Culture Change and IT Leadership

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A vice chancellor of information technology for twenty-five years looks back to review some of the areas that any central IT organization—and its leader—must address in order to succeed more frequently and become more trusted. 

Culture Change and IT Leadership

Polley McClure

Twenty years ago I first visited the University of North Carolina at Greensboro (UNCG) as an outside consultant. Between then and now, I have visited the campus several times as part of peer consulting groups, and so I have had an opportunity to see the evolution of IT services there—almost as a time-lapse movie. If even half of the other institutions I've worked with could post the progress I've seen at this one, there would be many more happy and well-served presidents, faculty, students, and administrators.

After my most recent visit to UNCG, I reflected on this good story, thinking about how this success came about and why the situation at many other institutions didn't work out this well. I should say, up-front, that my definition of a "good story" is not about technology per se (although the technology in this case is quite progressive) but, rather, is about the fit of technology to the purposes of the institution and about a respectful and comfortable position of the IT organization within the institution. I've come to think that there are two major themes to this story. In his article below, Jim Clotfelter describes one theme: his insightful and sensitive steering of the ship. Almost all of the points he makes would be met with positive head nods from other CIOs. The remarkable thing is that he was able to accomplish all of his goals. And that brings me to the second theme: longevity.

Wayne A. Brown, founder of the Center for Higher Education Chief Information Officer Studies (CHECS), surveyed CIOs in higher education in 2016. Of the 340 respondents, the average tenure in their role at their current institution was six years and eight months. Only 6 had been in their role at their current institution for twenty-six years or longer. In contrast, 61 had been in their current role for one year or less.1 Up until recently, I thought this turnover was a result of the rapid changes needed in our business and the fact that any given CIO will not usually have the skills necessary to lead all of the changes that must happen. I still think that good leaders often succeed by making themselves obsolete, but I also now see the institutional downside of continuous transition.

CIOs may get impatient when new technology implementations stretch out by months, but they need to appreciate that human relationships and cultures tend to change much more slowly than the technology evolves. We can all agree that we want IT staff to communicate better and to see their role as positive enablers of other people's goals rather than as experts who know more than everyone else. But not many of us can honestly claim to have seen that transformation happen. I think part of the reason is that with a relatively short tenure at any given institution, CIOs don't have enough time to build up the trust of their staff and others in the institution—a trust that is essential to sustaining deep cultural change.

As I witnessed over the last twenty years, the CIO at UNCG actually led as he describes in his article, and because of that, he gained the confidence and trust of the IT organization and the other constituents of the institution, including several different cycles of executive colleagues. With patience and with a consistent demonstration of the values leading to that trust over time, he was able to create an incredibly successful result for UNCG.

I am not advocating the "long tenure" approach for every institution or every CIO. Many CIOs do not have the right balance of skills or the patience required to make that work. But when they do, they can produce deep and satisfying progress.

Jim Clotfelter

For more than twenty-five years, before my retirement at the end of July 2016, I was vice chancellor for an IT department at a mid-sized university in the University of North Carolina system. I've seen the tumultuous IT changes everyone else has seen over the past quarter-century, but I've seen them from the vantage point of the person who is responsible for navigating those changes at a single institution.

When I first became vice chancellor in January 1991, information technology was not large enough to justify its own division. My department included what I used to say was "everything that doesn't fit somewhere else." This included the central IT organization (academic and administrative computing had already been combined), but there were only thirty staff, the largest number being programmers in support of administrative systems. (When I retired, there were 143 positions, excluding temps.) The department also included university planning, institutional research, space management, legislative relations, and community partnerships. As IT needs grew, these other responsibilities dropped away, until we became purely Information Technology Services.

When I started, many people on campus didn't know what an email address was. Our clients were the fifty or so faculty who regularly reserved the computing labs or who used computing in their research, along with the administrators who handled the separate student, finance, and HR systems. Our IT resources were modest, but so were the expectations for what information technology could do for the campus. All of that changed—seemingly over one weekend in the mid-1990s when all of our 850 or so faculty and most of our students discovered the Internet.

Suddenly, everyone wanted more, and none of our new clients wanted to read manuals or look up instructions. As at many other colleges and universities, our budget and staff grew much more slowly than did campus expectations. The university had to find ways to support a department that—unlike its siblings (academic, business, student)—was relatively new, with new kinds of financial obligations requiring new financial models. Campus leaders with experience in the traditional areas of the university had to cope with new language, new opportunities, and new risks. In no area other than finance, perhaps, are campus leaders required to trust more, and this trust had to be re-earned with each change of senior university officials. We didn't have staff adequate for 24/7 coverage of our data center, for example, and an embarrassing event reminded us why this was vital. Even though we started an integrated ERP system implementation in the late 1990s, as of the early 2000s we had no IT financial plans adequate to the needs of the university. We were understaffed, underfunded, and underloved.

