Selecting a CIO

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© 2004 Brian L. Hawkins

EDUCAUSE Review, vol. 39, no. 6 (November/December 2004).

Brian L. Hawkins
Brian L. Hawkins is President of EDUCAUSE. Comments on this article can be sent to the author at [email protected].

The CIO (Chief Information Officer) is a relatively new concept in higher education. There have been directors of college and university computer centers for over half a century, but the first CIOs did not appear until the late 1970s. The need for the position in academia really began with the need to manage and coordinate computing and information technology services with the dramatic influx of microcomputers and networks in the early-to-mid 1980s. Today, twenty years later, the concept of a CIO still lacks definition: it has a variety of meanings, manners of being defined and operationalized, and methods for integration within the campus infrastructure, accompanied by an equally diverse set of realistic and unrealistic expectations. As a result, the job of selecting a CIO can be confusing. A framework is needed to help define the CIO position, determine what characteristics make such a CIO effective, and enable campus leaders to successfully recruit and select a CIO for their institution.

Executive Team Involvement

In thinking about hiring a CIO, members of the executive team first need to decide whether they and the campus are prepared to make a commitment to technology, to the executive role of the CIO, and to their own role and responsibility in understanding and managing the information resources within their functional areas and on the campus. These considerations are important to discuss thoroughly and to understand fully before any hiring process is initiated. In a Harvard Business Review article about IT decisions that should not be made by IT people, the point is clearly made that the involvement of the entire executive team—and especially of the president or chancellor—is critical if information technology is to help address strategic issues. The authors of the article state: "An IT department should not be left to make, often by default, the choices that determine the impact of IT on a company’s business strategy." The involvement of the top-level executive leadership in IT decisions is as crucial for colleges and universities as it is for corporate institutions.1

The executive team—and ultimately the CIO candidate—must understand that the role of CIO is not about technology itself; rather, it is about the ability of a campus to achieve its goals and objectives through technology. The focus of the executive team should remain firmly on the institutional mission and should set the tone that technology and decisions about technological innovation must be considered in light of the extent to which the technology advances this mission. This point is best illustrated by a statement by James Duderstadt, former president of the University of Michigan:

Decisions involving digital technology raise very key strategic issues for colleges and universities requiring both attention and understanding at the very highest levels of institutional leadership. Technology is comparable in importance to other key strategic issues such as finance, government relations, and private fund-raising where final responsibility must rest with the president. The pace of change is too great and the consequences of decisions too significant to simply delegate to others such as faculty committees or chief information officers. The road ahead is littered with land mines and tipping points that require informed attention by the executive leadership and governing boards of academic institutions. Leadership on technology issues must come from the president and the provost, with the encouragement and support of the governing board.2

Hiring a CIO does not take technology off of the plates of these senior leaders. Having a CIO is not a surrogate for the active involvement of the chief executive officer, the chief academic officer, and the chief financial officer in decision-making related to information technology across the functions of the campus. Senior campus officers must take responsibility for overseeing the systems that manage the information assets in their domains of responsibility and for working with each other and with the CIO to maximize the institutional effectiveness and efficiency in using technology. Instead of abdicating and distancing themselves from IT, all senior officers must learn more about IT, take more responsibility for IT, and engage in ongoing education so that they can assume these new responsibilities. The CIO must be integrally involved in shaping this education, but ultimately the campus strategy and the commitment of the executive team to work collaboratively will be critical.

Although the CIO will certainly have direct managerial responsibility, the job of managing technology is unlike other line responsibilities. Information technology is not a hierarchical and independent functional area of responsibility. Technology is much more of a spider web, creating and allowing interdependencies among existing structures, and it can potentially be used to break down these often dysfunctional silos on campus. Whereas higher education has historically been organized in vertical administrative structures or silos, technology—as a cross-cutting function—creates horizontal interdependencies that require administrators to manage these campus-wide functions. The CIO has thus been described as an orchestra leader who tries to get various elements within the campus to play together. This coordinative role is absolutely necessary, of course, but one quite appropriate rejoinder to this metaphor is that the role of the CIO is more like that of the leader of a jazz ensemble, who coordinates but also improvises, allowing others to express their own uniqueness and making it all up more or less on the fly. In either case, the role of the CIO is never a solo performance. The CIO must be able to get all units to harmonize, and the ultimate score must be defined by the entire executive team. All members must understand and assume their collective responsibility for the success or failure of the institution’s technology program.

Questions to Ask

The most important element of a successful CIO search is the degree to which the senior administrative team has engaged in the definition of this role and the degree to which it understands the implications of incorporating this position within the campus. The executive leadership must understand and agree on the reasons for hiring a CIO and must commit to making the institutional changes required for the CIO to be effective. The executive team must ask—and answer—several critical questions. It should be noted also that the wise CIO candidate will probe for the answers before accepting the position.

Why Are We Hiring a CIO?

The first step in hiring a CIO is to examine why a CIO is being sought. Is this person being hired to replace a seated CIO who has failed in some way to accomplish what was expected of him/her? Or is this a new position? The hiring process will differ depending on the answer to this question. This needs to be part of the strategic planning and discussion about the need for a new CIO. Having unrealistic expectations or hiring for the wrong reason has been the downfall of many CIO searches.

