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Mitch Davis on Leadership and Change [podcast]

min read
Community Conversations | Season 1, Episode 1 | Originally recorded on 10/22/20

John O'Brien, EDUCAUSE CEO and President, talks with Mitch Davis, Vice President and Chief Information Officer at Dartmouth College, about change and the need for focus.

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John O'Brien: So welcome, Mitch. So I always have felt when you go from one job to another, that it's an opportunity to, sort of abandon strategies that hadn't worked and adopt some new ones. Did you do much of that?

Mitch Davis: Yeah, because 1) I had to do an evaluation of Darvis culture, you have to fit in as a CIO, right? You can't just go in and think that you're going to be walking out of an EDP job at a small liberal arts college and be an EVP position when you're taking a VP position. And you have people above you in a different hierarchical relationship, and how those people integrate and work with each other is something you have to take into perspective. I wanted to be myself, but I also recognized that it was taking a job and they had a goal for me. So what did I need to do about to change myself to be the kind of CIO that they needed? How I was going to work organizationally, what kind of sales I had to do. Where was IT positioned at the college and how are we going to build the organization that really ran and work together?

John O'Brien: But what a great tension built into what you've already said, which is you want to make sure it's a fit, but you also want to be a change agent. And that's a tension I imagine you've lived with for a while and found peaceful.

Mitch Davis: Since I've been alive.

John O'Brien: You've taken me back to my imagining Mitch in third grade...

Mitch Davis: [inaudible 00:01:34]

John O'Brien: But the pay is better now. So there's that part of the reason I was looking forward, many reasons, but one reason for wanting to interview is the certain sort of evangelical zeal that you bring to conversations. But I'm curious also, what does that look like in your team? You know, so it's one thing you can get too focused on bus CIO, right? And, and not change the culture or share the power or so talk about what,

Mitch Davis: I am a complete, I flattened organizations. The lowest level person in my organization has the ability to walk in my front door and talk to me about ideas as to how I could change, or how the organization can change. I push decisions down to the people who have the most knowledge about a subject, and I do not expect that person to then come up to me and explain to me all the knowledge they have so that I can make that decision. What I do, is I own the risk so that my staff have the ability to make those decisions very quickly, given their knowledge. I give them that ability. They also, if they fail, it doesn't fall on them and falls on me, because I was the one who gave them the ability to make those decisions. So I push decisions down to the most knowledgeable person, they act on that and they move it out.

I can create leadership teams. So we have eight leadership mentoring organizations. They're about 8 to 10 people each and each of them are geared to basically accelerate people's careers and to teach them a form of leadership. I don't believe leadership is taught. I know you guys have leadership programs and stuff, but I don't believe leadership is taught with a net. In other words, you have to have risk associated when you're making decisions, you have to be working with people and you own that sort of solution. In the end, I do give them kind of a net because if they get in trouble and they screw up, it's my fault.

John O'Brien: So what's a really good apology you've had to deliver recently for something that you stepped up and took the hit for?

Mitch Davis: What would it be? Probably it was a marketing issue. The way they were marketing a software application across the campus was pretty horrible. They developed something that wasn't what we had been asked for it and I don't know how it got to where it was, but I own that. And I just went back to them and said, back to the drawing board, no, you're not going to watch this. I have to go tell everybody this isn't going to happen, and that we made a mistake and that mistake, it will be rectified because we will fix it. But we just... I don't know how it got off the tracks.

John O'Brien: As my CIO boss would say, I blame myself.

Mitch Davis: It must not have been clear because you give people responsibility. But what you want is to create a leadership organization where people are confident and they become incredibly confident in their ability, and they will make decisions. My first mentorship team, has a 22 year old woman, Indian woman, who came to our team and went over in the programming group. And now she's in another group, and then she has another, she's had three jobs now. She's been promoted twice, but then she started her own mentoring team of 8 to 10 people. One day she called me and she and I went to her office and she said, "well, I don't feel like I'm a leader." And I said, "you have a mentoring team where you have 50 year old men asking how to advance their careers. I think you're probably a leader you're only 22 years old."

