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23 CIOs on Looking Ahead

| April 13, 2021

by Sean McDonald

[Today’s Tuesday Reading is from Sean McDonald, Vice-President of MOR Associates and David Sweetman, MOR Associates Leadership Coach and Consultant. They may be reached at [email protected] and [email protected].]
We recently had a number of MOR program graduations.  Graduations are a wonderful time in celebrating the accomplishments of our program participants, as well as looking to what’s ahead.  At these capstone events, we regularly invite CIOs from the sponsoring institutions to share insights from their unique vantage points.  Over the past six months, we hosted panels where CIOs shared their insights (those CIOs are listed at the bottom of this message).  For this Tuesday Reading we offer to you the six main themes we heard time and again throughout those remarks by the CIOs.  These themes focus on what competencies are most important for leaders going forward.
In short the CIOs stressed the importance of being strategic, flexible, agile, gritty, empathetic, social, and be you.  Easy, right?  Wrong.  The insights from these CIOs articulates a collective wisdom of how we can be our best now and in the time ahead.

  • Be strategic.  Strategy is about best directing resources to fulfill the missions of our institutions.  This includes applying what we’ve learned through the pandemic and what we know about IT to plan for the future.  It also involves a deep understanding of university priorities, challenges, and opportunities, and how we can rise to the occasion to address them.  We are in a unique position within our universities given the breadth of needs we see when working to align to priorities.  We are higher education leaders first, technology leaders second.  Both broad numeric data and rich individual stories are helpful in our ability to shape strategy.  We need to identify solutions, not just problems.  The person and organization with the plans are those who succeed.


  • Be flexible and agile.  To be flexible is to bend easily without breaking, to be agile is to move quickly and easily.  We must quickly adapt to changing circumstances and be experts in managing ambiguity.  There is so much outside of our control, and outside the control of our institutions.  Circumstances change and change quickly.  Our flexibility and agility enables us to remain focused on the core missions of our institutions even at a time when how we deliver to those missions is regularly changing and evolving.  This change and evolution will continue in the time ahead.  Additionally, in time of change, when we see opportunities, be flexible and agile to seize them and do something with them.


  • Be gritty.  It’s not enough to be flexible and agile, which can sometimes be reactive.  We must also be proactive in our passion and perseverance toward the long-term.  Different CIOs expressed this idea in different ways – initiate, be bold, be brave, have confidence, don’t wait for permission, lead from where you are.  The core idea is to pursue opportunities when you see them.  However, when you’re running after that opportunity with passion, make sure you’re aligned and running in the same direction as the institution.  Grit is not only about this passion, it’s also about perseverance.  We will encounter challenges along the way.  Persist in the face of those difficulties and hold yourself accountable to delivering the results you envision are possible.


  • Be collaborative.  Relationships matter.  A positive outcome of the pandemic has been increased focus and alignment in collaborative and rapid decision-making.  A negative outcome of the pandemic has been far fewer chance encounters from physical proximity in regularly seeing others.  Maintaining existing relationships and building new relationships now requires much more intention – both with colleagues at our institution and in the broader community.  While that intention requires more effort, the outcome is no less important.  Where it has become easier to stay in our small bubbles, be sure you are communicating, celebrating successes, and finding other ways to continue to nurture the relationships that are such important currency to our work as leaders.


  • Be empathetic.  During the time our work-world has been turned upside down, so too the personal lives of each and every person.  Each person’s story is a unique set of circumstances.  More than ever, we need to understand and appreciate the challenging time each person is facing.  We need to listen more and to assume good intentions.  We need to help our staff feel connected with colleagues, feel valued for the important work they do, feel reassured amidst so much uncertainty, and to see pathways to achieving results where there may be new challenges.  Also be brave in your empathy; have the challenging conversations that sometimes need to occur.


  • Be you.  You matter.  To thy own self be true.  If we only focus on the five items above, we personally can be left feeling drained and exhausted.  We need to be empathetic to ourselves, to be aware of what we need in order to be our best self, to set boundaries, and provide ourselves what we need.  We can only be genuine in our empathy to others if we are brave enough to confront our own fragilities.  If we don’t take care of ourselves, it’s hard for anyone else to do so.  It’s also hard for us to take care of others.  Role model resilience.  This includes balance as well as thinking of our professional path and how we continue to learn and grow.

Is it easy to be exceptional or consistent in all of these competencies? Hardly. We are all a work in progress investing in building our capabilities over time. We each continue to evolve and strive to do our best and reach our potential in service to the important work of our institutions.  It is intentional and hard work to be the leader we each strive to be and know we can be.  We cannot do it alone.  What can we each do as part of our community of leaders to best heed this insightful perspective?
CIO Remarks Leveraged for this Article

Sue Workman, CIO and VP University Technology, Case Western Reserve University
Melissa Woo, CIO and Executive VP for Administration, Michigan State University
Don Welch, CIO and VP IT, Penn State University
Phil Thorson, Interim CIO, St. Cloud State University
Jenn Stringer, CIO and AVC IT, University of California, Berkeley
Len Peters, CIO and VP, New York University     
Michele Norin, CIO and Sr. VP, Rutgers University
Anne Margulies, CIO and VP, Harvard University 
Jane Livingston, CIO and AVP, Florida State University
Ron Kraemer, Interim CIO and VP IT, University of Notre Dame 
Klara Jelinkova, CIO and VP International Operations, Rice University 
Michael Hoffher, CIO and VP, The Ohio State University
Michael Hites, CIO, Southern Methodist University
Curt Heintz, Deputy CIO, MIT Lincoln Laboratory
Casey Gordon, CIO and Professor, College of Saint Benedict and Saint John’s University
Steve Gallagher, CIO, Stanford University
Wes Esser, CIO, MIT Sloan School
Jay Dominick, CIO and VP IT, Princeton University
Cathy Curley, CIO, University of Michigan College of Literature, Science, and the Arts
Ed Clark, CIO and VP, University of St. Thomas
Ron Chandler, CIO, Harvard Business School
Lois Brooks, CIO and Vice Provost for IT, University of Wisconsin-Madison
David Baisley, Deputy CIO, Carnegie Mellon University