Whether the search is focused on a replacement because of a bad situation or on the creation of a new position, the first step that the executive team needs to take is to address the "why." Members of the executive team and the CEO must understand what they are trying to accomplish by replacing a current CIO ("What are we trying to fix?") or by creating a new CIO position ("What do we want this position to do for us?"). If there is something that needs to be fixed, the executive team must understand what is currently failing—and why—so that they can do a good job of defining roles and expectations.

Quite often, the decision to hire a CIO follows a period of frustration and dissatisfaction with IT, with the lack of dependable support for technology on campus, and with the existing computing service structure. The idea is to hire a CIO and then to sit back and wait for this messianic person to solve all of the problems. But unless the campus is realistic about the position, the role, and the person, failure is in the offing. There are many examples of this "death by expectation" on campuses. The person hired in a new CIO role cannot be expected to be a technological guru and also someone capable of securing the funding necessary to supplement a legacy of underfunding of technology. No person can solve these problems alone. It is a group process!

If the campus wants this position to succeed, it must force itself to grapple with issues about its own willingness to change and to embrace both this position and an increasing role for technology on campus. Will the existing governance culture permit IT leaders to engage in timely decision-making, which sometimes must be done without the full participation of all interested parties? Can existing budget processes and lead times be modified, or will "the way we have always done it" become a cultural barrier to effective IT management? Not only the executive team but also the search committee and other interested and involved parties need to get engaged early and thoroughly in thinking through these expectations.

What Is the Campus Commitment to IT?

Part of the recognition of the importance of IT as a strategic resource for the campus and of the relevance of IT to campus policy is having realistic expectations regarding what the CIO will be able to accomplish within the context and constraints of the campus culture, values, convictions, and governance conventions. Before launching a search, the executive team needs to come to terms with how prepared the campus is to change—both in terms of supporting the CIO and in terms of dealing with the results of having someone in the CIO role.

The institution needs to be prepared to address budgetary issues associated with the commitment to hire a CIO. When the hiring of a CIO is the result of frustration with ineffective IT services and support, often there is an associated lack of funding, understaffing, or inadequate infrastructure for IT as well. If a campus decides to hire a CIO, it must be prepared to provide adequate support to allow this position to succeed. Comparisons of campus funding can be found via the EDUCAUSE Core Data Service.3 It is likely that the better candidates for the CIO position will have already done these comparisons. Furthermore, to attract a solid candidate, the campus needs to be able to demonstrate its understanding of any possible shortcomings that could affect its expressed mission and goals and must be prepared to explain the extent to which it is willing or able to address these shortcomings as part of the commitment to the IT environment.

An example is the recruitment and retention of IT staff. Although the dot-com bust has relieved some of the pressure, at least for the moment, of finding and keeping qualified IT personnel, this is a difficult and ongoing challenge. No longer can most campuses hire qualified IT staff significantly below the market level outside of higher education, as was once the case. Furthermore, retaining such individuals is an increasing challenge and requires a commitment to ongoing professional development and continuing education. If a campus is to get what it is paying for, it must continue to invest in these personnel; the speed of change within technology requires continually updated skills. These needs may require IT staff training and development procedures that are more innovative, less traditional, and more expensive than in other areas of the college or university. These are the kinds of "tools" that allow the CIO to be successful and that will make a given position attractive. In short, the campus needs to be committed and willing to support the candidate in helping the institution succeed with IT.

What Is a Chief Information Officer?

This article focuses on the CIO who serves as the chief technology officer, rather than the CIO who oversees both the library and the technology areas (as is the case for many CIOs in smaller institutions). The concept of a "chief information officer" originated in a piece by William R. Synnott and William H. Gruber in 1981.4 They suggested that the CIO should be

  • a member of the senior administrative team,
  • a manager of the technology and other information resources,
  • the individual responsible for IT planning,
  • the individual responsible for the development of new systems,
  • the individual responsible for policy development, and
  • a participant in the overall institutional strategic planning processes.

"Information Technology Leadership in Higher Education: The Condition of the Community," a study published by the EDUCAUSE Center for Applied Research (ECAR) in February 2004, suggested that approximately half of the top IT positions in higher education could be considered in this CIO definition, up considerably from a study done about a decade ago.5

Before recruiting for the CIO role, the executive team must ask several key organizational questions, the answers to which will affect the definition of the role of the CIO as well as the desirability of the position from a candidate’s point of view. Minimally, there are three questions:

1. Where does this position report in the organization? The reporting role of information technology has historically been a function of the campus and of the initial use of IT on that campus. In research institutions, that initial use of IT was in the academic arena, whereas in many smaller and less research-oriented institutions, the initial use of IT was in administrative areas such as billing and registration. In addition, many campuses had (and some still have) separate academic and administrative computing centers, resulting in multiple reporting relationships on campus. With the advent of microcomputers and networking in the early-to-mid 1980s, many campuses started to revisit whether they should have separate centers and what the appropriate reporting relationship was for the campus. With the increasing importance of IT in achieving campus goals and enabling needed changes on campus, these considerations of where IT should report need to be continually evaluated.

