IT Leadership

From Good to Great in Higher Education

I listened to a recent podcast from Higher Digital featuring Jack Suess, VP of IT and CIO at the University of Maryland Baltimore County, about going from Good to Great (the title of a fabulous book by Jim Collins) in higher education. The podcast covered many topics, but there was an effort made to tie in the great work done by Jack and his team at UMBC with how they have been able to go from “good to great” as an organization. How this or that initiative made the difference.

This got me thinking about the book and some of its principles, and how I might apply them to our organization at CalArts. I also wanted to take a deeper dive into those principles and apply them a bit more strictly. It’s not just about how an organization went from good to great (and, by the way, I am not claiming we are great. We have gone from “good enough” to “pretty darn good” for the most part, and “okay” to “a better than okay” in other areas. That is not a knock on the CalArts IT team. We are a small team that has had to do with remarkably limited budgets in the past, and are transitioning towards a position of greater efficiency, automation, and other tactics to improve our operations). It’s about whether we have a “hedgehog concept” and how disciplined our (my?) leadership is. Do we have the right people on the bus (all working in the same direction towards the same goal(s))? I want to also throw in there the question of what is our “Big Hairy Audacious Goal” (BHAG) which is actually from Collins’ (and Porras’) book Built to Last.

I want to apply these specifically, not just talk about what we’re doing to be “better” in general. So here goes.

First, what is our “hedgehog concept?” The example I recall from the book is from Walgreens. Their leadership held steadfast to the principle that they wanted stores on corner locations. They would actually close a store in the same complex as a vacancy if it meant moving to a corner. It’s an idea that leadership held onto stubbornly (in a good way – I’ve seen the word “fanatical” used as well) that allowed them to accelerate faster than competitors.

For us, I would say it’s operational excellence/efficiency. I’m not saying we’ve made great strides thus far (and again, I’m not saying we’re “great”), but something we talk about constantly and make investments in is improving the way we operate to be more efficient, more automated, and more reliable. So we have switched our computer setup process to be “low touch” (and hope to make it “zero touch”) such that a computer basically configures itself when we’re setting it up. No need to intervene at all. We are looking at vulnerability scanning tools for information security, and want one that will be automated rather than something we have to manually run every X number of months. Remediation through a combination of automated (sense a theme here?) patching and other tools would be something else we’d look at. This all wraps up into improving our actual operations to be solid if not flat out excellent. That’s our stubborn goal that I’ll work towards with every breath.

Second, do I have the right people on the bus? This doesn’t apply as well to higher education, which has both lower turnover (so voluntary changing of people on the bus) and longer staff tenure (for better or worse) than other industries. But you can modify this a bit – are we all pulling in the same direction? You might not have all top performers on your team, but are you all working towards the same goals? Is the bus heading in just one direction (don’t you love it when a metaphor falls apart?) Importantly, are you all spreading the same message when you “leave the room” where decisions are made? On the former point, I think we’re doing a pretty good job. On the latter, we/I could probably spend more time stressing this point. We don’t need (nor necessary want) consensus, but we should have the same story/message/etc. to tell when others ask. I think we do this well at the leadership level but I haven’t made it a point for the rest of the team.

Third, there is the concept of a “Level 5” leader, one who is both humble and steadfast/determined. This is a tough one to discuss because it’s about myself. What I will say is that I try to be humble, and to be vulnerable as a way of showing I am a human and worthy of one’s trust. I share myself, as a person, so that others know they can share themselves with me. I also work hard to use collaborative decision-making – again, it’s not about consensus, but I want to hear opinions, counter-arguments to mine, etc. At the same time, I do have a hedgehog principle, I articulate my goals clearly and consistently, and I am decisive when I need to be. Hopefully something adds up there.

Finally, BHAG. Again, this is from the Built to Last book but is something that has always stuck with me. What is my big goal out there? It’s somewhere between vision and mission statements. The former is what the world looks like if you succeed, and the latter is the guiding principle(s) for your operations. So my BHAG could be my vision, or it could be something else. Today, my BHAG is to be an organization recognized by others as an exemplar of achieving our hedgehog concept of operational excellence and efficiency. Not that it’s all about the opinions of others or validation, but because when you’re good, others hear about it, and want to follow your lead. I think that’s the best I got right now for a BHAG.