So, as I look back, how did we move from an intensely insecure place to one where we were regarded by senior university leadership as a center of excellence, a trusted partner across the university? Let me review some of the areas that any central IT organization—and its leader—must address in order to succeed more frequently and become more trusted. 


First, if you are the central IT leader, you must start with yourself. Any leader, I believe, must meet three "P" standards: for people, problems, and perspective. You don't need to be an extrovert, but you need to find people interesting. You must treat everyone with respect, including the people with whom you disagree and the staff you're firing. You also have to enjoy solving problems—there will be more of them than you can imagine. Few things are as professionally satisfying as solving apparently intractable problems. Finally, you have to have perspective. That means not getting overwrought about problems or risks. It means being confident you can get through anything and conveying that confidence to others. It means never taking yourself too seriously, and it means seeing the humor in (almost) any situation. Don't talk to people about your burdens—everyone has their own burdens. If you're not having fun, find another job.


Recognizing talent, fit, and work ethic and hiring, promoting, and retaining the people with those qualities are the most important things you'll do. If you have smart, flexible, committed people around you, you can succeed in almost any environment. If you don't have smart, flexible, committed people around you, all the days of your work life will be a burden. You're going to be making bets on people, and to make successful bets, you have to understand people. Think about where you want to end up: you want the campus to have confidence that when there's a problem, your team will fix it, and that if there's an opportunity, your team will help get the university there. So, how do you get such a team and such trust?

For your senior managers, never underestimate the importance of leadership ability. Don't focus on credentials or years of experience, and don't get bogged down in hiring processes aimed at producing the best candidate on paper. You want the best candidate in reality. Hire young staff, and where possible, promote from within. No matter what HR says, you should always have a succession plan. Look for the most promising staff who are already in your organization, and don't hesitate to promote that person over staff who have been around longer. I've had people outside my organization complain that I was promoting children. In addition, though none said so explicitly, I believe some didn't feel that women were appropriate as senior managers. What's important is not what people think on Day One about the staff you promoted, but what they think a year or two later, when your new managers have had time to show what they can do.

The IT industry has its share of abrasive personalities. Sometimes these people are useful, but they won't be with you for long. The IT industry has more than its share of people who believe they're the Smartest Person in the Room (SPR). One problem here is that you probably have a number of people who believe they're the SPR. And often, they're in the room together. For your top leaders, you want people who hide the fact that they think they're the SPR. For your non-manager SPRs, a cross-divisional architects' group might be a good idea.

Help your staff learn to get their rewards from their own satisfaction and from the respect of their IT colleagues. They shouldn't expect gratitude from clients, who may not take the time to thank them.

You want to promote collective divisional responsibility for decisions and implementation. Don't show off how smart you are as an individual. We're all in this together—there should be a lot of "our" and very little of "my." I make clear to my senior managers what I want to do, but I invite them to tell me why this isn't a good idea. Never blame the messenger—you want to hear any bad news as early as possible. Listen to everyone, in and out of your leadership team and in and out of your division, since you never know from where the best ideas will come. Almost everyone in a university has something positive to contribute, even the person who seems to be constantly hostile to what you're trying to do. Defend your team, but never be defensive; all processes can be improved, and even the best staff can improve. Never publicly blame your staff, even if it is their fault; if there's blame to shoulder, take it yourself. Apologizing is one of the core responsibilities of a vice chancellor.

Sometimes, people don't work out as you had hoped. Never be afraid to fire people. Once you know a relationship won't work out, don't wait and hope for a miraculous change. If the skill level is high, but the judgment is faulty, skills won't ever solve that problem. I've fired people later than I should have, but I've never felt that I fired someone too soon. Your university and your organization will be better off, and the fired person will have an opportunity to move into a more suitable position. If you can, help her or him find another job.

None of us has a staff large enough to continue to support legacy responsibilities that are no longer vital to the university. Constantly reinvent your organization, and ask your staff to reinvent their careers. Move staff to where you and the university need them. Provide training and mentorship. My organization protected our training budget even in the worst budget years. We had a formal mentorship program in which staff could sign on to learn about (and perhaps, eventually, move into) higher-skill areas. Be ready to explain how the latest restructuring fits into the long-term picture, for the individual and the organization.

Pay well. Take money from other areas to put into personnel. Pay your senior managers as close to your salary as you can. Pay your smart young staff as well as you can and have correspondingly high expectations. This shows you care about them, but selfishly, it also makes your life better. Investing in the right people makes a larger difference in the success of your organization than a corresponding increase in equipment, or software, or anything else.

