EDUCAUSE 2012 Panel: A CIO's First Year

min read

At the 2012 EDUCAUSE Annual Conference, four panelists talked about a CIO's first year, sharing their experience and advice on learning the institutional culture, working with stakeholders, understanding what's really behind a problem surfaced to the IT department, and effectively supporting strategic changes in information technology on campus.

article artwork

Early in the EDUCAUSE panel "A CIO's First Year" the panelists reached a clear consensus: It ain't easy. A CIO's job is always challenging, but never more so than in those first 12 months, when you must grasp the institution's culture, adapt to it enough to establish strong relationships, and yet remain independent enough to be an effective force for change. You also must grow or nurture a thick skin, develop the ability to both listen and understand the problems behind the problems, and find people you can trust to bounce ideas off.

These and other topics were the subject of a passionate discussion among CIOs from universities large and small: Joanne Kossuth, Olin College of Engineering; Ann Kovalchick, Drake University; Bruce Maas, University of Wisconsin, Madison; and Brian Voss, University of Maryland, who also served as the panel's moderator.

Following a lively exploration of premeditated topics, the floor was open to audience questions, which both picked up on themes discussed and pushed the conversation into new territory. Following are the session's highlights; a full transcript is available here.

The panelists' opening remarks focused on their initial job experiences. Maas, whose position at Madison is his second CIO job in the UW system, said that his past experience was a tremendous help in his new post, which offered both a fresh start and a chance to put all the inevitable mistakes of a first CIO position behind him. Still, he said, having a sense of humility is key. "It remains a very strong element of us being effective — learning to have a sense of humor and appropriate level of humility, because this is a difficult job."

Kossuth, who is vice president for operations and CIO at Olin, said that because her university is small, she has a variety of jobs and each experience has been its own unique adventure. In addition to echoing the importance of humor and a thick skin, Kossuth said that developing keen listening skills — "listening to what people are really asking for, as opposed to what they think they're asking for" — is crucial.


The panelists next discussed what they anticipated when they first started their current positions and how those expectations aligned with reality. Kovalchick said that, when she started at Drake, she had to quickly release her expectations to perform effectively.

"I remember thinking to myself that I had to be very deliberate about working differently than I had at my previous institution," she said, adding that that realization came several months after she started, and that it changed everything. "I don't care how hard you interview and push for questions and understand institutions before you take the job, when you get there, you get the other 90 percent of the information you need over a period of time. That really requires you to reset your expectations."

Kossuth said that she started at Olin as a consultant because the assumption was that engineers themselves could take care of whatever needed to be done. She said they thoroughly discussed standards, implementation and network issues, and so on, and "I was like, cool — we're all on the same page." But once she started to implement the plans, confusion set in.

"I started to do those things, and they were like, 'No, that's not what we wanted. That wasn't what we thought we told you,'" she said. "It's not just what people say, but what's actually behind the scenes that you have to figure out in terms of the culture. That was a real learning experience for me at Olin."

Maas, who had served as a CIO before, noted that he entered his current job with a sense of confidence that reality quickly eroded. "To be honest, I expected the job to be easier given that it was my second time. It wasn't. It was as hard, if not harder," he said, adding that the key is to realize that you're in a completely different situation and approach it accordingly. "Sometimes, when you move to your second or subsequent role, you have expectations about how it worked before that can really in some ways bind you and constrain you to trying to repeat that past experience."

Challenges and Surprises: Lessons Learned

In addition to surprises related to their own expectations, the panelists all noted that many of the challenges and lessons learned in their first year were distinct and often closely tied to the institution's history — or, in the start-up Olin's case, a lack thereof.

Kossuth said that because Olin was a new university, her initial surprises related to the baggage they all carted in from their previous jobs. For months, she said, whenever a new employee was brought on board, they forwarded their old institution's solutions as the ideal answer to any problem. "Not only was I bringing a perspective from a different institution with me, but everybody else I was dealing with in the new start‑up environment was bringing expectations from their own institutions," Kossuth said. "The amount of work we had to do to get us on the same page in terms of creating a joint expectation for this new endeavor was a surprise. I certainly didn't expect to do that much work around building the culture and building the team."