Being @ a Small College

I have often remarked to others that I value being at a small college, and identify as an advocate for such institutions. Heck, when I ran for the EDUCAUSE Board of Directors, which explicitly asks that one not speak only from one’s personal perspective but instead from and on behalf of the entire community, I “campaigned” partially on being able to look through the lens of a smaller institution. There are way more small institutions (sub 5000 FTE students) than large ones, so I was trying to speak to a lot of community members. But what does it really mean to be at a small institution? Well, a lot, actually.

There is scale, and economies thereof. In any department, be it IT, student affairs, marketing and communications, etc., there are simply fewer people doing the same number of jobs. In IT, for example, we have the same burden for information security and privacy as a much larger institution, yet we (at CalArts), do not have a full-time, in-house information security officer, much less an entire department dedicated to security. So we have to get creative and share the burden across multiple staff and use other resources such as “virtual” Chief Information Security Officer (vCISO) services from third party firms, share CISOs between institutions, and/or layer multiple services on top of each other for maximum protection.

We are also very thin in a lot of areas. I do not have the luxury of enough staff to run a 24/7 shop, even for our most critical of systems. We monitor them 24/7 and we act on the alerts we get, sure, but people do need to sleep, and sometimes I’m only 1 deep on a knowledge worker. Sometimes that alert isn’t seen for 8-10 hours, no matter how efficient we are at using instant communication tools. We mitigate this through efforts to shift to the cloud (so someone else is managing our systems), for example, but we’ve run into budget challenges there, to name just one obstacle. At larger institutions, you might have a whole team of people responsible for monitoring the data center, rather than just software (that can easily become out of date as systems change) that are there 24/7 to alert others of issues.

Similar challenges exist for other departments, of course. It’s not just us in IT working at a small institution. Many departments are 1 person deep at best, and several of those are in fact doing 1.5-2 jobs each. If even one person retires or resigns, the impact is disproportionate (many things keep me up at night, and staff retention is one of them, both because I want to know the team is happy, and because it’s so hard to weather the departure of any one of them).

A nice thing about a small college is that most people know each other. I joke that here at CalArts, someone need only say “George” in a sentence and I can figure out which person they mean based purely on context (which is actually only a slight exaggeration). But this can backfire, too. Support requests go to individuals instead of our ticketing system, for instance. Or “personal favors” are asked that break policy that we work so hard to develop and enforce. Sometimes it goes the other way – I find myself wanting to bend my own policy sometimes to help someone that I’ve come to know personally, too.

Another nice/not so nice thing is being involved in day to day operations. On the one hand, I feel I have a good pulse on what is going on in the department. I work hard not to micromanage so I don’t get into the weeds but I know what products we use for what, the general status of upgrades/updates to those solutions, etc. I can answer questions from others (esp. other VPs) effectively. Also, there are few things I haven’t seen before, and seen from the inner workings. I’m not saying I’ve seen it all and I’m definitely not saying that I addressed all those matters the right way the first (or even second) time around, but few things truly surprise me these days. That’s good. The downside is that every single day I get pulled into the tactical and away from the strategic. Sometimes it tires me out and I don’t even want to get into the strategic. I’m just worn out on the day-to-day struggle. Every fire we have to put out leaves me less able to figure out how to avoid ignition in the first place.

These are just some examples. I’m not trying to be comprehensive here. My original goal was to answer for myself the question “what does it mean to be from a small institution?” But then I should I’d share a bit. Would love to hear some other examples.

When Culture Eats Breakfast…

The management guru Peter Drucker coined the phrase “Culture Eats Strategy for Breakfast.” I think it’s pretty self-explanatory but the gist is that no matter how well you plan out strategy, if it conflicts with culture, then the latter will win out. You have to consider culture when considering strategy.

Now, an obvious question, and the one I ponder today, is what happens when culture runs counter to your needed goals (which is more immediate than long-term strategy, obviously). The long-term answer is to continually tweak culture through messaging, signaling, language, actions, etc., until it allows for the goals to be met. But what if you’re in the moment and find the two butting heads?

I’d like to point out that this example is not about CalArts. It’s something inspired by conversations I’ve had with others, many at different institutions, and debated back and forth with those people.

For example, let’s say you have a policy, borne out of immediate necessity, that recommends but doesn’t require that people do X. Fill in the blank with whatever practice you wish. It’s a recommendation, not a requirement. You do allow, in your policy, for certain parties to make it an ad hoc requirement in certain settings, but you do not put any teeth behind it. You don’t enforce, and provide no recourse for those that need/want enforcement (you can insert various questions about squeaky wheels, minority opinions portraying themselves as majorities, whatever, here, if you wish, but please permit me to continue).