According to the data of the 2003 EDUCAUSE Core Data Service, about 30% of CIO positions reported to the president or CEO, about 28% reported to the top academic officer, and about 33% reported to the top-level administrative or financial officer.6 However, there were significant differences in these patterns when the Carnegie classification was considered. Community colleges averaged 43% reporting to the president, while this was true for only 28% of baccalaureate institutions. Doctoral and baccalaureate institutions were most likely to have the CIO report to the chief academic officer, but this was least common in community colleges. Reporting to the top administrative or financial officer was most common in baccalaureate institutions and least common among doctoral institutions. Knowing what similar institutions are doing is useful in understanding the overall market and milieu for CIOs, but the direct reporting relationship is often focused on too much. The key point is whether the CIO is part of the executive decision-making team on a campus. The reporting relationship is completely independent of this second issue.

2. Does this position sit on the presidential cabinet? Many prospective CIOs have rejected the offer of a position because the CIO did not sit on the president’s cabinet. This issue is of increasing importance to candidates seeking the CIO position. Many do not feel that they can accomplish the kind of institutional transformation that IT promises or meet the expectations of the campus community without the chance to be part of the executive team. The reporting relationship is another signal to CIO candidates of the institution’s understanding of, and commitment to, the CIO and of the institution’s willingness to grapple with the financial and political consequences of establishing such a position.

The EDUCAUSE Core Data Service findings indicate that about 44% of all top-level IT positions served on the president’s cabinet in 2003. Sitting on the president’s cabinet was most common for community colleges and doctoral institutions and least common for baccalaureate schools (35%). This percentage is substantially higher than the 30% of CIOs who actually report to the president. This inclusion of IT in the campus executive decision-making body helps the CIO in understanding competing priorities, strategic issues, and the campus mission and in making technology investments accordingly. In addition, having the CIO involved in these discussions helps leaders of other campus functions understand how they might more effectively integrate IT into their own operations. The ECAR study "Information Technology Leadership in Higher Education" notes: "Senior-most IT leader respondents who are members of the president’s/chancellor’s cabinet have significantly more interactions with higher-level executives and the governing board, make greater use of planning processes and models, and participate more in non-IT institutional decisions."7

3. What should this position be called? The title of the top-level IT position is incredibly varied across institutions. Interestingly, there is evidence that the title may have some impact on the perceived desirability of the position to prospective candidates. In the Core Data Service findings, there were 294 unique titles given by the 822 respondents. This is largely because of the wide variation in where IT reports. It should be noted that there are enormous differences in the patterns of titles for different Carnegie classifications of schools. A vice presidential or vice chancellor title occurs in about 20% of all schools but in more than 37% of doctoral institutions. The most common titles of the entire sample were dean, director, and executive director, which were the titles often used in baccalaureate institutions and community colleges. According to the findings, 29% of these positions were either called "CIO" or had "CIO" embedded in them, such as "associate vice president and CIO." The title is just one more way that a campus can send the message that IT is important.

CIO Characteristics and Criteria

Linda Fleit has provided an excellent summary of what is needed in this position. She lists the following requirements for a Chief Information Officer (CIO):

First, and most important, the person should have a vision about the role of information technology in higher education and some clear ideas about where it can make the greatest contributions at your institution. Then:

1) excellent oral and written communications skills, including listening as well, and an ability to communicate well with and at all levels of the institution;
2) the ability to form alliances and relationships with key campus constituents to make sure that all information technology efforts are in line with the institution’s goals;
3) the ability to work collaboratively and effectively, both with one’s staff and with one’s peers;
4) the ability to make and stick to hard decisions that are in the institution’s best interests, combined with the agility to stay flexible and open at all times;
5) the ability to manage resources in an environment where the demand is far greater than the supply; and of course,
6) deep expertise in at least one aspect of the technology itself.

Most of these requirements involve managerial and leadership skills, not technical skills. Although the last bullet was certainly more than an afterthought, the need for technical expertise is far less prominent than it was just a few years ago. Increasingly, the CIO must assume a more generalized role, acting as teacher, facilitator, coach, and partner.

There is no defined career path for CIOs, nor is there any certification, degree, or even common body of knowledge that such a person should have mastered in order to fulfill this kind of position effectively. Like the search for any other executive position, finding the right CIO is more about aligning personal traits, skills, professional orientation, proven success, and vision with a given campus culture and climate. Thus, the following qualities should be emphasized in the CIO job description.

Strong Communication Skills

The CIO needs to be a very good communicator, and most important, the individual must be adept at dealing with a host of different audiences. One CIO reported that the president of the institution with which he was interviewing asked him, "What is the strongest attribute that you bring to the job?" The candidate responded that he was multilingual. Somewhat perplexed, the president asked him to explain, and the candidate went on to say that he felt he was versatile and effective in talking with faculty, with students, with trustees, with vendors, with colleagues in different administrative positions, and with many others. This ability to effectively deal with multiple audiences and get the "buy in" for technological changes is essential to being a CIO.

