Leading Change by Living It

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Mitch Davis is CIO at Bowdoin College, Maine.


"Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing himself." —Leo Tolstoy

Responsibility for an organization's success falls directly on the backs of its leaders. Although traditional organizational structures tend to vest such responsibilities in top-down management hierarchies headed by a CEO, current unprecedented advances in information technology are creating new leadership opportunities for IT departments. Thus, in today's world, IT departments should provide not only consulting, systems, services, and support but leadership as well. Of course, such change-positive IT departments must be headed by change-positive CIOs. This new generation of CIOs not only channels technological advances but also, and more important, provides departmental and organizational leadership. To implement change in a continually evolving field, a CIO must be committed to continually evolving as a leader. As Jessie Jackson said in a political context: "You cannot lead where you won't go, and you cannot teach what you don't know."

These observations are based on my early experience as an IT consultant and as a CIO when I was frequently handed responsibility for taking over failing IT departments and turning them around. On one occasion, I worked with a company that depended on technology but whose IT department was underperforming to the tune of millions of dollars. Projects failed, staff morale was in the toilet, and programmers were praying in the aisles when new applications were released. The IT leaders themselves were in a state of shock. Not only did they fail to communicate with their staff; they also failed to communicate with each other, thus dissipating any advantages they may have achieved from operating as a team. My challenge was to help them understand that change-positive management did not mean merely reorganizing their departments and replacing staff. It meant that they themselves had to change. Sadly, they were satisfied with their status quo and made no efforts to change. Seeing this, I produced my report and moved on. After a few more reorganizations, all of the leaders were replaced. They never understood that it was their failure to evolve as leaders that was the problem.

Leadership through Client Service

Assuming that CIOs and their IT departments must live the change they want to impart to their organizations through leadership, a logical question is, what does such leadership look like? More specifically, should CIOs lead in the same fashion as CEOs? Perhaps counter-intuitively, the answer is "no." Whereas traditional CEO management models assume a command-and-control approach, the unique nature of IT services requires that CIOs lead through providing "client" services. In IT at Your Service: Knowing and Keeping Your Clients, L. Paul Ouellette explains what it means to provide client-based service: "The term 'client,' in my opinion, strongly implies a shared responsibility. My client and I are on the same level as we work toward an understanding of the service expectations. His or her problem becomes my problem. I strive to build a professional relationship on a foundation of trust, respect, and understanding of each other's position."1 That said, if CIOs and their IT departments actually lead through providing client services, they must go beyond sharing responsibility. More precisely, and as is further explained below, CIOs and IT departments must lead not only by providing organizational clients with creative solutions but also by providing such solutions even before organizations are aware they are needed.

Of course, in preparing to meet a client's needs, one must first distinguish between client "needs" and client "wants." As Guy Kawasaki explained in The Macintosh Way: "The first step is to lead the market by satisfying needs, not wants."2 Kawasaki's guidance is based on the reality that most clients lack a fundamental understanding of information technology, let alone knowledge of new or available solutions. Consequently, effective IT leadership requires, at the minimum, (1) learning what the client is trying to accomplish, (2) matching that knowledge with a deep understanding of the way the client works and of the client's capacity for learning new technology, and (3) determining if what the client wants is what is needed.

If what the client wants is not what is actually needed, the IT leader should present the client with an even better alternative. That better alternative usually has the following traits:

  1. The client gets what s/he wants sooner.
  2. The alternative is easier to learn and works with existing tools.
  3. The alternative is even more dependable than what had been proposed.
  4. The alternative is exactly what the client needs.

Although the "predict and provide" model described above may seem to involve a tactical mindset in which the client is in some sense an opponent, this is not my intent. To the contrary, I live by a quotation from Be Our Guest: Perfecting the Art of Customer Service (replacing "clients" with "guests"): "Guests may not always be right, but they are always our guests."3

Becoming a Change-Positive CIO

The figure below shows a model I created to explain how CIOs and their IT departments can transition into change-positive relationships with their organizational clients. As shown in the model, every decision must be based on Integrity. IT operational decisions should never be personal. Every decision first must work for the organization, then must be good for departments, and finally must be valued by individuals. In other words, using the more familiar framework of an IT consultant, the client's needs come first, and it is up to the IT professional to leverage the appropriate technology to meet those needs. If the IT professional has succeeded, clients will be able to logically deconstruct the technology solution as one made to achieve organizational goals.

Credibility is gained by exceeding the client's expectations of solutions and services. To achieve long-term and sustainable IT leadership, it is more effective if this credibility is assigned to the IT department as a whole and not to any one individual or group.

Trust is what the client feels when working with the IT department. Trust decreases client oversight and increases the speed at which an organization can make decisions. Speed of action reduces churn and slows politics while keeping the organization focused on the future rather than maintaining the status quo. At this level of the model, the IT department is respected and valued for its work and opinions. Partnerships begin to develop.

Finally, and most important, Leadership results when the IT department creates unique solutions before the client realizes s/he needs them. Once the newly created services become available and are used, the client cannot imagine how s/he ever got by without them.


When all of these metrics reach their maximums, the IT department is in the leadership role. If an IT department has earned a leadership role, taking risks is easier because there is enough trust and credibility to spend if a particular project fails to deliver as promised. The IT department still has to fix the problem, but the client is confident that it will be resolved.

A Brief Note on the Role of IT Leadership in Higher Education

One of the most challenging aspects of IT leadership is making the client comfortable with change. Perhaps nowhere is this challenge more evident than in higher education, where faculty and students are already presented daily with stressful levels of change in their teaching and research or in their education and life. Fortunately, faculty and students are observably better at adjusting to change when they are able to recognize that such change provides value to them. Thus, to make change easy for faculty and students, IT leaders not only need to create a solution or service that provides value to faculty and students but also must make that value recognizable. How can IT leaders achieve this? Judging from my experiences in higher education, I see just one answer: outreach.

What, then, can a new CIO do to start an outreach program in the academic context? Pick the low-hanging fruit. Talk to faculty and students, and learn what they really want to see changed. Initiate projects or services that the campus community cares about and that are relatively easy to address. Expand the communications strategy to not only gather information but also craft a message of hope. And remember to spend time "connecting the dots."

In conclusion, regardless of the organizational context, be it business or academic, the message is the same: It is never too late for an organization to begin building a change-positive state. And it is never too late for CIOs and other IT leaders to begin building a change-positive life. We can lead change by living it.


  1. L. Paul Ouellette, IT at Your Service: Knowing and Keeping Your Clients, 2d ed. (Dubuque, Iowa: Kendall Hunt Publishing, 2002), p. 4.
  2. Guy Kawasaki, The Macintosh Way (Glenview, Ill.: Scott, Foresman, and Company, 1990), p. 54.
  3. Disney Institute, with Theodore Kinni, Be Our Guest: Perfecting the Art of Customer Service, revised and updated ed. (New York: Disney Enterprises, 2011), p. 50.

EDUCAUSE Review, vol. 47, no. 4 (July/August 2012)