At Drake, the surprises were size- rather than age-related. As Kovalchick noted, the school has a total of approximately 5,000 students, and the university's relatively small size fostered an informal approach to communication. "What surprised me was the challenge of trying to create predictable, repeatable mechanisms institutionally to drive change that required communication without seeming to create a bureaucracy because people really push back on that," she said. "That was a real surprise for me, and not necessarily a pleasant one, because it took me a while to figure out that's what was going on."

The upside, she said, is that getting the ear of someone in power is relatively easy compared to larger institutions. "I have easy access and e-mail and text with all the senior leaders," she said. "That was very pleasant, because it helped me see how decisions were made in a very informal manner, and then begin to build and execute those decisions operationally."

Voss said his biggest surprise was that, after a total of 21 years' experience in higher education, he still didn't have all the answers. "I honestly thought I would have more answers than I did," he said. "The lesson learned here is, go in eyes open, especially about yourself."

Assimilator or Change Agent?

Voss then turned to a topic suggested by Kovalchick: "She said we needed to discuss the concept of assimilation versus acculturation," he said, "which is: Do we fit or do we change the place? Is it the Borg or not?"

He began the discussion by grounding it in the influence of each institution's distinct culture. At Maryland, he found that his team wasn't clicking and that it took some time to realize that it was because people were waiting for him to "start acting the way they expected the IT leader to act." The problem, said Voss, was that he saw himself as having been brought in to initiate change and that he wasn't planning to "trim those square edges off of my peg.

"I do understand that you just can't come in and willy‑nilly do things differently, that there is a culture … they've been successful doing this for 150 years, and who the hell are you to change that?" said Voss. "That said, it's incumbent — especially in our profession — for us to be agents of change."

Kovalchick agreed, noting that in any technology leadership position, there is a constant need to balance the push for change with the need to sustain what works at your institution.

"The best way to do this is to really build coalitions of folks," she said. "It takes time, so be very patient. As much as I like revolution — and I really do in most cases — this is a case where incremental change has a lot of value. You have to really pace the community through this process."

She went on to say that it's crucial to know what you will and will not compromise on — an idea that Maas agreed with. "You need to be pretty clear about what your core values and your core principles are and know where you don't bend," said Maas, adding that figuring out when to push and when to back up is sometimes a matter of trial and error but that "communicating a firm sense of vision, principles, and values" throughout is essential.

For Kossuth, the challenge was not pushing against existing structures, but establishing them. "Olin, because we're new, it was a challenge in an opposite way, because the focus was on innovation and change — the core values were innovation and change," she said. "What was challenging about that was that we all interpreted innovation differently."

Kossuth explained that the "all" at Olin included three tribes: faculty, staff, and students. Building consensus among those tribes involved both understanding and tempering expectations and emphasizing education. "We found we had to do a lot of education of the faculty, of the students. We also had to be educated by them in terms of what their core areas of focus were and where we could add value," she said, adding that this entailed creating input and feedback channels by attending faculty meetings and student working groups so that they "could take what were essentially three separate tribes and assemble them in a way that we would all move the institution forward."

Career Paths: Climb or Flee the Kingdom?

The panel's final formal topic focused on advice for aspiring CIOs regarding two career alternatives: rising through the ranks where they are, or pursuing higher positions at other institutions — basically, as Voss put it, "Do I stay or do I go?"

Kossuth said that if you choose to work your way up, it's crucial to look for and pursue higher-level opportunities on your campus by joining committees and working groups so you can engage in the institution's strategic level.

"You can work your way up," said Kossuth. "There's also a point where you look at the opportunities and say, 'This is going to take me 25 years if I stay here.'" At that point, she advised, it's a good time to go elsewhere — and making a graceful departure is important. "The way you go and how you go about it leaves a legacy," and "you have to be really careful about how you're perceived."

Maas said he'd climbed up through various roles in one institution, as well as moved around. In terms of working your way up, he said that "there are opportunities if you position yourself, and others see that you're a person who's willing to work hard, listen carefully, understand what the true mission is at your university." However, staying in one place can make it hard to break free of typecasting.

"I didn't get a fresh start at the first institution," he said. "I found myself bumping up against a ceiling more often because of perceptions of individuals who had known me in a prior role."