The CIO also needs to be a coalition builder, which requires a strong ability to listen. He or she needs to be relatively facile in public speaking as well, since the position often involves putting forth future plans and doing so in a persuasive manner. This persuasion will ultimately depend on the individual’s credibility, which in turn depends on two critical elements that should be explored during the interview process. First, the candidate should present the capabilities of the technology realistically, not overselling technology and its benefits. Second, if the candidate is going to sit on the president’s cabinet, this person should be able to converse reasonably about key issues facing the other senior officers. Does the candidate have at least a passing familiarity with grants and contracts, with the challenges of intercollegiate athletics, and with financial aid pressures? Does the candidate understand spending rules on endowments, or the nature of formula funding, so that financial plans can be made reasonably? Does the candidate know about the kinds of tools that humanists use, as well as those in the physical sciences in terms of academic applications? To be effective, the CIO (perhaps more than most other senior executives) needs to have a working knowledge of a variety of areas so that the administrative and academic systems that are being supported by IT can best serve the changing needs of these other areas and thus the campus.

Boundary-Spanning Ability

Directly related to a candidate’s communication skills is the ability of the candidate to easily cross over the artificial, but often immense, boundaries between silos in the campus organization. As mentioned in the last section, the person must have credibility that is borne from a working knowledge of many different functions within the campus. The individual most certainly will be seen as an advocate for technology, but he or she also needs to be perceived as realistic and fair. The CIO must be a team player, someone who tries to advance the campus agenda. Since technology is so intertwined with change, the CIO must be a change agent, since change management will occupy much of this person’s time. However, the person in this role is not the campus change agent. To portray oneself in this regard, or to be perceived as trying to assume this role, will lead to failure. The effective CIO understands that in advocating for technological change, his or her ultimate credibility comes from effectively communicating and realistically evaluating the goals, costs, options, tradeoffs, and risks associated with pursuing a proposed technological direction, implementation, or innovation. The CIO must be an active participant in campus discussions and must be able to help other institutional leaders understand the complexities of information resources, service delivery, technologies, and the information demands of the community. Likewise, CIO candidates should assess the ability of the members of the executive team to comprehend and assimilate the key technical issues under debate at any given time. In the ECAR study "Information Technology Leadership in Higher Education," sitting CIOs were asked to name the top three issues that were instrumental to success. They answered (1) the ability to communicate effectively, (2) strategic thinking and planning, and (3) an understanding of business processes and operations.9 It is this third element that is all too often ignored both in the performance of CIOs and in searches for CIOs.

Leadership Ability

Undoubtedly, leadership ability is a truly amorphous quality. Leadership involves more than being a good manager; it consists of having a dream and being able to get others to also want to strive for this vision. A history of this ability should be obvious in a candidate’s previous positions, since leadership is not something that is bestowed upon an individual when he or she attains a top-level position. Leadership is something that individuals show at every level in the organization. On the other hand, it is not something that emerges in every setting or circumstance, and it is not an innate quality. Leadership has to do with a situational context and the ability to bring others together for a shared goal. CIO candidates should thus be able to identify where they have exhibited leadership in the past. At the same time, CIO candidates should assess whether the campus culture and governance conventions will permit the CIO to lead appropriately.

Finally, the CIO must be actively involved in policy issues relating to IT and must be capable of effectively incorporating these issues in executive team discussions and regular IT operations. Aligning campus policy with federal policy, regulatory demands, and campus operations is a major role of the CIO, and the awareness of this role and of relevant policy issues is increasingly important.

Other Considerations

Degree requirements. Many CIO searches limit their candidate pools by starting out with the requirement that the candidate hold an earned doctorate. A recent ECAR report found that of the senior-most IT officials on campus, 78% had an advanced degree and 22% had a Ph.D. However, a degree alone does not ensure success, and imposing such a requirement may work against a successful search.

On the other hand, it is absolutely imperative that a person have a reasonably strong understanding of the academic environment. Although there certainly have been exceptions, many of the CIOs who have been brought into a college atmosphere from business, industry, or the military have had very difficult struggles learning to work effectively within the academic milieu. Consensus decision-making and faculty governance are foreign and often frustrating to such transplants. Having the ability to walk into a job and be able to sit down and both understand and demonstrate that understanding and value for the faculty committees that they will work with is extremely important.

Again, the CIO need not have gone through a doctoral program to have an appreciation of campus culture, faculty perspectives, and academic priorities. To further restrict the market by requiring that a candidate have a doctorate in computer science or some related field probably adds little in terms of specific skills or abilities that are essential to the success of the CIO.

Technological skills and understanding. The CIO is the lead technology position for the campus, but this person need not be the "best" technologist or the most technologically savvy person that a campus can find. Although many CIOs are indeed enormously talented and extremely knowledgeable technologists, these skills alone do not ensure success as a CIO. The individual, no matter how technologically advanced, must depend on and trust the capabilities and advice of others—specialists in networking, applications development, and the like. These "other" sources may be staff within the IT unit, faculty in computer science, colleagues at other institutions, or fellow members of professional associations. A CIO who can draw on an informal network of colleagues and informational resources is better for the institution in terms of the breadth and depth of knowledge that can be applied.