And so those leadership teams are actually the cool thing that people running them, get that next level of leadership training. They're on their own. I'm not leading that group. I am invited as a consultant to their mentorship teams, but it's not my organization. They run them, they focus, and now we're building a third one or they're building it and inviting me. And my first assessment to them is they wanted to start their mentoring team based on what the one that's been together for two and a half years is doing. And we're talking about race relations, we're talking about really hard subjects that take a lot of trust. And I said, how about we start getting to know each other, you guys start getting to know each other before you just started talking about things that are going to basically emotionally tax you and intellectually tax you. And without that trust, without that sort of background knowledge, you're not going to be able to discuss, have discussions like this.

John O'Brien: The last few comments, remind me of my favorite leadership quote. The one about the great leader who leads people to conclude: we did it ourselves.

Mitch Davis: Our marketing and sales isn't about going out and selling a project. We pre-sell. In other words, by pre-selling is when we know we want something needs to be done, we pre-sell the idea. And then the faculty and students come to us, why isn't this done yet? And then we busted our asses we get it done, and they're celebrating, oh my God, the best thing since buttered bread. And that's where consistently, if you think of change, change is about creating a positive environment for your client, right? So what you're trying to do is to design your client. You take all the attributes of your most successful client, and then all of your marketing, all of your communication, every way you interact with those people is shifting your clients so they become your best clients. And then you move from a change negative state where instead of resisting your technology, they're assisting in the deployment of your technology.

John O'Brien: So again, part of your recklessness, I think you've used almost all of the forbidden words business, client. I don't know if you've yet said customers, yet. You talk in polite company. You do, are you bilingual? Or do you use these words?

Mitch Davis: I use clients. And then they asked me, what's a client? And I have a description of user client, customer partner, and I there's a definition for each one of them. And I have a book called- but you've read it. I've read it- The Meditation's of a CIO. It's all defined in that, faculty read it. I just give it to them. And I said, this is my latest version. I update it. It's like a journal. I update it with ideas and stuff every two weeks. I add something to it. I take something out.

John O'Brien: So a little different topic. If I go back and review the transcript, you've mentioned, I think three institutions, Stanford, Bowden, and Dartmouth. And I'm curious how translatable these ideas are to, say the institutions that when I was on a campus, at a community college or a regional state university, that's going to be hammered next year with the tax revenue. How, how does this stuff translate to less well-resourced?

Mitch Davis: Okay, so you forgot Oregon.

John O'Brien: Ah, there we go.

Mitch Davis: So when I went to Oregon, Oregon had no money. They were actually a fifth tier law school, I almost lost their accreditation. And by the time we were done, I mean, I went there with no money. So what did I do? I knew Apple needed a vertical in law. They want to read that time that they wanted a vertical in law. So I called a guy Kawasaki and I said, "Hey, I'm going to go to this law school. And what if we made it an Apple law school?" At that time, Apple and Westlaw and Lexus and everything just weren't there. And he said, "that's a great idea. Let me run this up the flag pole until he gets a frigging nosebleed." And then a big truck arrived.

And we converted a law school over from Windows to Apple and also negotiated with Lexis and Westlaw to create Apple and Apple solutions for their services so we could run them at a law school. And that was the first laptop program for any law school. And that was at a school that had no money, zero money. But then we also said we wanted to level the playing field because there were certain people that at Oregon who had technology and stuff, cause they [inaudible 00:09:46] had money and there were people who did well, what we did is we just leveled the playing field and then working with every faculty, working with every staff, we converted that law school over to Mac in three months, and then we went online with laptops in the classroom, everybody utilizing them, came up with this whole program about how to integrate technology and law in not only into the teaching of law, but my argument and why I went there was to integrate it into the practice of law because I used to be a consultant for law firms and I was pissed at the way they were doing their practice.