One option is to put some teeth behind it, but at a monetary cost (hiring staff, building out procedures, possibly investing in new technology to manage complaints, etc.) but, and this is the kicker, it runs counter to culture. The other, more sensitive option, is to stick to not enforcing things because your environment is not aligned with one that involves calling others out, getting people in trouble, etc. The culture is that it’s a free and expressive space without people pointing fingers or accusing each other of things, so tactics (in this case) and certainly strategy is “eaten for breakfast.”

So what does one do? Do you anger many by creating an environment contrary to long-standing culture because of an urgent situation? Do you frustrate and perhaps anger a different population by offering a policy with no enforcement (which is, as a colleague at another institution said, consequently just a suggestion)?

I don’t have an answer, though I’d love one of the 0 people that will read this to make a suggestion. Again, the long-term answer is clearer. Stronger (but not insensitive) central administration that is supportive of but does give way to (what will become) previous culture. Messaging that we do some things for the larger purpose to bettering this or that, followed up by action to that effect (this has worked for us in IT as we slowly shift the perception towards needing to pay more attention to information security). I’m sure there are many other tactics that I am not thinking of even if I wrote 3 more paragraphs about them. But if you’re faced with the short-term, here and now conflict, what might you do?

Digital Transformation vs. Transition

During a recent presentation about the mass transition to Zoom/online-based classes in Spring 2020, the term “digital transformation” was thrown around. Now, admittedly, it was a very short presentation – 20 minutes – and encompassed the experiences of 3 institutions/systems to boot. So the presenters did not dig deep. But the clear implication by some was that by going online, teaching (and learning) was transformed. There were comments about how the intense crucible (my words) of switching to online in the spring necessitated transformation.

I…don’t know how I feel about this. First, transformation is thrown around in a lot of industries, and higher education is no exception. Second, transformation is about changing how you go about doing your work, not just morphing it from one form to another. As someone working with faculty (I am one step removed, however, from direct interaction), I regularly see and hear about courses that were airlifted from in-person design to virtual settings. Little to nothing was changed in the course. Lectures stayed the same, grading methods did not change, and engagement tools were not put in place above and beyond a discussion forum in Canvas or something similar. I would argue that this is not digital transformation. It was not the crucible of pressure changing the way we teach. It was just teaching the same material and using the same methods but in a different format.

Similarly, our work hasn’t necessarily changed that much. We still have meetings like we did; they’re just online. We still communicate generally as we did; we just do more email. Etc. If anything, we’ve regressed a bit. We used to be able to have “water cooler” chats or just walk down the hall for a quick question. Those 10 minute chats have become 30 minute (because that’s the standard shortest length in Outlook) meetings with agendas. One exception has been the digitization of forms on campus – in many cases, a business process efficiency discussion takes place about the form, and a new methodology is born. But even in those cases sometimes it’s just taking a paper form and making it electronic. That’s not transformation.

I would argue that this is digital transitioning. It is taking what you’ve done before and just moving it into a different form or delivery method. It is not fundamentally changing the way one goes about doing work.

Now, please bear in mind that I am not criticizing faculty at all, even though it sounds like I am. Even just switching to a new environment is incredibly difficult and challenging, and I am not one to speak as to whether it is possible to transform on any timeline, much less the one under which we operated, both in spring and over the summer. I am not faculty, nor do I teach a course in my current capacity. I actually have no problem, per se, with a digital transition. I have a problem with calling it digital transformation.

The “heat of battle” does not create transformation. The pressure to go online in the spring and now in the fall does not mean transformation, and stats as to whether we are or are not using Zoom do not support (nor dispel) this notion. The stats in particular are neutral. They are what they are; nothing more, nothing less.

This long preamble leads to a set of simple closing comments. Digital transition is…painful but not complex. Digital transformation is incredibly difficult. But is also incredibly crucial. How should we change the way we work from yesterday to today’s world (trying not to say “new normal” here, because there is nothing normal about it)? How should we morph our processes? What new kinds of emotional intelligence are required of us, as leaders, under these conditions, when the most we can do is show a headshot of ourselves in a Zoom box or send an email to express that concern and sensitivity? I don’t have even my own answers to these (yet? – check back with me later). But I do believe there is a difference between digital transition and transformation, and that we need to be looking deeply within ourselves and our organizations for the latter, and not getting caught up in the hype of the former.