In addition, the CIO must be someone who understands both the possibilities and the limits of technology and who can adequately explain both. Caution should be exhibited if a candidate wants to create a "showcase" for technology. The CIO’s role is not to focus attention on the technology but to emphasize the opportunities that are possible through the effective use of technology.

Management experience. The CIO is the lead administrator of a functional unit with a potentially large budget and complex staff. This position thus requires significant skills in terms of managing budgets and supervising staff. Hiring a person with little experience in these routine managerial responsibilities would be a serious mistake. It is also imperative that this person be able to delegate effectively and to create redundancy in the organization, since the demands for IT services don’t observe vacations or campus breaks. Faculty, staff, and students have become dependent on technology, and the expectation that technology services will be available 24x7 is only growing. Therefore, the CIO must create a staff structure that can handle these demands within the resource constraints that have been given to the CIO and the campus. This calls for creative and effective management, delegation, and resource allocation skills.

The Hiring Process

The following section highlights some of the important steps of the hiring process, not so much from a logistics and human resources point of view, since those issues must emerge from specific campus policies and practices, as from the perspective of decisions that a campus will need to make and issues that it will need to be aware of while conducting the CIO search.

Internal vs. External

Before getting too far into the development of complex search procedures, a campus should consider whether or not there is an "inside" candidate that would be the best choice for such a position. Looking inside should be the first strategy, one that is given serious consideration. Because of the communication, boundary-spanning, and political nature of this position, if an outside candidate is chosen, he or she will probably need a year and a half to get fully up to speed, earn the trust and respect of other players, and be able to act on agreed-upon initiatives. If there is someone within the campus community—someone who has been involved with technology, has gained management experience, and is a trusted member of the community—this new hire can avoid the time lag necessary for the learning curve and can hit the road running. All too often, an associate dean or other insiders are not even thought of for such a position because they are not technological gurus or have not held such a position before. This is a mistake, since a talented person can learn about the technology or can hire the technical expertise that he or she may lack. Again, a clear idea of the position is essential, but if a campus accepts the definition of this role as someone who facilitates change, not someone who develops and implements the technology, then searching inside and developing the talents of an existing staff member or faculty member may well be the best strategy for a campus.

Search Firms

Another decision is whether or not a campus should use a professional search firm to aid in identifying and recruiting a CIO. The use of search firms for the CIO position began in the mid-to-late 1980s and has increased since then, largely due to the difficulty of filling these positions. Although the use of a search firm is probably unlikely at smaller institutions and at many public institutions, it is an option in other cases. A campus should carefully evaluate this course of action, recognizing what these firms offer and what they cost and then weighing the tradeoffs for its particular situation.

This section was written on the basis of both personal experience and the experiences of a number of CIOs who were placed by or who used search firms. These experiences may or may not be generalizable to a given firm or "headhunter," but they are provided here to increase awareness of this practice.

No search firm specializes in this area or has any unique skills related to CIO searches. On the whole, search firms do not have pools of candidates for CIO positions, as they often do for presidential or other senior position searches. Some do, but campuses often complain that these pools are "stale" or that they consist of IT candidates who are from outside of the higher education community (and who thus do not have the needed cultural understanding). Another concern is that search firms may push a candidate with whom they are working. Perhaps the strongest advice given by any of those who have dealt with search firms is to make sure you know which individual search consultant will be doing the search, since it is that person—not the firm—with whom your campus will be interacting. It is his or her talents, personality, and skills that you are hiring, not the resources of the firm.

Search firms do not have any candidate sources that a campus does not also have access to. But this is the job of search firms, and their pay depends on finding an acceptable candidate; hence they are far more aggressive than the traditional search committee in trying to work the network. The most important quality that such firms have is persistence. A search firm consultant may contact people several times to try to persuade them to consider allowing their name to be included in a search. Unlike the average search committee, search firms tend not to take "no" for an answer, especially for particularly attractive candidates. This is a lesson that should be learned and acted on by more search committees. Many sitting CIOs are not interested in perusing the job-listing service of EDUCAUSE or the jobs section of the Chronicle of Higher Education. They are not particularly unhappy or restless and so are not thinking about applying for another position. Seeking them out and inviting them to allow their names to be considered is perhaps the only way they will enter the job pool. For example, one candidate admitted repeatedly expressing a lack of interest in moving but also noted feeling compelled to consider the question, "Is there any set of circumstances that might lead you to decide to leave?" Exploring what those circumstances might be, and whether there is any feasibility that a campus might meet them, is a worthwhile exercise for current CIOs.

Search firms also potentially add value because they have been through these processes many times, they know what to expect, and they provide support and management resources. They can ensure that the search is proceeding in an efficient and timely manner. A campus should evaluate whether it can staff the search process to guarantee timeliness; if not, a search firm may be a good alternative. Since a campus will have costs associated with managing the search whether or not a search firm is used, it should weigh the monetary costs and the perceived qualitative benefits of using such a firm.

