Modeling the IT Strategist: A Guide for Existing and Aspiring Leaders

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Over the holidays, I was catching up on my reading backlog with the white paper from EDUCAUSE and Jisc titled Technology in Higher Education: Defining the Strategic Leader, released in March 2015, along with the follow-on article published that May in EDUCAUSE Review. I feel these resources are well written and want to discuss them here, primarily the paper.

They were created by a working group of IT leaders selected by EDUCAUSE and Jisc, the national organization supporting the use of digital technologies for higher education and research in the United Kingdom. The survey work that formed the basis of this effort was undertaken at a facilitated session held at the EDUCAUSE Annual Conference in 2014.

What makes this white paper very useful is that the working group developed a concentric visual model for leadership (see figure 1), which identifies the IT leader at the center as being the Information Technology Strategist and then builds outward from that role with what they see as 10 core skills or competencies necessary to be successful. Each skill or competency is then discussed in detail.

A model for IT leadership

Figure 1. A model for IT leadership

For those who are planning to remain as IT leaders for a number of years or are considering becoming an IT leader in the future, the paper spends a good bit of time on changes taking place in technology and how the IT leader's role is changing as well. What I'd like to focus on here is how current and emerging IT leaders and those interested in advancing their soft skills can use this model now. Few of us are going to master all 10 of these competencies, but all of us can begin to focus on actions that will improve our competencies.


Advice for Current IT Leaders

The resources speak to the important point that the skills and competencies that made you successful in the past may not suffice  as your organization's IT needs change, and that the IT strategist role identified for the IT leader will likely change over time. For example, strong skills in business process design and operations may have landed you the job as IT leader when your campus was implementing an ERP system, but those skills and the relationships you built may not suffice when the most pressing institutional initiative becomes online learning.

The successful IT strategist must understand not only what the institution is trying to achieve but also what role technology can play in advancing its strategic priorities. The model notes that to fulfill the strategist role, you must develop your competencies as a trusted advisor, relationship builder, and visionary. Being a trusted advisor is primarily about building a relationship with the person you are advising. People will only trust your advice if they believe you understand their needs and have their best interests at heart. If they believe you are pushing your own agenda, they will be suspect of your advice. In addition, when working with other leaders, it is essential that you maintain trust by listening purposely, providing honest feedback, maintaining confidentiality, and living up to your commitments. It takes time to become a trusted advisor, and that trust can erode quickly if you fail to maintain confidentiality.

It's very important to reestablish trust when leadership transitions occur. Whether it involves your boss or a colleague in another division, spending time establishing relationships across the university gives you an understanding of a broad range of institutional issues and may help you gain access to strategic priorities discussions. A goal I make each year is to look beyond my peer leaders to identify emerging leaders on campus and build relationships with them — new members of the President's Council, for example, or new staff in important roles. These peer leaders are important allies with my division, and I want make certain to build good relationships with them.

I encourage IT leaders to use the skills list as a starting point for how to do a self-evaluation. Look at each of these 10 competencies and rate yourself. Be honest with where you have real strength as well as where you can improve. In my last blog, I noted the importance of having a mentor or coach, who can be a great resource for discussing your self-review to get feedback on your skills. All of the skills in the list can be cultivated; many build on emotional intelligence skills I have discussed in a prior blog.

Advice for Emerging IT Leaders

I encourage you to first focus on the anchor role, listed as "human," that notes the importance of being authentic and accessible and achieving a work-life balance. Understanding your personal values and management approach is critical to being authentic. This grounding is important to becoming an IT leader: it empowers those working for you to understand how you would want them to respond when issues occur, and it's essential to delegating responsibility and building a strong team.

In addition, for emerging IT leaders, I believe it is useful to have a personal development plan geared toward improving the six skills in the second ring: ambassador, team builder, master communicator, promoter and persuader, change driver, and coach. Each of these skills builds the three competencies of the leader: trusted advisor, relationship builder, and visionary. A coach or mentor can help suggest experiences that develop these competencies. It is rare that your job will present the opportunity to build all of these skills to the level that you may desire. You may need guidance to step outside your comfort zone and try a new experience — teaching a class, joining a professional workgroup, or volunteering or service work can all provide opportunities to build these skills. While the three metaskills on the third ring are focused on leadership, they all draw on skills from the second ring. What is important is for you as an emerging leader is to be able to talk about examples of your leadership that draw from your experiences in the second ring, which demonstrate competencies in one or more of the three high-level metaskills on the third ring.

Using this model, you will know that you are well prepared for a new leadership position when, for any of the six skills listed in the second ring, you can succinctly answer an interview question of what you have done to build and demonstrate these skills into your work experiences. Ideally, it will be in the context of IT, but sometimes emerging leaders have had a signature leadership experience outside their work. If this is the case, you should explain how you would integrate that experience into a new position.

If you are still on the fence about whether you are interested in becoming an IT leader, the paper provides wonderful case studies and comments from an assortment of IT leaders who can give you more insight into both the work of the IT leader and the skills required to be successful.

Finally, for technical staff or those just beginning to manage other staff, the white paper provides a roadmap for developing your skills today. Everyone will benefit from improving skills in team building, communication, managing change, and being an ambassador for the organization. Whether you want to be a manager or not, developing these skills early on will improve your success at work and increase your value. In particular, learning to communicate effectively and managing change are two skills I encourage everyone to focus on developing. Learning how to communicate effectively in a meeting or with your boss is always important to your job success. Learning to manage change effectively is a skill that requires empathy and understanding how what you are doing will impact other stakeholders, as well as the ability to work with them to be successful.

In conclusion, for current and emerging leaders, this white paper is an important resource for visualizing and developing the high-level metaskills necessary to be an effective information technology strategist. Through case studies, the white paper provides insight into the day-to-day work of successful leaders.

John J. "Jack" Suess is vice president of IT and CIO at University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC).

© 2016 Jack Suess. The text of this EDUCAUSE Review blog is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License