From CIO to AVP: 6 Months Into a Non-Lateral Move

In September of 2019, I started as the Associate Vice President for Academic Technology at Cal State Northridge (CSUN). In this role, I’m responsible for a bit of a mix of areas, but they include instructional technology, accessibility, data & analytics, and user support services (help desk and classroom support). My previous 2 jobs had been as a Chief Information Officer, in charge of all of IT. Even the job before that, I was essentially the CIO of a law school. So I’ve had the full portfolio under my purview in the past. This was a significant non-lateral move for me. I’m 6 months in now.

I was very purposeful in this transition away from the CIO role. Yes, I had worked hard to get to be a CIO. But I wanted to get back to the west coast, and a lot of major opportunities are at large state institutions. Certainly, the majority of small liberal arts colleges are on the east coast. But I didn’t have a background at other kinds of institutions, much less large public ones specifically. And obviously becoming a CIO at a 35,000 student institution from a 2,200 student one wasn’t going to happen. So I made an intentional move from CIO to AVP.

It’s been…interesting, in a lot of ways.

First, over the years, my management style had evolved into a very hands off one. This felt a necessity as a CIO. I’m still an AVP (there are two AVPs in IT here at CSUN) so it’s not as if I’m in the weeds everyday, but I am more involved in daily operations on a personal level than I was before. I delegated a lot as a CIO. Maybe that was just my style, or was the culture of the institution. Maybe others in the same jobs would have been more involved. Maybe my style was even “wrong.” Whatever the reason, my style has become what it is, and I find myself questioning whether it is 100% appropriate here at CSUN. I will say that there is a bit more of a culture of involvement and hands-on management here at CSUN, from what I’ve been able to discern. In all honesty, I’m not 100% sure how to modify my style just yet.

Second, I’ve been reminded that my place in the department is different than before, in completely respectful and proper ways. I’m not in charge. I’m also not acting as if I am, but I have sent off a few messages bringing up matters that might be of higher-level concern, and been told, again in a respectful way, that that’s the purview of someone else and that that’s the end of the conversation. There was a security issue, for instance, where I suggested to the interim CIO that we might want to act more aggressively than was indicated by others. I was told that’s someone else’s call.

That’s perfectly fine, of course. But it didn’t end my unease about the decision, to be honest. But…it’s not my call. So I just swallowed the pill and moved on.

Third, and this is the positive one, I can really focus in on key things that I care a lot about. I have at least some experience with each of the areas I lead/manage, and extensive knowledge in some of them. I can really dig in and sink my teeth into the issues they are facing, and have in-depth conversations about solutions. This was not always the case as a CIO, where the breadth of responsibilities was much broader. I was weak in some areas. I was very open about it, and asked lots of questions so that I could make sound decisions, but I was never going to become a networking expert or be able to do ETLs from a SQL database.

So I’m 6 months in, and the obvious question is “what next?” What will I do next to be a more effective manager and leader? How do I keep moving forward?

I think the first thing is to take a hard look at my management style. One of my directors is still new and getting up to speed so I’m working a lot with her, but overall I need to decide if I want to be more hands-on with decisions and strategy. There is definitely a craving for certain things from various people in the group, and because it is a more focused team I need to recognize that I need to respond to those needs in a different (and faster) way than I might have in the past. I need to be less contemplative (though no less intentional and careful, of course). I also need to adjust my communication styles. CSUN is very email averse, it seems. If I were CIO, I could change that culture, at least in the division (not that I want to, just saying I could). But that’s not the situation now. I need to meet more often with people (I’m doing a lot more walking now). Please know that I wasn’t “Mr. Email” before, but the sentiment against sending a lot of messages is quite strong here.

Those are just my initial thoughts. Still cogitating.

Governance for the New Guy

We spun up 3 major projects almost right off the bat following my arrival here at Muhlenberg. We were to replace the Student Information System (SIS) with an Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) solution, the email system, and our Learning Management System (LMS). All 3 are pretty big, and any one would make for a busy year (the ERP in particular is a really huge, multi-year effort).

One of the first challenges I faced was how to build proper governance on these projects. Governance is a two-way street. It keeps people involved, it keeps the community informed, but it also asks the community for input, and is a way for the project to respond to such information and adjust. While I could certainly be such a conduit myself and I could use our existing faculty-based College Committee for Technology and Digital Learning (CCTDL), I did not feel this was the best approach so soon after starting here. I definitely wasn’t going to make any executive decisions or recommendations without a great deal of input, either. Who was I to say I “knew” what the college needed? That such and such product was the “right” one for Muhlenberg (I say this in general – that was I so new I was still getting lost on campus compounded the fact).

