Higher education IT professionals can successfully advance their careers without moving to another college or university. The author shares the lessons he learned during his thirty-three-year journey from IT student employee to CIO at the same institution. These tips are helpful regardless of whether someone chooses to stay at one location or move around.
Higher education IT professionals are commonly advised that if they want to advance their careers, they need to be prepared to switch institutions. But for some people, this may not be an option or a choice they are willing to make. If this sounds like you, that doesn't necessarily mean your career is at a dead end. By taking proactive steps, you can prepare yourself for advancement opportunities that arise at your college or university. While working (and advancing) at one or two institutions for an entire career is not necessarily as common as moving between several institutions to advance, many higher education professionals have successfully progressed from entry-level positions to executive appointments at the same college or university.
There are many reasons why you might wish to stay at the same place for most of your career. Perhaps you have fallen in love with an area. Maybe you have children in the local schools, family nearby, or other deep ties to your community. Perhaps you cannot imagine yourself elsewhere. For me, it was several things: I love the natural beauty of the area, I have a sense of belonging to my community, and I wanted to live in a place where my wife and I could raise our family. I also feel deeply connected to my institution and continue to enjoy opportunities to contribute and make a difference.
Early in my career, I realized that I wanted to try and stay where I was for a while, but I also was interested in growing professionally and advancing if possible. To make that happen, I knew that I had to take proactive steps to continue to expand my experience and make myself a strong candidate for opportunities as they arose. While the path I took from IT student employee to CIO was certainly not straight, many of the lessons I learned along the way can serve as helpful suggestions for others who are trying to advance while staying at their same institution—whether they aspire to become CIOs or simply want to move to the next level.
Whether you are at the beginning or well into the second decade of your career, you can prepare yourself for future opportunities. Some of the tips below are investments that position you for things that may be a few years into the future, while others are actions you can take to prepare yourself for opportunities that may be just around the corner.
Have a general sense of where you want to head. Predicting exactly how your career journey will unfold may not be possible; however, taking time to reflect on what is important to you in terms of your career and what that path means for your life outside of work can help you progress with intention.
Opportunities will change, goals will shift, and new horizons will become visible over time, but having an idea of where you would like to go and what you would like to accomplish are crucial (knowing what is not appealing to you is equally important). Reflect on how these choices will impact where you live, your daily work/life balance, and any other obligations you may have. This exercise includes thinking about what activities and work bring you joy and energy and what kinds of things you don't find as fulfilling.
Having a general sense of where you want your career to go, along with continued self-reflection as your career and life events unfold, provide you with the context, motivation, and guide rails to keep you moving forward as you proceed on your journey.
Expand your horizons beyond your institution. One of the top obstacles to advancing at your own institution is showing that you bring perspectives, ideas, and best practices from beyond the place where you have spent much of your career. The more time you spend at one institution, the more critical this issue becomes—especially as you seek to advance to the higher ranks where broad perspectives and strategies can play the biggest roles.
When an institution is looking to fill a management role, regardless of whether it is an entry-level or senior position, institutional leaders often leverage the opportunity to bring new perspectives and ideas to the organization. Hiring a new person is one of the most effective ways to help a department evolve and mature and to help leaders craft the culture and future direction of an organization. As an internal candidate, it is important that you can show that you can help your institution grow by bringing in ideas, best practices, and perspectives from beyond your campus.
With some intentional work, you can expand your horizons while remaining at the same college or university. The key is getting involved in activities outside of your institution.
As you work to broaden your perspective, you should look for two types of opportunities: those that allow you to grow your leadership and organization-development skills and those that enable you to dig deeper into current, new, and evolving issues related to your field or career path (these activities do not necessarily need to happen at the same place). When a chance to advance arises at your institution, explain how those outside experiences have helped prepare you for the new role.
There are many ways to grow your leadership and organizational skills, including volunteering at a local nonprofit organization, sitting on the board of your local library or other agency, organizing a community makerspace, running an annual charity event, or participating in countless other activities that allow you work with and lead teams toward a shared objective. Many of these opportunities will take time to nurture. You will need to seek out some of them, while others will come your way as you put yourself out there. One small action can open a door and then another. You never know when a brief interaction may catch someone's attention. Be open to exploring opportunities as they arise. Even if something is not an exact fit in the short term, it could lead to other, more valuable opportunities down the road.
