply to say 'yes.' "I've been extremely fortunate in my career to have been presented with new challenges and opportunities just when things might have been getting a little to comfortable," Keisler-Munro says. "It's those times, when you're being pushed to take something to the next level where you experience the most growth and development."

Number of years in the industry: 26

Number of direct reports: 9

Company size: $225 million total premiums written

Nominated by: The Nolan Company

For photos from the Women in Insurance Leadership Award ceremony, click here.

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