So I created committees. Lots of them.

For the LMS and email projects, they each had a committee that included staff from multiple different departments and faculty. The LMS one was, not surprisingly, a bit more heavy on the faculty side and there was an emphasis on instructional technologists from the staff population. The email project had a broader cross-section of the community. The former was chaired by a faculty member, and the latter by our Library Director, who had been involved in a similar project at another institution. CCTDL members sat on both committees.

I formed 3 separate committees for the ERP project alone. The Selection Committee was a small, 7-person group of key operational staff that could move quickly through the process of gathering requirements, developing a Request for Information (RFI), schedule demos and interact with the vendors. This group included representatives from Advancement, Admissions, the Registrar’s Office, the Office of Residential Services, the Library and the Controller’s Office, headed up by a project manager from OIT.

A Steering Committee “governed” the Selection Committee. Departmental directors and other key management staff made up this group. VP of HR, the Registrar, the Controller, the Director of Financial Aid, Athletic Director, Director of Campus Safety, and the AVP for Advancement were among those included in this group. It was much larger – 17 total members. A member of CCTDL was the faculty representative and the Dean of our Wescoe School chaired it.

The Steering Committee was charged with both making sure the Selection Committee was doing what was needed/headed in the right directions as well as making sure they would be successful. If a group was slow in getting requirements back to the Selection Committee, then the Steering Committee had the responsibility to get things back on track. At the same time, it was ultimately the responsibility of the Steering Committee to write up the final recommendation.

Finally, the Executive Committee was made up of the college Senior Staff (those that report to the President). This group held the ultimate decision-making authority. As part of the Executive Committee, I worked with other members to help push down various initiatives as well as make certain high level decisions. We concluded, for instance, that we would go with an “off the shelf” and “plain vanilla” installation, adapting our business processes to the product, rather than pursuing customization. We also discussed policy on cloud hosting and SaaS delivery options, for instance. It was critically important to have this kind of executive sponsorship – the entire senior staff.

With the exception of the Executive Committee for the ERP project, I have stepped completely away from all the other committees. I didn’t attend meetings, I didn’t ask for notes or report-ins, and I only occasionally checked-in on progress for general reasons, not to keep tabs. With the LMS and email committees, I met with them at least once for general guidelines. I did join in on a couple of joint Selection/Steering Committee meetings for the ERP project. But overall I’ve kept my distance. I think it was very important that I let the committees do their work.

While we haven’t completed everything yet (I used the past tense just to keep things consistent, but the ERP project in particular is still ongoing), the LMS launch has already gone well, and email is closing in with the start of the new year. ERP will be another 1-2 years. But what I’ve discovered is that, through judicious use of committees, you can get involvement of the community in ways that are impossible as an individual. It’s also brought legitimacy to the process in ways that I hadn’t even expected.

startups and higher ed IT

When we bought our house 4 years ago, we invested in some improvements. One was to lease a solar panels for our roof, from a quasi-startup that worked specifically in cities with sizable solar rebates.. At the time, the notion of leasing panels rather than buying and installing outright was pretty controversial. You didn’t own them, you didn’t get the rebate, and you are dependent on another company for maintenance, etc. The way I saw it, at the time, was that since I didn’t have $30,000 lying around for an install, not getting the rebate was moot. We would get a significant energy savings, so it seemed like a win-win. One of those situations where a solution that is sub-optimal to many was actually pretty okay for us.

I’ve had to revisit this decision recently, and it occurred to me that it’s not unlike the times I’ve worked with startups while here at Menlo. At face value, it seems really dangerous to work with a company that has 10 employees and is a year old. These companies can go through ups and downs. The obvious one is going out of business, but there can be severe changes in direction due to market forces, abrupt adjustments to planned features quarter by quarter, and a seeming rotating pool of sales folks (if they have a sales force at all). Ironically, the one consistent thing has been negotiating pricing – these companies want to get into the higher education market, so they are usually willing to talk until we find something mutually beneficial not only now but also for at least a few years down the road. I can’t exactly adopt something now at an affordable price then pay ten times that amount in year two.