To expand your perspective and understanding of your field, get involved in organizations and discussions related to your career path. To find these, talk with others who have the type of position you are interested in and find out what organizations they belong to, what blogs or lists they follow, and what books or magazines they read. Then, get involved. Subscribe to newsletters, participate in discussion forums, attend user groups (virtually or in person). Volunteer to read conference proposals (this is a great way to get a sense of what people are thinking about), submit your own conference proposal (proposing a session at a smaller regional conference or collaborating with a colleague can be good ways to start), and attend events, both large and small, virtually or in person, where you can hear what others are thinking about and participate in the conversation. One of the wonderful things about working in higher education is the collaborative nature of our industry. There are many regional and national consortiums, professional organizations, and special-interest groups that provide a welcoming opportunity to engage with others and gain different perspectives.
If you're able, attend a workshop or professional development institute. Not only will you get to take a deep dive into some great content, but you will also build your network and find others you can talk with off-line to share ideas and refine your approaches and perspectives. The pandemic has resulted in more opportunities than ever to attend events remotely, and many of these are low or no-cost. Vendor-sponsored events, user groups, and conferences are also valuable ways to interact with others.
Intentionally seeking out just a few of these opportunities will go a long way toward expanding your perspectives. Start small by just listening in, and over time you can take a more active role by contributing to discussions, serving on committees, and engaging with others. Allow yourself to stretch outside your comfort zone. It may make you feel vulnerable, but it's where personal and professional growth thrive.
Becoming more involved will also help you to expand your résumé. You can list conference presentations, committee work, articles you've authored, and other activities that show you have experience with the issues beyond just your work at your
institution—all of which help you bring a broader perspective and understanding to your work. Regardless of where you start, make time to engage, absorb, and then contribute.
One final thought on this topic: while outside perspectives are key, there are times when institutional continuity is also important. Perhaps your organization has experienced a lot of change over the past few years and therefore might want someone who can maintain the existing momentum or bring stability. Knowing the institution and culture well works in your favor as an internal candidate. Rarely is an institution looking for a person who brings the exact same point of view as their predecessor to a position. Filling a leadership vacancy is a rare occurrence that provides an opportunity to shape an organization. Those making the hiring decisions will be looking for someone who can bring a fresh perspective, even if they are not looking for entirely new ideas. In these situations, show that you can provide continuity but not represent the status quo. Being able to blend new perspectives and ideas while building on current organizational successes or changes is important.
Provide ways for people to picture you in a different role. Another top obstacle to advancing at your institution is that others often associate you very closely with your current position and may have difficulty picturing you in a different one. The longer you've been in your role, the harder this is to overcome.
There are multiple strategies that you can use to address this.
- Approach problems and issues through the lens of the position you aspire to. Of course, you need to do your job, but thinking this way gives you additional context, which will help you to be more successful in your current role and let others see that you can approach your work from a broader perspective.
- Take on committee or project leadership (or co-leadership) for things outside of your primary area. These provide you with wider exposure at your institution and allow you to be seen in ways that may be outside or above your current position.
- Always wear the "big hat." Being seen as someone who puts the best interest of the institution first, even if at times that means taking a step back for your initiative or unit, is important. You have to find the right balance between advocating for your area and efforts and serving the best interests of the institution.
- Become a trusted sounding board for others—someone who offers unbiased advice and perspectives.
- Better understand issues that others outside of your area are facing and find ways that your work can help address them.
Know thyself. Spend time reflecting on your core values and how they influence your decisions and leadership (even if you don't have a leadership position now). You should be able to succinctly articulate your values and vision and the skills and talents you bring to whatever role you have. You should also be able to describe examples of how those things guide and impact your work.