Time Horizon and Vision

Over the years, the term I heard people use about me more than any other was calm. This amused me because, after twenty-five years, I was still impatient. Calm but impatient. Time is short. You want to promote positive change continuously and, to make that possible, reinvent your organization continuously. You want to make decisions as quickly as they're needed, but you must be able to identify the ones that require more time.

An IT organization needs a clear, but flexible, technology vision that's communicated to your staff. You should relentlessly push for the achievement of your goals but always ask yourself, "Is this a time we need to keep going, or should we change direction?" Don't fall in love with any technology, system, or process. No matter how much they've contributed to your past success, they are just means to the end of better student learning or more efficient administrative processes, and someday you'll close them down. 

Some goals will take longer to accomplish than you expected. Keep pushing. It took longer than I expected for our organization to move from saying "no" to clients to saying "yes, and this is how," but we got there. We used to be faulted for not communicating enough to the campus. For the last dozen years, we had staff charged with that communication, and as a result, we rarely hear that complaint. Getting everyone to notice and act on the communications, of course, is still a challenge.

Political Realities

I'm a political scientist by academic training, but I believe any manager can be politically sensitive. That means starting with the understanding that you are not "entitled" to get any resources just because you "need" them. You must persuade others by showing how investing in IT resources will advance their goals, minimize their risks, and advance the general good. Everything you do is a persuasive act: budgets are or should be persuasive documents; implementation plans are or should be persuasive documents. Some of my students used to believe that they started with a C and worked from there. I told them they started with a 0 and worked from there. The same is true for university administrators: You start with zero.

When you propose an initiative or a change in services, remember that your options aren't just (1) initiative succeeds or (2) no change. There's also the possibility that by proposing this change, you'll initiate a discussion that leaves you worse off than before. As the columnist Molly Ivins said, "Things can always get worse."

Don't try to solve problems before other senior leaders recognize them as problems. Getting a problem acknowledged is often more difficult and more important than finding the solution. Let your clients make small mistakes, if they insist, but try to protect them from big mistakes. You don't need to clash with your clients about every bad (or overly complicated) idea proposed. Most bad ideas will collapse from their own weight.

One political reality that every university leader should understand is that well-intentioned people disagree. Your task is not to prove that those who disagree with you are wrong but, rather, to find ways to achieve all of the high-priority goals your university's senior team wants to pursue. You also should keep in mind that your adversaries on one issue may be your allies on another, so try to stay on good personal terms with everyone. 


Governance is important. For example, if MIS resources must be prioritized, everyone should understand that these are university decisions, not that the IT organization is "holding out" on them. We developed a governance structure in which we got advice from a number of standing committees (e.g., administrative systems, learning spaces), but the good advice we heard from committees didn't change the fact that the IT organization is obligated to make the most cost-effective decisions. When things go well, we're happy to share the credit with committees. When things go badly, we'll be the ones left with the problems. Our organization has certainly made mistakes over twenty-five years, but I believe our biggest mistake occurred a number of years ago, when I created a campus-wide committee and felt compelled to accept its injudicious recommendations. Even the smartest and most public-spirited committee members can be in error, and the central IT organization has to make the key decisions for which it will be responsible.

Every central IT organization has to deal with its placement on the university's centralized-to-decentralized continuum for IT services. On my campus, information technology has always been fairly centralized. Even when the central IT organization had a small staff and few resources, the divisions and schools had even less. I believe our campus has arrived at a happy balance for a university whose schools lack great wealth. All IT services that are centrally provided are in the central IT organization. We provide central services (e.g., hosting servers in our data centers) where those services are most cost-effectively provided centrally. We declined invitations to take over technology services lacking a cost-effectiveness rationale.

Our organization was itself highly centralized. We operated as a single technology services entity. All budget, HR, and other business functions were handled centrally. All dollars started the year in my hands, and all staff belonged to a single IT organization. This made it more likely that dollars would be used for highest-priority purposes. I involved our senior managers in salary adjustments (other than their own), to balance the value of various staff across the entire organization.

I worked with five chancellors, four provosts, four CFOs, and comparable changes in every other senior position. I always sought to tell them the truth—about problems, costs, delays, and risks. I always sought to point out our opportunities. Every administration is different; each brings its own strengths and weaknesses. In the IT organization, we tried to help each new university leader understand that we were going to work to make her or him successful, to recognize and minimize risks, to solve problems rather than create them. At the same time, we exercised authority within our sphere of responsibility.


I inherited no financial plans to go with my thirty staff. The university agreed on a funding plan for the first modules of our ERP implementation, but it was not until 2002–2006 that we developed—and began partially funding—financial plans for major recurring expenditures. I tried to show my senior officer colleagues that these were not actually non-recurring needs, even if we chose to fund them as if they were. They were recurring obligations into the indefinite future. It wasn't easy to convince everyone that if they wanted something, they would have to pay for it. On one occasion, I set up an "open forum on IT budgets," at which I made a presentation and then answered any questions anyone wanted to raise. My premise was always that the more people knew about my budgets, the better. As universities grow, financial plans may become more complicated and sometimes inelegant, but if they fit the needs of the campus, they're the right ones.