At the same time, all institutions should be looking to take advantage of new technologies and solutions and especially here in Silicon Valley there are many options around if one has an open mind. We can do some really interesting things with security, management, and monitoring based just on some recent agreements that we’ve made. And not so long ago, when I was still at Santa Clara Law School, I was working with “start ups” like Box, which is definitely a lot more than a fledgling company now.

There are many reasons to pursue partnerships with startups. One of course is that we’re a small college, and they are flexible on terms because they want to get into our market. These are companies that are hungry and of course must create compelling solutions to problems. They are there to be a David to the existing Goliath, and to aim that sling-shot with great accuracy. We have come upon some truly stunning products from these companies that have greatly enhanced our abilities. Of course we have been careful in the solutions we’ve pursued. We need to consider the benefit from multiple angles (will this provide not only superior results and features, but also at a reduced management load?) and of course the risks. Sometimes we have to look at what stage of venture capital funding they are at and the valuation established by investors along with the technology itself.

In the end, though,what has mattered is having the open mind to consider such solutions and the organizational ability to take advantage of them. We must be open to the idea that, perhaps because of certain aspects unique to Menlo College, taking a calculated risk makes sense. Just as how leasing those panels, at that time, made sense for us in our particular situation. While we missed out on $10,000 in rebates, we never could have gotten them anyway, and we’re still getting an energy savings every month that far exceeds the lease payment we have to make. In the case of start-ups at Menlo, we may not get the benefits of working with a larger company with its substantial infrastructure, but we get at times a better (or better-fitting) solution with fewer strings attached.  Even if a company goes in a different direction with some tool we’ve adopted, as long as we’ve gotten what we need out of it and haven’t entangled our operations with the solution such that it’s a chore to undo, it’s probably been worth it. And we’ve shown again that we as an organization are agile enough to take a calculated risk here and there. In many ways I value that agility that we’ve developed and the mindset that propels it more than anything else.

In the long run, this agility plays out in more traditional ways. Some new next-generation security option comes up, and we’re able to act on it faster than one might expect. There might be a new technology that is actually quite hard to master, but because we have placed an emphasis on the ability to adapt and learn, we can go through that adoption process sooner than others and perhaps get ahead of the curve. We’ll make our mistakes, but perhaps we can rebound from those, too, without as much pain because we’re accustomed to such changes from taken risks. Or perhaps we’re just going through a “normal” infrastructure refresh that involves servers, storage, and our virtualization layer. Perhaps we’re able to handle that kind of stress better, too. No matter what, agility and a mindset that appreciates that flexibility is invaluable.

I’m not saying that I’m going to be reaching out to start-ups and taking risks – calculated or otherwise – at Muhlenberg. But I do hope we can achieve the kind of agility that we’ve found here at Menlo. And if we are able to buck a trend here and there and do something new and impressive, then that certainly wouldn’t hurt.

staying focused in the face of interpersonal adversity

There are certainly a lot of posts, articles, tweets, almost anything that deals with how to stay focused when there is some kind of adversity around.Hopefully you find something useful in what I”m providing.

I’ve been dealing with some interpersonal stuff at work lately. It’s a professional relationship, but the adversity is purely interpersonal. I don’t want to go into details, but I personally feel there have been some inaccurate portrayals, that we (the department) have been thrown under the bus a bit, and that all in all we’ve gotten a seriously short end of the stick. Maybe the nub. I’m not saying we are not without fault in this – it’s not a baseless set of comments. But it’s not a collaborative one, either.

My point is not to complain nor to vent. My point is about how and upon what to stay focused in such a situation. At least for me.

Own up to mistakes

Without a doubt, we’ve fallen flat on a few things. We missed one deadline several months ago by a few weeks, and it was a doozy of a deadline. There was miscommunication, work done in the wrong direction, a huge shift in direction and too much time taken to get something done. I’ve owned up to this. It is critical to accept blame where it is due. And of course I don’t mean in a way that generates a defensive stance, nor in a combative way. Just accept that things went wrong. No excuses (not because there aren’t good reasons, but because no one wants to hear them).

Don’t blanket accept blame, either

The first point doesn’t mean that you should just accept any negative comment that comes your way. Again, no reason to make it a confrontational situation. That’s counter productive. But accept fault for what is truly something you let fall through, but don’t just waffle under pressure on other points. But don’t get angry, either, in defending yourself. Keep it calm.

Write lots and lots of drafts. Then don’t send them and just see someone in person.