I had developed software that accelerated their law firms, and it enabled them to own three to four times as many clients with the same amount of resources, but they wouldn't do it because big and lawyers were not learning, learn how to use technology. So their argument was to bring me to a law school to fix that. So then they have no money, right? We go through a fundraising project, we raised $38 million, in a budget crunch with no money, and build a brand new law school in less than three years. That's what I do at a place that has no money. Ideas get funded, but you can't expect standard pathways to do that. You can't always hold your hand. It's like, what's the K-12 handshake? No, that's that's higher ed.

Well, that's K-12 is one hand, higher ed is both hands. So the problem is too many people have their hands out and they're not coming with ideas. So what I do is, again, earn your place at the table. When you go talk to a company, give them an idea they didn't have about their company and how they would make it successful. Give them an idea as to the way they could change. Give them an idea as to why they want to be with you versus anybody else, and they will put money into your project. Same thing with trustees, things with alumni. Our students. Don't talk about the same old things. What can you do to change the way they perceive you and what can you do to change the way that you interact with them? So that again, you're finding ways to work with them they've never had before, and you're providing value that never existed.

And that's the role of the CIO, I think, more than anything else is you do not get to be on the sidelines. You're out on the field, carrying the ball sometimes. And to do that, you have to move it down the field in ways that have never been thought about before at your institution. And I think that's one problem at Dartmouth is that everybody wants the venture money to move things forward. Where if you're at Stanford, most faculty and staff were screw that there's not enough venture money. I'm going to do my own research. I'm going to get my own money and I'm going to do this and I'm going to start a business and I'm going to move out. So I think more people even in public and in private need to be thinking that way, what can I do to make a difference in the room?

How do I become the change in my room? And I would say, that's what I do to empower my staff is I asked them, I said, "when you go to a meeting, how are you the change in that meeting? What have you done? What value have you brought to that meeting that allowed whatever they were trying to do to accelerate?". If all you did was sit there and listen, like everybody else, and perceive that information without actually contributing back, then why was there a meeting? If every person comes to a meeting thinking that they're going to make a difference, think how much more you could do and how many different things.

And also the person that presenting the information is just saying, this is my best idea at the moment. It's not the idea we're going with. This is always an idea in motion. So don't get upset if somebody comes up and says, "that's a crap idea. Here's a better one." Say, "oh, what's the better one?" Do not be emotionally tied to solutions. Do not be emotionally tied to technology in any way, be emotionally tied to the results, but that's about it. How you get there has to be something that's very flexible and fluid.

John O'Brien: So you've described a lot of things that you've learned a lot of great leadership strategies and some things that have gone really well. Of course, we're all interested in the other end of that spectrum and what hasn't worked well, what's taken you by surprise?

Mitch Davis: I think the engagement with my staff and their families. Because what's happening is happening to their families and it's happening across the board and, the amount of even the tiniest amount of empathy that I'm able to express in the small things that I do that help them with their families that help them with their lives, which I think writing sort of inconsequential like, oh, take that time, take your chair, take your desk, do those things. You're having trouble with you. Sit down, let them talk to you and tell you and tell you about their hard times that they're going through, that their kids are going through. And what that has done is it's allowed them to vent in a way that gives them the freedom then to become highly productive employees. And they feel they become more engaged with Dartmouth if Dartmouth is helping them through this process.

And one of my staff said, "do you have a plan for each of us?", And he said, "I mean, you talk to everybody individually as if you know him.". So that's what I, I would say the difference is I have spent more learning that my individuals and not people as a group, not staff as a group, but what's important to them. And what can I say in the moment that's going to make a significant difference in their life. Even if it's tiny, even if it's a recognition of their struggle. That means a lot during this period of time. And I had never, I've been a little bit of that, but I've never been as focused as I have been in the past. And I think this is drawing this sort of empathy out of me that maybe some would say I did that. It's something that I really it's a part of me that I've focused probably more on my personal life, but now it's become very much a part of my work life. And I think it keeps people strong and it's basically, you have to be strong to be able to do that.

John O'Brien: Well, Mitch, thank you. The hardest thing to come by these days is time. So thank you for generously giving me your time.

This episode features:

Mitch Davis
Vice President and Chief Information Officer
Dartmouth College

John O'Brien
President and CEO
EDUCAUSE