Hiring a search firm is not a way for the executive leadership on campus to avoid understanding the role of and expectations for the CIO. For all of the reasons already stated, the executives need to internalize the structural, budgetary, and strategic issues associated with pursuing a CIO. No search firm has a better idea than campus leaders of what an individual might offer, what the right chemistry is, or what is best for the institution.

The Search Committee

Undoubtedly, a search committee will be established to work with the senior officer who is doing the hiring for the CIO position. The committee needs to understand—and agree with—the job definition and requirements of this position, as defined by the executive team. This is likely to be the first group that the senior administration will need to educate about the role of the new CIO, and this group, in turn, will need to help inform the rest of the campus about the expected role of and hopes for the CIO.

The search committee must be representative of many, if not all, of the functional areas served by IT. This is not a position that is entirely academic or entirely administrative. Having two homogeneous but distinct committees is an approach almost guaranteed to ensure failure. Nor should this committee consist entirely of technology zealots or aficionados. The committee must represent a variety of interests. Finally, all of the key leaders should agree not only to sign on to the committee but also to actively participate. Rather than sending their assistant deans or other proxies, they need to read the resumes, participate in the interviews, and clear their schedules accordingly.

Although the search committee’s basic charge may be to conduct the search and make recommendations, this group must be adequately staffed so that the entire process will be managed efficiently. This is true in any case, but it is especially true if the campus decides to conduct the search itself rather than hire the services of a search firm. The process cannot be allowed to drag on. Whoever manages the process needs to perform a variety of tasks, such as developing a pool of candidates, checking references, and keeping candidates informed of the status of the process; all of these tasks are time-consuming, yet they need to be handled expeditiously and efficiently so that good candidates do not get frustrated and drop out. Staffing this process and making it a primary responsibility of the individual who is handling the search is important. If the search is to be successful, this is not something that can be done in one’s spare time.

Where to Look

Finding a CIO generally involves a national search: it is unlikely that a local or regional search will yield an adequate pool of candidates. Searching for a CIO is essentially the same as searching for any other senior officer; advertisements need to be placed in the Chronicle and specialized journals. A campus should also plan on posting the position with the EDUCAUSE job-listing service (, which receives a high degree of traffic by IT professionals. There is no charge for this service, but it is available only to EDUCAUSE members.

To develop more professionals who are capable of providing leadership in these complex CIO roles, EDUCAUSE, the Council on Library and Information Resources (CLIR), and Emory University created the Frye Leadership Institute ( About forty-five participants are selected from an applicant pool that is annually in excess of two hundred. Soon after this program was established, search firms started looking to obtain lists of Frye graduates to add to their potential search pools.10 The Frye Leadership Institute, along with the other EDUCAUSE management and leadership institutes, can be beneficial to a campus interested in "growing its own" IT leadership. Again, searching inside an organization may well be the best way to obtain effective leadership to work within the culture of the institution.

The CIO advertisements and position postings are the usual kind—relatively passive in nature. However, because of the relatively small labor pool of CIOs, a more active approach is worth considering. A campus should identify CIOs who are already in positions in comparable institutions and should contact them to find out whether they might be interested in exploring the position or whether they might have suggestions about colleagues who either are in the market or would be good to consider. Because of the small and fairly well connected community, chasing this interpersonal network is not all that difficult. And working this network will probably be a more fruitful set of exercises than engaging in the usual passive actions.

Reference Checking

As a result of its search, a campus can now compile a list of possible candidates (not to be confused with finalists) to be considered further. This list should be kept relatively short (seven to nine candidates) in order to make the process manageable. Although resumes or CVs give the candidates’ history, all too many campuses make the mistake of falling for a pedigree and becoming enamored with the institutions where an individual has worked. Obviously, a campus should look for the usual things, such as steady career progress with increasing responsibility, raising an eye when it appears that the person has been job-hopping. In addition, now is the time to go deeper than the paper.

The next two steps that a campus should take are all too often ignored or forgotten. First, a campus should conduct phone interviews with the candidates in order to fill in holes or answer questions, to find out their interest in the job, to learn what isn’t in the cover letter or resume, and to get a sense of the individuals, their ability to communicate, and their sense of self. More than one person from the campus search committee should be on the call, so that afterward they can compare their perceptions and document what they learned. However, it is unwise to have the whole committee involved in a call, since this leads to confusion and a lack of focus. The calls should be set up in advance so that the candidate knows what the call is about, has set aside adequate time, and is aware of which people will be calling and what their roles are on campus. All of this needs to be handled discreetly: deciding on an agreeable time and finding a phone number where the candidate can be reached without notifying his or her staff that the candidate may be exploring other job opportunities. Since many people have others reviewing their mail, candidates should be contacted directly by phone, without expressing the intent of the call, so that a respectful and professional relationship can be established, one that doesn’t embarrass or compromise the potential candidate.

