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Building Leadership Communities

| June 28, 2022

by Brian McDonald

[Today’s Tuesday Reading is from Brian McDonald, President of MOR Associates.  Brian may be reached at [email protected].]
Just imagine if all the people who have been through a MOR leadership experience within your university could form a cohesive community of change agents who collaborate to propel the initiatives needed to make transformational progress versus incremental.
Community can be defined as “a feeling of fellowship with others, as a result of sharing common attitudes, interests, and goals.” In addition to these attributes, MOR provides participants with a common language, common frameworks, and tools that enable people to communicate and work together more readily.
Within most every cohort, MOR forms and facilitates previously unfamiliar individuals rather quickly coalesce into a cohesive learning community. The hallmarks you can see are the high degree of trust and openness. Early exercises create deeper connections and investment in helping others to become more effective leaders. Participants come to the realization we are on this leadership journey together.
Yet what has the greatest long-term promise is the opportunity to create similar leadership communities broadly at your university. Groups where individuals across different units work collaboratively to make even bigger contributions to the strategic initiatives for the university.  This would be the ultimate return on the investment in the individuals nominated to participate in these leadership experiences. When people complete the MOR Leaders Program many of them are ready to take on “big challenges.”
At the outset of the pandemic there was an extraordinary inflection point. IT communities across higher education collaborated to accomplish remarkable results, converting everyone to on-line teaching and remote work. This was a very visible demonstration of what a leadership community can do when there are clearly stated shared priorities, an urgent call to action and the ability for people to lead from where they are.
Here are ways we could invest in building leadership communities to move the university forward to deliver important strategic results. What would it take to catalyze your colleagues to undertake one of these approaches or an adaptation to make progress on some institutional priorities?

  1. Broad identification of shared goals.  The CIO or senior directors or Leadership Steering Committees could invite leaders from across the organizational units to identify the top 3 to 5 shared goals that are important to the university looking forward. In a subsequent meeting outline the work needed to move these “big ideas” forward. Then create a fast cycle process like what occurred in March of 2020.

At the University of Iowa, CIO Steve Fleagle was faced with a five-million-dollar budget reduction and brought together leaders from both central and distributed units.  He invited them to propose ideas to reduce costs. He also asked them to form cross organizational working groups to develop these suggestions into concrete plans and then move these toward implementation.
In 2018 when it was time for the University of Iowa to develop a strategic plan for IT across the whole university, Steve invited 50 leaders from across all the units to provide their input into a fast cycle process resulting in shared strategic goals.
Recently at the University of Notre Dame the CIO Jane Livingston initiated a strategic planning process that cascaded throughout their organization giving everyone an opportunity to provide input on the goals and actions needed to move forward.

  1. Collaborative visioning of future state.  Once goals or initiatives are identified, consider creating a “think tank” to get people invested by asking for their input on these priorities. Develop scenarios people could sketch out. What would incremental progress look like compared to a quantum leap? What is our preferred future compared to the current state and how do we close the gaps at light-speed? Creating work groups that meet every two weeks for 90 minutes for six months is the old unsuccessful way to tackle an issue.

The University of Illinois at Urbana Champagne formed an IT Community that meets monthly and focuses on both current developments as well as longer range initiatives. These IT leaders – despite all the organizational, political, cultural and historical boundaries – can work together to accomplish what’s needed for the success of the enterprise.
When the University of Nebraska was directed by the President to create one IT organization combining four different units based at various campuses, the CIO Mark Askren said the MOR Leaders Program was instrumental in building the relationships and skills needed to accomplish this integration. A working group of fifty individuals from across the units was assembled to help generate ideas on the priorities and how best to bring about the desired outcome.

  1. Recruitment and retention.  Or take a current challenge like retention, recruiting and reengaging the workforce post pandemic and set up a 3-4 week sprint where teams will develop the goals, strategies and actions needed to turn these threatening trends into targets of opportunity.


  1. Continuous workforce planning and talent development.  Engage leaders across all units in a long-term strategy to develop the workforce. This could involve having a team outline career pathways to start. There could then be a deliberate mentoring program designed to help those earlier in their career develop the requisite skill sets needed to move up the ladder. This initiative would be a one-year renewable plan so it is refreshed by new leaders taking on this pursuit each cycle.


  1. Steering Committees or Councils to Engage IT Leader On Current Challenges.  There are campuses like the University of Wisconsin or Harvard University or Penn State that have formed an IT Leaders Steering Committee or Council to ensure there is continued investment in leadership. These groups have sponsored periodic professional development and social events to connect the community. It is timely to have these leaders convene sessions focused on current work-related priorities.

For example, these groups could facilitate a session designed to engage people from across campus in how to maintain the university’s values and connected culture in a distributed work system. What are people doing to ensure during this hybrid and remote positioning of the workforce that we are communicating and adapting to this way of working?
Our organizations have made significant investment in supporting individuals on their journey to becoming more effective leaders. It is possible to engage the community in taking up the issues that the university faces. Bringing together leaders and creating coalitions excited about tackling current challenges and building momentum behind institutional priorities is going to do several things:

  1. Provide the energy and ideas needed to forge progress at a faster rate
  2. Develop greater buy-in from the community
  3. Demonstrate leadership is a collective sport not a solo act
  4. Create a return on the investment for the university that goes well beyond more effective individual leaders

Wishing everyone a safe, relaxing and reflective July 4th weekend.


This Week’s Survey

What strategy would work best to create a more connected leadership community at your university?



From Last Week
Last week, we asked: Which resonates with you most as a basic ingredient of leadership?

  • 50% said self-awareness
  • 34% said courage
  • 16% said curiosity

Being effective as a leader, influencing others towards shared goals, begins with understanding ourselves, our own propensities, and how we interact with others.  It’s not surprising we collectively rated self-awareness as most important.  From that foundation, being a leader requires the courage to stay true to our convictions and the curiosity to understand others and our environments.  But these are just one set of leadership basics.  What other factors do you consider the foundation of your own leadership?