Budgets are not boring necessities: they are your opportunity to tell a story, to create the possibility of success for your university. They're the essential part of any plan. They're your way to squeeze maximum cost-effectiveness out of every dollar. You need to think backwards about budgets; start with where you want to end up, then work backward to determine what you must do to get there.

IT leaders should relentlessly push cost-effectiveness. How can we achieve more for the same money, or achieve the same for less? Recognizing that people in universities don't think in terms of savings or cost-avoidance, IT leaders must remember their obligation to help our universities avoid spending money needlessly. Universities should not wait for budgetary crises before developing IT cost-control plans.

Also, although none of us have the time and resources to do zero-based budgeting (i.e., justifying every expenditure anew every year), we should try to approximate it. When you're reviewing the need for new staff in one area, look at all of your areas at the same time. Where is the greatest division-wide need? When you need new staff and have no new dollars, where can you realign or reuse a position that's already in your organization?


What issues became more important over twenty-five years? Security, of course. I once conducted a faculty forum in which 80 minutes were devoted to questions about pay-for-print (in the computing labs) and only 10 minutes to questions about security. That would not happen today. We recently implemented a security-awareness training requirement for all faculty and staff and took other steps to strengthen security, and we had strong support from university leadership. Cloud computing is also of increasing importance. When we first proposed (to a group of our colleagues from other universities, around 2006) outsourcing email, there was a marked lack of enthusiasm. We went ahead with the idea, as one of the first campuses in the country to outsource both student and faculty/staff email (to Google, in our case), and this is now a routine way for institutions to handle email and calendars. My senior managers and I issued a vision document to our staff emphasizing the steps that would let us continue to be a cost-effective partner to our academic and business clients (including moving more operations to the cloud), and I believe our staff generally bought into this vision. 

Partnerships and Benchmarking

Over the years, I emphasized some issues that have become urgent requirements in U.S. higher education—though some have become so recognized more slowly than I anticipated.

We promoted partnerships and collaborative relationships with other campuses (e.g., hosting an LMS for three campuses; developing a DR partnership with another campus), and this kind of collaboration has become more widespread. I expect the next decade will see a much stronger push from university leadership and governing boards for institutions to combine "back-office functions" and look for other collaborative ways to reduce costs. 

Our organization also devoted considerable effort to benchmarking against other campuses, developing and publishing metrics, and periodically bringing in external review teams. I expect the higher education IT industry will see greater pressure, in the future, to benchmark. Metrics not only are valuable for our managers but also let our clients see what we're doing. We got great value out of the five external reviews we conducted over twenty years; for each review, we invited three or four IT leaders from around the country. University executive leaders hear that our challenges are not unique, and IT staff can discuss different ways of exploiting opportunities.

Talking about Information Technology

Let me conclude with a few thoughts about how to explain information technology to non-IT people. We need to recognize that many non-IT people feel awkward dealing with IT issues. If these conversations aren't handled properly, other senior officers can feel they've been talked down to or have been bulldozed into approving something. Or they may be simply confused. For twenty-five years, I tried to use English instead of tech-talk. Although I also tried to use short proposals, I never succeeded in making them short enough. I always tried to give a chancellor or a provost choices, even if some of the choices would not have been wise (in my opinion). I believe you should offer choices and identify the costs and risks of each option. I tried never to tell a chancellor or provost, "You must do X." Even when we enter new areas, with new technologies, I downplay the newness and the change; the message is: "We're trying to do what we tried to do before, but this time in a different way, and this is how it will affect you." As quickly as possible, turn initiatives into routines. Routines that produce calm are part of what any successful IT organization needs to convey: Whatever today's problems are, we can solve them; whatever tomorrow's opportunities are, we can help you get there.


  1. Wayne Brown, 2016 Higher Education Chief Information Officer Roles and Effectiveness (Albany, NY: Center for Higher Education CIO Studies, 2016).

Jim Clotfelter is Vice Chancellor Emeritus, Information Technology Services, and Professor Emeritus, Political Science, at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro (UNCG). For twenty-five years, he was Vice Chancellor for Information Technology Services at UNCG.

Polley McClure is Vice President Emeritus at Cornell University. She served previously as Vice President for Information Technologies and CIO at Cornell University, she led the IT departments at the University of Virginia and at Indiana University, and she received the EDUCAUSE 2003 Excellence in Leadership Award.

© 2016 Jim Clotfelter and Polley McClure. The text of this article is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

EDUCAUSE Review, October 17, 2016