Voss agreed with this downside, noting that "you are often cast by something you may have done 20 years ago." Still, he said, there are numerous examples of influential IT leaders who spent their entire careers at a single institution, including Erv Blyth (Virginia Tech) and Brad Wheeler (Indiana University).

"There's not one right solution," Voss said. "It's you. It's what your characteristics and your history are, and what is the situation, the culture, and the environment at the institution where you find yourself, as to whether that's going to be possible and whether you're going to be successful."

Kovalchick, who has moved several times, said she relishes the outsider status and the opportunities it offers to identify and seize opportunities to move the institution forward. "If you're internal, it's harder to identify the opportunities to take risks and it's harder to take risks," she said. "The difference is really in the different tactics you might use to have an organizational impact."

Audience Questions

Having concluded the formal topics discussion, Voss opened the floor to questions from the audience. Following are a summary of the questions and highlights from some of the panelists' responses.

Biggest Challenge

Everyone pointed out the challenges of the job, but what aspect do you find most difficult of all?

Voss said that, basically, "it's all difficult," including integrating into a culture when you come from outside, getting a leadership position within a large institution with a rich history, establishing credibility with key constituencies, and dealing with what your predecessor has left behind.

"I can't tell you what is most hard. I can tell you, it's all hard," Voss said. "We don't want to scare anyone out of that [CIO] pipeline, but realize: it's not easy, and this is a commitment you're making for your life."

Top Lesson Learned

During the discussion, you spoke about different challenges and lessons, but what would you say was the most impactful learning? How has it helped you?

Kossuth said the most important lesson — learning how to manage yourself — was also one of the most difficult. She explained that, when you're new on a job, there's inevitably pent-up demand and everyone wants to talk to you, tell you their ideas, get your attention. It's crucial, however, that you take the time to consider the issues before responding.

"They're grabbing you in the hall, and you're trying to give them answers because you want to look like you have answers," Kossuth said. "What I've learned is, it's best to not provide answers in the hallway and let people grab your arm. It's best to say, 'This is a really important topic, and we should have a good discussion. Let's schedule something.'"

Otherwise, she said, they'll hear what they want to hear and run with it. "Before you know it, the whole community is talking about something you supposedly did that you never did," Kossuth said. "One of the challenges, I think, is to manage yourself and manage your own time and how you communicate."

Maas agreed. "The coin of the realm is respect — operating in a way that builds respect," he said. "Listening carefully and not being glib in your responses is one way of gaining that."

Finding Community

When moving to a new university, how did you find that confidant or peer group that you could feel safe confiding in?

Here again, the panelists agreed: it's hard. Voss quoted Ringo Starr on the topic — "trust don't come easy" — yet noted that having someone to talk to is critical.

Maas concurred: "If I were to give a piece of advice, until you really know that you've found that person, use the old network from your old institution to bounce some ideas off of." Doing so helps you avoid having an idea that you're simply exploring become an edict, said Maas.

All of the panelists noted the importance of developing trust. As Voss put it, doing so is an art. "There's no formula for this. Whomever it is you select, it has to be someone you trust and it has to be someone who you can feel comfortable working with," he said. "Sharing something confidentially with the wrong person is a real ticket to getting on the fast train out."

Voss also noted that you can find confidants outside your institutions, including at EDUCAUSE and other professional organizations. Kossuth agreed, adding that the person doesn't have to be in higher education. "That helps, because they understand the culture, but there's a lot of folks out there that you could build your network with that have similar CIO experiences in corporations and in other nonprofits."

The Technology Curve

How do you handle it when "the latest and greatest" technologies are rolled out — not just from Apple, but from your organization's established partners and vendors?

On this point, all the panelists said that the key is to focus on your mission and the specific problems it entails; technology that solves a problem is useless if it's not problems you're trying to solve.

"Chasing that new technology thing constantly is like playing Whack‑A‑Mole," said Voss. "My counsel is, figure out what your problems are and work with the vendors and the emerging technologies to find solutions."

Maas agreed. "The fact is, we have to focus, like a laser, on the core mission and anything that advances the core mission. Everything else is distraction and noise," he said. "If it's not in line with your advancing your mission, it isn't worth investing in."