Second, either during this call or in a subsequent call, the campus should ask the candidate for a list of references (even if a list was already sent) and should explain that the search committee would like to talk with some of these people, thus giving the candidate time to alert his or her references that they might expect a call. At this initial stage of reference checking, only those references that the candidate has provided should be contacted; the candidates are not yet finalists, and a more through checking can and will be done later in the process. Search committee members should be aware of this and should not talk in too much detail with friends or colleagues who may have had contact with the potential candidate. (This too should be part of the later process.)

A campus should conduct these reference interviews relatively closely together, so that the process doesn’t get strung out and also so that search committee members can recall recommendations and can compare them more accurately. The committee also needs to decide how to document the outcomes of each interview and to compare these results in order to narrow the pool of candidates to a small group of finalists. The committee should remember that these are the people selected by the candidate; they are friends. It is unlikely that these references will give much other than positive information, and so the interviewers need to push the interview, probing on areas of concern and listening for anything that is not being said and for any between-the-lines statements. These references want to assist the candidate. In addition, in this overly litigious society, most people are reluctant to say anything negative, so hypothetical and situational questions may be the search committee’s best course of action. The CIO job is about process, not just accomplishments, so a good idea would be to pursue "how" candidates went about achieving the things they have accomplished. These interviews are vehicles to learning more about the candidates, to identifying areas that the committee may want to probe if the candidate is selected as a finalist, and to learning about the intangibles that these references believe the candidate would bring to the job.

Interviewing the Finalists

The interviewing process consists of several stages: pre-interview contact; the interview; the exit interview; and campus follow-up. The first challenge, however, concerns confidentiality.

Confidentiality. Academia is a very small world, and the IT world in higher education is even smaller. With e-mail traffic being what it is, a CIO job search will generate back-channel talk, and finalists may easily find out who else is being interviewed. The campus must do everything it can to keep the search confidential and to move expeditiously so as to mitigate any related problems. Although some public institutions require open searches and must identify candidates in order to honor "sunshine laws," this may keep some candidates from entering the search or may cause viable candidates to drop out as the public phase of the search begins. For a campus, maintaining confidentiality is a ticklish balance between respecting the candidates and exercising due diligence.

Pre-interview contact. Once the finalists have been decided on, they should be contacted directly to let them know they are finalists, to inform them about the next stages of the search process, to explain what further information will be sent, and to ask (or provide the opportunity for them to ask in the future) for additional information that would make the campus visit more productive. Before the visit, each finalist should be sent a significant, but not overwhelming, set of background materials. These should include such things as budgets, organizational charts, and strategic plans. The candidate should be given a list of search committee members and other individuals with whom they will meet, as well as titles and e-mail addresses. The candidate should be sent a schedule for the campus visit, and the search coordinator should go over this agenda ahead of time, being prepared to explain the reasons behind the various meetings and giving the candidate a chance to ask questions and/or request clarifications. The questions candidates ask, and the dialogue about the search process, can inform the search coordinator about their thinking process, their inquisitiveness, and the degree to which they have done their homework.

The interview. When the candidate is on campus, the search committee needs to remember that this is a two-way process: the campus is trying to select an individual at the same time that the individual is trying to decide whether or not to select the campus. The campus therefore should not only select a candidate but also present an accurate but positive impression of the campus, convincing the individual that the institution is a good place to work and that the position is an attractive job opportunity. A bad search process can turn off a good candidate. A bad search process is one that is being poorly managed and disorganized or one that makes the candidate feel put down or gives a sense that the level of campus commitment to the CIO or to IT just isn’t there. Finally, during the search process, executive involvement cannot be delegated.

Ahead of the interview, a common set of questions asked of all candidates should be drawn up. Search committee members should avoid being formulaic or rehearsed, but having a common core of issues to be addressed by all of the candidates is necessary for direct comparisons. This does not mean that identical scripts should be used for all meetings. The interview is an opportunity to probe and to push the candidate. Adequate time should be set aside to answer the candidate’s questions as well. There also needs to be a systematic and predetermined manner of getting feedback to the search coordinator and of doing so in a timely fashion so that possible follow-up questions and clarifications can occur in subsequent interviews. Finally, the search committee needs to execute a candidate-evaluation plan that was decided on ahead of time.

Time with the candidate should be maximized. Available time—including breakfasts, working lunches, etc.—should be booked, though some time should be left open for follow-ups that were not initially planned. The campus should be prepared to adapt, because the interviews will not be carbon copies of one another. Lastly, members of the search team should act as escorts from one interview or meeting to the next—in order to keep the candidates on schedule, to make them feel comfortable, and mostly, to capture every minute to interrogate them, get their informal reactions, and see how the interview is proceeding from their point of view.

The exit interview. The exit interview (or interviews) is important as both a right of passage and an important element of the hiring process, providing a sense of closure to the visit. The campus should use this opportunity to learn whether the candidate is still interested in the position, what his or her concerns are, and what obstacles he or she may perceive to doing the job as defined. Exit interviews may be arranged with the committee, alone with the person to whom the candidate will be reporting to, and possibly with the campus CEO (if different from the direct report) to indicate the campus interest and the importance of this position. Even if the candidate, by this time, doesn’t look like the right fit for the campus, the various parties should still listen to the candidate’s impressions, concerns, and observations, since these may shed insight into things the campus should be doing, whether or not this is the right person to do them.