If a lot of the conversation (and misrepresentation) is done over email, don’t get sucked into that. This is a serious bad habit of mine, I admit. But whatever you do, write lots and lots of drafts of a reply before you even consider sending. Tone it down each time. Then, when you think you’re ready to send, don’t do it. Don’t send it. Just get up and walk over to that person’s office and have a face to face. Heed points 1 & 2- do’t go in there and just agree to whatever the other person says. Lay out your case, address, in a calm manner, what you agree with and don’t agree with. And then get out of there with your head held high.

You’re there for to provide solutions to users. Always remember that.

What matters, in the end, is that we are solution provision groups. Ideally, our relationships are collaborative and we’re about working together to find solutions that will help the institution in general. But at the very least we’re here to help. And never, ever, let interpersonal matters distract from this. Maybe a specific email on one topic is a bit heated, but all others are balanced and even, as they should be. All other interactions are about getting things done. Stay focused, and you’ll remember your real purpose.

Short and sweet. Well, short anyway. I leave it to you to decide if it has any sugar (worth).


on second thought…

Let’s be honest – I tend to get pretty introspective around the new year. Not in a dark way, but certainly many of my thoughts are dedicated to what I have done but many more of them are focused on what I have not accomplished, or sub-optimal results. It’s my nature to be more critical than not. I have spent a lot of energy the last year or so trying to celebrate the positives, and with my friends in the SIGUCCS tribe I have made a lot of progress, but I still have a long way to go. One thing the Tribe has helped me do, though, is to turn these critical moments and make them points for improvement or at least lessons learned rather than merely negatives with which to obsess. Considering I came to Menlo College with the fundamental goal to learn about being a CIO (and an institutional leader and manager, of course), let’s see how I’ve done.

The Best Advocate for You (and your school) is You

I like to work on relationships with our partners and even vendors. I like to cultivate connections with someone like our Value-Added Reseller (VAR) where they understand our needs and appreciate my expectations. I hope that vendors – actual manufacturers – will work with us on deals and pricing that show appreciation for our small institution and staff. I’ve also spent a lot of time building partnerships around campus, with other leaders, department heads, faculty and staff. In many ways I hope that these local relationships will yield strong voices of support. For example, I have tried to reach a point with a VAR where, when a project comes up, my priorities (do things the “right way,” and don’t presume that I want the easy way just because we’re small) are their priorities. I had begun to believe that vendors would go the extra mile for us on implementations and installations. I’d also started hoping that partners around campus would speak up for us when appropriate and helpful to all parties.

This was a stupid and naive approach.

At the end of the day, the only person (or group) that can effectively advocate for your vision, your priorities, and your needs is YOU (or your department). The only one that can always ask “wait, but what’s the right way to do that, not just the ‘small college’ way?” is going to be the person paying for those services. The only one that will even consistently notice that things have not been done that way is going to be you – outside groups will not be reliably pro-active to pursue the path that you prefer or even need. At the very least, one must be vigilant for any presumptions made and constantly verify that everyone is on the same page. You are the owner of your processes and solutions, plain and simple.

And regardless of how strong that relationship is with a partner on campus, even if all parties are seeking progress and there is no pettiness or personal gain issues at play, no one can truly take your place at the table. We all work hard to get to the table, and we need to be there when the questions come up.

This might seem pretty obvious, and in many ways I hope it is to most people. My point is a more nuanced one. We have faith in our efforts to form partnerships, and we pursue them so that we are working together more often than one for one another. We can and should still try to establish these relationships and invest the time needed to maintain them. But its naive to believe that you can let things just go on their own way without constantly checking on things. And remembering that at the end of the day – every day – you are the one that has to be the advocate for your institution’s or department’s needs.

Don’t Under-Manage your Projects. Ever.

You can never put too much effort into project management. Whether the project is small or big, oversight and management must be consistent and run from start to finish. Even informal projects need regular attention. More importantly, don’t get distracted. If you’re doing too many projects, then find a way to spread out the load. If you’re not a formal project manager and your “regular” work gets in the way, then keep yourself on target with the project first and manage your daily duties accordingly, or give that project to someone else.

This might seem easy for me to say – of course project management is important, and of course we all wish we can shift things around or give projects to others, but that’s just not realistic, right? The way I see it, it is my job, as a manger and leader, to help my team keep projects balanced, and to manage expectations of those around campus. Whether it’s our web applications developer, our social media & marketing manager, or our actual project manager, I am there to help things stay balanced. I am there to enable them to do their work, to be successful. I am there to run interference if one project has to bump another one off the list. That’s what I do, so that we can keep the project management capacity we need to keep things on track. Because, again, you can never have too much project management capacity. That means that there has to be someone constantly moving things around to keep capacity at a maximum.

