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Stretch and Learn

| June 9, 2015

by Matt Riley

I attended the MOR IT Leaders conference in late May.  As an ITLP graduate who stepped into a CIO role two years ago, I was asked to share how I employ the elements of the MOR toolkit in my leadership role.  I’ve invested in relationships and focused on changing culture.  I’ve taken uncomfortable risks.  But, reflecting on my talk, I recognized that I took the safe route in sharing those experiences.  I didn’t share the boldest initiatives.  I didn’t lean in.

MOR honored Annie Stunden at the conference.  Annie served as CIO at Wisconsin and has been an inspirational leadership coach for many MOR participants.  We learned two of Annie’s patented phrases during the tribute:  “Stretch and Learn,” and “Get over it, honey.”  Annie’s life and work are a continuing testament to those words.

Inspired by Annie’s example, I returned to my campus committed to stretching and learning and sharing our stories in simple, unexpected, concrete, credible ways.  Here are five brief stories of my Montana leadership journey.

1.  Breaking IT Paradigms

Central IT at UM favored a CIO who would promote the central IT organization and focus on policy enforcement.  Distributed IT leaders operated outside the CIO’s purview.  I asserted the CIO role as campus-wide, backing that up with presence and deliberate involvement in technology discussions across the university and affiliate campuses.  I approach policy enforcement differently, using IT policy breaches as an opportunity to learn from clients and build relationships.

2.  Asserting the CIO Role

I’ve brought a new sense that IT can be a strategic asset for the institution.  The CIO is now central to change and strategic initiatives at the University of Montana.  My fellow Cabinet members, once openly critical of having a CIO on cabinet, now support having IT at the leadership table.  My primary tools for success have been speaking up, presence and relationship building.

3.  Making Clear Decisions in Support of IT’s Future with the Campus

Numerous chances with decision-making help a CIO steer toward a responsive, agile and innovative IT community at the campus. The important questions I ask include:  Were the right individuals, armed with the right information and resources, able to bring this idea forward?  Does this item check the boxes when examined through the strategic, cultural, and political lenses?  Are we making great use of scarce campus resources?  Will this choice lower our cost while improving the quality of our services?

Outcomes in decision-making at UM have included:

– Cloud and virtualization versus traditional IT backoffice operations.

– An Internet2 connector point in Missoula at 100G.

– A PMO in IT that has immediately engaged in campus-wide IT projects.

– Investment in a student advising application after central funding did not materialize.

– IT Senate improvements of increased/rationalized representation and broadened focus.

– Acquisition of financial planning and BI tools to campus.

– Partnered with Residence Life to creatively finance wireless in residence halls on campus.

4.  Developing IT Leaders

Faced with budget cuts, I proposed investments in MOR leadership development.  My cabinet colleagues shared reservations about IT spending on leadership development during cuts.  I stuck with the idea and we moved forward.  Results in Montana now include:

– A group of IT leaders empowered to dream big, share and see things through. 

– Learning for the CIO about individuals’ capabilities and what they want from leadership.

– IT leaders using their shared language to overcome a variety of IT issues across campus.

None of the fears around the spending for this idea were revisited.  Our President and others from campus continue to comment on the positives of developing leaders in IT.

5.  Alignment of IT Strategy

I inherited an existing IT strategic plan, and a charge to implement.  I quickly noticed that while the plan contained a healthy list of IT improvements, it was not aligned to university strategy.  Despite the charge to implement, I am engaging in new planning to embrace a forward-thinking plan for IT that relates to the institution’s strategic plan, as well as the state’s strategic plan for higher education.

Some of the choices I made are obvious, some were of forced necessity, and others centered on choosing a new, unknown path.  All were a challenge in the context of our university and culture versus ‘safer’ choices.  I believe in making the tougher choices, those are the ones that matter.  As I continue my leadership journey, I draw strength from Annie Stunden and others who challenge us to ‘stretch and learn’.


Matt Riley, Chief Information Officer at the University of Montana and ITLP10 graduate.