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Lessons from My Leadership Journey: John Gohsman

| September 22, 2020

by John Gohsman

Today we introduce a new Tuesday Reading series “Lessons from My Leadership Journey.”  This occasional series will highlight exemplary senior leaders.  MOR Associates invited John Gohsman to be the inaugural leader featured in this series.  John Gohsman recently announced he would be stepping down as CIO at Notre Dame due to some on-going health challenges. We asked John to reflect on his career and recall any defining moments, and what insights he learned from those experiences.  John may be reached at [email protected]

Lessons From My Leadership Journey
As I think back on my career journey there were two inflection points that catalyzed my interest in leadership and put me on this different path.
As an IT Director at the University of Michigan earlier in my career, there was this enormously complex enterprise system we were struggling to implement. My role was as the overall project manager. We were having one problem after another and the rollout wasn’t going well. There was a report highlighting all the shortcomings that went to the Executive VP and I heard about this the next day. Things looked so bad I spent the night agonizing over the plight of this mega-project. After considerable consternation, I decided it was important for me to take responsibility for this.  I got up the next morning and went in and resigned.
In the meeting where I told them I was resigning, anticipating those I report to would happily accept this development, I was caught by surprise at their response. They said in short, “we’ve invested too much in you John, walking away is not an option, you have a responsibility to get this on track and you need to step up not step away.” This was a galvanizing moment.
A few years later, in April 2007, my CIO Laura Patterson sent her direct reports to a workshop sponsored by the Big Ten Academic Alliance facilitated by MOR Associates. This became another inflection point as the distinctions between leading, managing and doing became so evident and there was no escaping the conclusion my career was built on the manager-doer profile.
This was another turning point. It was time to invest in developing my leadership skills to balance out my other capabilities. But exactly what did this mean, to lead?
Upon my return to campus I saw the need for Michigan to undertake a new initiative on business intelligence. This served as my launching pad to lead as opposed to manage.

Approaching this as a leader meant there needed to be a vision, stakeholder recognition of the need and some seed funding. My job was to build the support, help create the shared vision and recruit the talent needed to produce some early deliverables.
Subsequently I was asked to lead the NextGen Michigan Program designed to deliver the information technology the University would need for the future.  This was totally outside my comfort zone because unlike my applications development role, I did not have the domain expertise to manage this initiative. This was another opportunity to lead this change process leveraging all the relationships built over the last 25 years.
During these years the work of leadership became more and more apparent. It was important to:

  • Get my head up.  Too often in IT we have our heads down, focusing on what’s in front of us. Leaders need to look out and see what is needed to be successful down the road. Or as MOR says “get up on the balcony.”
  • Learning to think strategically versus focusing on the tactical took time for me, while ultimately realizing that you need both. Tactical execution without alignment may mean you aren’t working on the right things. Or as MOR says “you can’t make up in tactics that which you lack in strategy.”  The key is to set the strategy, identify the needed results and let people go to work on delivering the outcomes.

The next stop on my leadership journey brought me to Washington University in St. Louis where senior leaders hired me as their first-ever CIO. There was agreement among many, but not all, about the need for a more integrated approach to information technology.
After 30 years at Michigan, I had grown up in the culture and knew everyone across the university.  In moving to WashU in 2013, my initial work focused on three objectives:

  • Interviewing as many stakeholders as needed to develop the relationships, allies and an appreciation for the issues. (175 in the first 6 months)
  • Expanding my understanding of the culture and how things get done @WashU so that I could appreciate how to navigate this organization.
  • Building agreement on what was needed as well as the vision, mission and strategy for moving forward.

Then it became obvious as a leader you need to find and enlist the talent needed to deliver on the vision, mission and strategies. Developing people becomes an important goal, essential for any long-term success.

Serving at Notre Dame as CIO since 2018 has been a highlight in my leadership journey.  Working in an organization that lives its values in such an admirable way and has so many great people was very gratifying.

As a leader you need to be willing to do things that haven’t been done before. You need to take calculated risks from time to time. Some will work out and some won’t. You need to get better at knowing what risks will more likely pay off and how to mitigate those that don’t.
Another lesson is it helps to not spend your energy looking back and second guessing yourself. You can learn from your prior decision or actions for sure. Yet looking in the rear view mirror too much is likely to cause you to miss what is in front of you.
In summary here are my insights along with the hope that these are helpful to you on your journey:

  • Take the risks, step up as a leader, and make the deliberate decision to be the kind of leader you want to be.
  • Build the relationships and allies you’ll need to move things forward. None of us do this alone.
  • Look to the future and focus on the strategic priorities.
  • Find out how the dollars flow through the organization and leverage to drive change.
  • Invest in your own development and the development of others.
  • Ensure you and your team deliver the needed results.
  • Don’t spend time looking back.

John has been someone MOR Associates has had the opportunity to get to work with and appreciate over these last fourteen rewarding years. It has been an honor to partner with John along the way. We wish him well as he travels the path before him. John had a leadership mantra that we can all keep in mind, “Go Big or Go Home!” May we all keep in mind life is precious and let’s make the most out of the time we have.

Brian McDonald