Clients Get It, So Must We

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Leadership [Views from the Top]

Marilyn A. McMillan is Vice President for Information Technology and Chief Information Technology Officer for New York University

In October 2011, EDUCAUSE granted its highest honor, the Leadership Award (sponsored by SunGard Higher Education, an EDUCAUSE Platinum Partner), to Marilyn A. McMillan. McMillan became NYU's first Chief Information Technology Officer in 1998. Before NYU, she held numerous IT leadership roles at MIT and Stanford. She has been one of the foremost leaders in the profession not just because of what she has accomplished and her unwavering commitment to broadening the use of technology but also because of her collaborative, engaging style. She is a gifted communicator, a valued mentor, and a respected administrator.

As a senior IT leader in higher education, I’m perpetually conscious of our clients—students, faculty, staff, senior officers—and how they use information technology and what they might be expecting to do next with information technology. One of my favorite sources is the Beloit College Mindset List. The Mindset List, which reflects the worldview of entering first-year college students, started in 1998 with the members of the class of 2002, born in 1980. The following are just a few of the 75 cultural touchstones for the Class of 2015:

  • There has always been an Internet ramp onto the information highway.
  • They “swipe” cards, not merchandise.
  • As they've grown up on websites and cell phones, adult experts have constantly fretted about their alleged deficits of empathy and concentration.
  • Their school’s “blackboards” have always been getting smarter.
  • “Don't touch that dial!” . . . what dial?
  • Video games have always had ratings.
  • Dial?up is soooooooooo last century!
  • Music has always been available via free downloads.
  • They've often broken up with their significant others via texting, Facebook, or MySpace.
  • They won't go near a retailer that lacks a website.
  • They've always had the privilege of talking with a chatterbot.1

Another way to characterize our clients comes from Sherry Turkle. In her book Alone Together, she wrote: “During my earliest days at MIT, I met the idea . . . that part of my job would be to think of ways to keep technology busy. . . . No one thought that anyone except academics would really want to write on computers. . . . Now we know that once computers connected us to each other, once we became tethered to the network, we really didn't need to keep computers busy. They keep us busy. It is as though we have become their killer app.”2

Thinking about this issue of 24-hour service and 24-hour customers, I was pleased recently to find a book titled The 24-Hour Customer, by Adrian Ott. I thought it would have a road map for service delivery in an environment in which the sun never sets, but instead Ott talked about a two-by-two matrix. We can look at life from the point of view of propensity to spend time with online services as well as from the point of view of propensity to allocate attention to the time and the services.3

The matrix results in four boxes, or quadrants. In the high-attention, high-time “motivation” quadrant are the applications related to what people really care about: peers, connecting to other people, power, greed (in some cases), making money, and personal pursuits such as self?improvement and education. In the low-attention, high-time “habit” quadrant are the routines that people follow mindlessly. These are the automatic background processes that are renewed continuously without any attention being required at all. The low-attention, low-time “value” quadrant contains the cheapest products that don't take any time. Last is the high-attention, low-time “convenience” quadrant. Here are the productivity enhancers, the procrastinator catch-ups—the things that merit attention but don’t need too much time. An example is a service such as Federal Express, providing overnight delivery for a bit more money. Ott advises that when think about the way we position services and when we think about our responses to clients, we need to think about services and responses in these contexts; we need to think about the trade-off decisions that people make between the value to them of a service and the cost in time required for them to get access to it.

One of Ott’s cautions is to be careful not to provide an application that requires people to spend a lot of their time and attention on it unless the application is in the quadrant where they are already motivated to be. Instead, design an application that is habitual, valuable, easy – something that people can spend very little time and attention on while they devote themselves to activities in their motivation quadrant, doing what is important not only to them but also, presumably, to the rest of the organization.

As 24-hour IT professionals, where do we put our motivations? The psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has studied and written about creativity, mastery, and what he calls “flow”—the engine that keeps us engaged in the things that motivate us. Csikszentmihalyi discovered that when we match the right level of improving our skills with the right degree of increasing the complexity of the task, we can get ourselves into the state of flow where we lose track of time, we get better at what we're doing, and we develop a self?motivating incentive to continue.4

But in the higher education IT world today, the step function in degree of difficulty often creates anxiety. The truth is that we simply cannot be performing IT professional duties, each of us, 24x7. So we need to find ways to optimize our collective performance, which means a change in behavior.

How does leadership come into this? How do we lead others out of these new anxieties, and into individual and organizational flow, when we're at a step function in the complexity of what we need to deliver and in the level of skills and experience that we must bring to the table? How do we lead in optimizing the 24-hour time/value tradeoff for clients and for staff? How do we enable and encourage others to lead?

When I think about leadership, five attributes come to mind. I think first about the ability to produce results with others and for others. When I first started in a leadership role at MIT, I thought it was my job to be an advocate for my staff to the hierarchy. I see now that a much more complex task of the leader is to be the 360-degree communicator.

Alignment of purpose and vision, particularly in this time of dramatic change, is another important attribute. When Carole Barone won the CAUSE Leadership Award in 1995, one of the lessons I took away from her talk was her advice to “read the river.” It is the responsibility of leaders to know the changing nature of the river they are in and not to assume that today’s river is the same as yesterday’s. That requires an incredible amount of attention, but it's not Herculean. It's simply paying attention.

Interdependence is an attribute that leaders must not only recognize but foster. None of us are able to do this kind of work by ourselves. In fact, being able to swap out the leading from the being led, in a range of activities, is a very important attribute, not only for individuals but also for teams working together across borders that looked uncrossable not long ago.

The fourth attribute involves sway. Being able to influence and sway others, while also being curious and influenceable, or “swayable,” is a huge part of the leadership role.

Fifth is enthusiasm. The IT leader needs to be able to renew his or her own energies and uplift the energies of other people who are in tough situations, doing really hard work under often duress. If leaders can't find enthusiasm for the purpose in which they’re working, they need to renew themselves and be able to convey that enthusiasm.

Finally, it is very important to note that leadership is not positional. The fact that someone has a leadership title represents only about 10–20 percent of his or her real leadership capacity and authority. One of my goals is to make sure that everyone feels enabled to exercise leadership skills and is ready to be a leader, whatever the endeavor.

My mother was an officer in the Parent Teachers Association when I was in elementary school. She eventually won a PTA lifetime achievement award. Recently my sister and I found a PTA booklet that my mother had kept. She had marked the following passage, clearly something she put into action: “For the lack of leadership, information was lost. For the lack of information, inspiration was lost. For the lack of inspiration, action was lost. For the lack of action, the cause was lost. All for the lack of leadership.”5


1. “The Mindset List for the Class of 2015,” The Mindset List, Beloit College, <>.

2. Sherry Turkle, Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other (New York: Basic Books, 2011), p. 279.

3. Adrian C. Ott, The 24-Hour Customer: New Rules for Winning in a Time-Starved, Always-Connected Economy (New York: HarperCollins, 2010).

4. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience (New York: HarperCollins, 2008).

5. Mrs. Ralph E. Thomas, ed., Nuggets from New Jersey Parent-Teacher, 3d. ed., January 1955.

EDUCAUSE Review, vol. 47, no. 1 (January/February 2012)