A useful exercise to help you think through these things is finding an ad for a position (visit the EDUCAUSE Career Center for ideas) that you aspire to, even if it's not something you're qualified for yet, and writing a two-page cover letter that you would use if you were actually going to apply for the position. As you complete this exercise, think through what you have to offer, the core principles that drive you, and how you would approach the position. Once you've written your cover letter, ask a mentor, friend, or trusted colleague to review it and provide feedback. Take advantage of the opportunity to discuss it with someone else so you can more fully articulate your vision and values and further develop your thinking.
Being proactive about professional development is important. Actively work to develop your skill sets and bring value to your institution and then show how these efforts contribute to your ability to successfully lead at the next level.
Take advantage of "gifts of opportunity." Successfully advancing at the same institution involves taking advantage of opportunities when they arise. Some of these gifts of opportunity will be obvious, such as being asked to lead a project or join a key institutional committee, while others may not be as visible or direct but provide ways for you to grow in a new area, gain valuable experience, or simply show that you're willing to take on something new.
I call these "gifts of opportunity" because when someone considers you for opportunities like the ones described above, they are giving you a gift—the chance to grow, expand your perspective, join a larger conversation, and prepare for the next step.
Find a mentor or a sponsor. A mentor is someone who is not your supervisor (and often is outside of your organization or institution) who can provide you with guidance, advice, and honest feedback. A sponsor is usually someone within your institution who can help open doors or present some of those "gifts of opportunity." Both are important and help you develop. The EDUCAUSE Mentoring website is an excellent resource for learning more about mentors and connecting with experienced IT leaders.
Help your supervisors succeed. Your success is in many ways tied to their success. Be seen as someone who can help supervisors achieve their goals. When an institution is looking to hire a leader, they want someone who will help the institution achieve its objectives and showing you can help with that is important.Footnote1
Play the long game. You will experience setbacks, both large and small. You will interview for positions that you do not get. Sometimes, you will not be given the opportunity to lead a project, or the area you are responsible for may have its budget reduced or lose some staff. Show continued growth and resilience and a willingness to help move projects and initiatives forward. Always think about your long-term objectives and be prepared to bide your time, regroup, and continue to work to move forward.
My journey from student employee to CIO took over thirty years and certainly did not follow a straight line. For example, the first time I interviewed for the CIO position, I didn't get it. When that happened, I had a decision to make: stay at my institution and support the person who got the job or leave. I chose to stay, worked hard, gained additional experience, and received feedback to help me better understand what skills I was lacking. When the CIO position became available a few years later, I applied again and was successful. Although that setback was tough, keeping my eye on my long-term objective (to stay at the institution in a meaningful job where I could continue to contribute) helped me put the setback in perspective and move on.
Interview elsewhere. This might seem counterintuitive since your objective is to advance at your current institution but interviewing elsewhere has real benefits. First, it will give you some needed practice. If your first interview in years is for that dream job at your institution, you may not put your best foot forward. Going through the interview process helps you solidify answers to questions about your leadership style and experience. Second, interviewing at other institutions helps you broaden your horizons and learn about other places, including their strengths and challenges. Finally, it may lead you to find an appealing position that you wouldn't have known about otherwise. Knowing that there are other choices out there reduces the pressure you may feel that you must get that new opportunity at your current institution.
Mock interviews with mentors, friends, or trusted colleagues can also be helpful.
Put things in perspective. It's not all about job titles, the number of employees you supervise, the size of your budget, or having a corner office. Getting the opportunity to meaningfully contribute and grow professionally is more than half the battle. By reducing the pressure on yourself to advance, you will often free yourself to do your best work.
Many people have successfully advanced their careers within the same institution but doing so takes intentional work. By proactively seeking opportunities, expanding your horizons, taking advantage of gifts of opportunity, playing the long game, and keeping things in perspective, you're well on your way to success. Good luck!
- Read more about succeeding with supervisors in David Weil, "How to Succeed When Getting a New Supervisor: Tips and Resolutions," EDUCAUSE Review, February 12, 2016. Jump back to footnote 1 in the text.
David Weil is the Chief Information Officer at Ithaca College.
© 2022 David Weil. The text of this work is licensed under a Creative Commons BY-NC-ND 4.0 International License.