And one other thing I learned – of all the folks on the team, I’m perhaps the one that has the hardest time shifting my attention away from my “regular” duties (like…supporting the team in their own project management needs). So I probably shouldn’t take on big projects. Definitely learned this in a rather rough way.

Take Your Professional Networks to the Next Level

I’m sure everyone puts a lot of energy into building professional networks. At conferences, through attendance at webinars, participating on mailing lists, or via some other means, we work hard to meet others and to establish at least some kind of meaningful bond that could bear fruit of some kind or another down the road. Whether it’s literally our LinkedIn network or merely and generically the network of people with whom we are linked, it is important that we put energy into development and maintenance.

However, if you can take it one step further – interaction at a human level – then things really change. This could be going out to dinner or for a drink with folks in your network – rather than just lunches (that occur during the business day anyway) – or, if people are remote, setting up a chat room for regular interaction. It could even still take place at a professional event, like a conference, but the interaction itself is more personal. Yes, I’m at the bar networking with others, but I’m there spending time on a human level with others as well. We aren’t just talking about the job, nor are we just making small talk. The difference can be very subtle – asking for professional advice is one thing. Being comfortable enough to bluntly complain about a situation in a candid way before asking for that advice is something deeper.

I’ve spent a lot of time networking at conferences the last several years, building my network. I’ve done just about every leadership and management program that EDUCAUSE offers, and I’ve become involved with SIGUCCS at an organizational level. After all this investment, it’s been just the last year or so that my interactions have gone to the more human level. Several of us meet online on a regular basis. Some of us are in an always-on chat room where we indeed do complain about things now and then, yet always also ask for advice. Some of us are even talking about going hiking or backpacking together at some point.

I can’t really quantify and can only vaguely qualify the impact of this difference. But it’s been meaningful, certainly, and people I considered peers became more than acquaintances and are now bona fide friends.

choosing to take the back seat

Last summer, I attended one of the EDUCAUSE Leadership Institutes.  I attended two different ones but I’m choosing not to identify which one this particular post pertains to.

One exercise that seems common among the various leadership programs from EDUCAUSE is that we write a card to ourselves.  Stuff we want to remind ourselves to do afterwards, or perhaps an important lesson we might forget that we need a reminder on.  One thing I did last time, for instance, was to design a staff retreat using certain principles we had learned.

In one of the two institutes I attended, we also had to write a card to the person sitting to our left.  Which meant that, 6 months later, I got a card with a suggestion from someone else, who had observed me during the week.  To paraphrase, this card said that I had

lots of great ideas and energy, but need to slow down and ask others for their opinions before speaking up.  You need to include others.  Only then would I be successful

To be honest, at first this was rather hard to take.  I felt a bit insulted and hurt; I wouldn’t be successful until I changed something?.  Of course, I soon realized that the person didn’t intend it in mean-spirited way at all, and that, in fact, he was right.  I do tend to let my enthusiasm and energy overwhelm the need to be thoughtful and inclusive.  Oddly enough, I also tend to be inclusive overall, wanting to keep everyone involved.  The two forces conflict, and the energy one sometimes wins out, such in this case.  This particular institute, I found myself on the minority of ideas a lot, and therefore caused some tension now and then.  I was frustrated by my group, overall, and even apologized to them in the end.  So yes, the part of me that gets overly excited to the point of excluding others became an issue.  This card reminded me of that.

Here I am today, at the EDUCAUSE Leading Change Institute, and I’m working hard at asking others for their opinions and letting others do the talking and presenting.  I’m not saying I’m doing a good job of it – but I am definitely letting others talk.  And I have to admit that it’s been really tough.  I want to say every idea I have, and I want to be the one to present it to the attendees.  I want everyone to know that I’m a presenter, comfortable talking with people, affable and funny.  I feel this especially at an event like this because I don’t know the other attendees very well.

But I know I need to let go, and I need to trust in others.  I have been trying really hard, with mixed success (as I was writing this sentence, I interrupted someone just out of enthusiasm.  Definitely still working on it).

It will be a good thing in the long run and I still have a ways to go.  I am determined to reel myself in for the rest of the week, and ask others for opinions and actively listen as much as possible.  I want to be thoughtful.

Not easy, but an important skill, without doubt.