During the exit interview, the candidates who are still in the running from the campus perspective and who indicate an interest in further pursuing the position should be informed that the campus will begin a set of reference checks that go beyond the lists provided by the candidates. This indicates that the campus is serious about the candidates and that it will conduct due diligence. This ought to be the practice in all searches, but it seldom occurs in a thorough or systematic fashion. The candidates may be asked for names of former supervisors and others, but the candidates should know that other sources will also be sought and investigated. Although this can be handled professionally, total confidentiality can no longer be ensured, since these people may talk to friends and colleagues and word may get out.

In higher education hiring, this element is performed least well and is not pursued nearly as aggressively as it should be. All too often, search committees look at the short list provided by the candidate and stop there. Since higher education is such a small community, and since there are many interconnections among people who have worked at many different campuses, it is foolish not to exploit these associations and to obtain a variety of perceptions of a candidate’s reputation and effectiveness in current or previous positions. Although the search committee members’ colleagues at the candidate’s home campus may not have direct knowledge of the person, they will undoubtedly have impressions or will know people who have had more direct interaction with the candidate and who could be contacted to be interviewed.

When a person hired does not turn out to be what a campus thought the candidate might be (for any executive-level position), quite often there was information that was available but that wasn’t tapped, information that could have provided forewarning if more due diligence had been exercised. This process of conducting follow-up reference-checking through informal networks should be undertaken whether or not a search firm is used. Even though firms usually perform the obligatory checks, most headhunters do not have available to them anything comparable to the informal academic network. On the other hand, a campus should not let a single (or even a few) comments negate a given candidate, since people can make enemies by doing good things. But the campus needs to make sure that there isn’t a pattern or that there aren’t more deep-rooted and systemic concerns being aired through these alternative references. These colleagues should identify others for follow-up conversations. Additional interviews can reduce or eliminate any regrets that a campus might have later, after a person is hired.

Campus follow-up. The entire hiring process needs to be handled with exceptional courtesy and professionalism. Candidates who are eliminated should be notified quickly, so that they are not left in the dark about the process, but this also needs to be done discreetly (probably by sending materials to a home address) so as not to embarrass the individual. Those finalists, and perhaps semi-finalists, who are eliminated should receive a phone call informing them that they are no longer being considered. Throughout the process, candidates should be kept fully aware of the search process, the expected timeline, the status of that plan, and similar details. There is no better way to turn off candidates than to leave them with no feedback. Finally, reimbursement for travel expenses must occur in a timely fashion; again, failure to do so reflects badly on the campus. All of these things need to be done by the campus or by the search firm, and the search coordinator should make sure that these aspects of the search process are being handled efficiently and professionally.


Finding an effective campus IT leader is not an easy task. Doing so takes more energy and active effort on the part of the higher education institution than a typical search because of the combination of skills required and the limited market pool currently available. The campus needs to find a person who sees himself or herself not only as an IT professional but as someone capable of leading the IT unit and managing the available resources in support of the academic mission. Just as important, the campus must carefully examine the institutional commitment, including the institutional resolve to implement the changes that will allow both the CIO search and the individual selected to succeed. The campus cannot hope to capitalize on its investment in information technology until it comes to terms with its own expectations and obligations.


1. Jeanne W. Ross and Peter Weill, "Six IT Decisions Your IT People Shouldn’t Make," Harvard Business Review, November 2002, 86. The points made in this article were considered in the context of higher education in David Ward and Brian L. Hawkins, "Presidential Leadership for Information Technology," EDUCAUSE Review, vol. 38, no. 3 (May/June 2003): 36–47,

2. James J. Duderstadt, Daniel E. Atkins, and Douglas Van Houweling, Higher Education in the Digital Age: Technology Issues and Strategies for American Colleges and Universities, ACE/Praeger Series on Higher Education (Westport, Conn.: Oryx Press, 2002), 181-82.

3. The EDUCAUSE Core Data Service ( consists of a Web-based survey, a Web-based database service available to those who participate in the survey, and a publicly available annual survey summary report.

4. William R. Synnott and William H. Gruber, Information Resource Management: Opportunities and Strategies for the 1980s (New York: Wiley, 1981).

5. Richard N. Katz et al., "Information Technology Leadership in Higher Education: The Condition of the Community," EDUCAUSE Center for Applied Research Study, 2004, vol. 1 (February 19, 2004): 24,

6. The categorized results are available online: For those schools that participate in the EDUCAUSE Core Data Service Survey, a Web-based database service allows for direct comparison to specific institutions that are perceived to be relevant comparison points.

7. Katz et al., "Information Technology Leadership in Higher Education," 83.

8. Linda Fleit, The EDUTECH Report, vol. 15, no. 3, p. 8

9. Katz et al., "Information Technology Leadership in Higher Education," 83, 85.

10. Lists of those Frye Leadership Institute graduates who have agreed to allow their names to be distributed are available by contacting the CLIR offices in Washington, D.C.: