Paige Francis on Breaking Gender Roles

min read
The Integrative CIO | Season 1, Episode 4

Hosts Cynthia and Jack talk with Paige Francis, former CIO at the University of Tulsa, about being a woman in a traditionally male leadership role and about thinking strategically.

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Jack Suess: Welcome to the EDUCAUSE Integrative CIO podcast. I'm Jack Seuss, Vice President of IT and CIO at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

Cynthia Golden: And I'm Cynthia Golden, Associate Provost and Executive Director of the University Center for Teaching and Learning at the University of Pittsburgh. Each episode, we welcome a guest from in or around higher education technology, as we talk about repositioning or reinforcing the role of IT leadership as an integral strategic partner in support of the institutional mission.

Jack Suess: I'm thrilled that today's guest is Paige Francis. Paige is CIO at the University of Tulsa, and is one of the CIOs I most wanted to talk with. Hello, Paige.

Paige Francis: Hi, thanks so much for having me.

Jack Suess: So Paige, why don't we start with just letting you tell a little bit about yourself and what your journey has been to date?

Paige Francis: Sure. I am the vice president for IT and CIO here at the University of Tulsa. I have been here 180 days effective last Saturday. I know that because of my blog post. And prior to being here, I was the associate CIO at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville. Prior to that, CIO at Fairfield University, their first CIO in Fairfield, Connecticut. And my first role as chief information officer was at Northwest Arkansas Community College in Bentonville, Arkansas. Prior to that, I worked in industry. So I made the leap from business to higher ed the year that my son was born. That would've been in 2007.

I had no plans, no intentions of even entering technology upon getting my undergrad degree in arts and sciences, communication undergrad. I started working in Dallas, Texas, and suddenly I was recognized for having a fairly decent ability at learning languages. So they recruited me down to the IT department at Dave & Buster's Corporate office in Dallas, Texas. And so that was my first jump into IT. What's great about that is that I feel as if the entire role of the CIO has changed almost to meet my best traits, which is kind of fantastic.

So here I am in Tulsa. I tried to get out of the south area for a minute and I lasted about four years in Connecticut, but now here we are back again. So thrilled to be at the University of Tulsa, thrilled to be in my favorite type of institution, and it's just a great place to be right now.

Cynthia Golden: And I think it's interesting that a number of CIOs report coming into these kinds of roles from a lot of different angles.

Paige Francis: It's almost ludicrous. If you would've told me 20 years ago that I would've been not only in IT, but also an IT leader, I would've completely balked. It was not in any way, shape or form in my trajectory at all.

Jack Suess: Well, when people are growing up, they rarely say that they want to be a CIO. I want to be a teacher, an astronaut, firefighter, engineer, but rarely a CIO.

Paige Francis: We need to change that.

Jack Suess: And you might through your social media.

Cynthia Golden: That leads me to another question for you, Paige is, you're a CIO and you're a female leader in a technical field, in a stem field and you do serve as a role model for younger women in what has traditionally been a male dominated field. So what are some of the strategies that you've learned that can help your women employees and other women be successful or even achieve more prominent roles in their organizations?

Paige Francis: I don't think in many ways the issue is a lack of interest from women. I think it's a lack of acceptance when they get into it and it becomes a hassle and I'll just go in a different direction. IT is not at all what I thought it was 20 years ago. IT is certainly wildly different year over year. What I try to do is paint a realistic picture of what IT is, acknowledge the fact that you're going to come across some bias in our field, but it's really just your job to do your job. And that has legs of its own.

I made a pivot when I was at Fairfield University. I had almost categorically turned down participation in some of the DEI efforts because I was still stuck in that mindset of not wanting to differentiate myself based on my gender. And I had received an invitation to attend an event in New York City. And they had those very often, but this was a full day and the topic was going to be about the value of women in technology. And it was going to be a deep dive into the importance, you were going to hear from individuals about the impact of women and all of this. And it was like a three hour event. And I was like, oh, okay.

So for whatever reason, I looked at it and I started to consider it. It was all male presenters. I don't know what it was about that day and about that invitation, but I actually sent a response to the individuals that were putting on the event. And I just said, I go, "This is shameful. Because what we need are men letting an entire room full of women, let them know how valuable they were, but this was an opportunity for women to be on a stage modeling for women about their impact that they would have in technology."

Well, within two days that entire team was sitting around my conference table at Fairfield University and they were explaining what their intention was and they acknowledged the fact that they missed the mark. But that lit a fire in me and made me aware of the fact of I am in this elevated leadership position. How dare I not use this position to support and further others that might not have an easy of a road as I did getting into IT or into IT leadership? There is so much opportunity in IT that I really want to share the wealth with my gender and encourage them to give IT a second chance because it doesn't matter whether you go into HR information systems, you look at those starting salaries for HRIS versus HR and it's easily a $15,000 gap.

Cynthia Golden: You've just made a really wonderful point about how there is room in IT for people from multiple backgrounds. In my career, we've hired a lot of students in IT departments who have gone on to IT jobs when that wasn't what they were studying at all in school, but they saw the opportunity from what they learned from us and moved on into a career in IT. But I think you make a fantastic point.

Paige Francis: I think if there's anything to be said about IT, if you enter sort of a thriving department and you embrace what's thrown at you and you're open to learn new things, you will have incremental success fairly rapidly. I think IT is the one field where you can really define your own future. How fast you want to go, how slow you want to go, how much time you want to spend at this, how much money you want to make. It's up to where you want to go. You get to define it. You just have to apply yourself. And I've not seen this in any industry beyond IT.

Jack Suess: I agree with you. And I think that what you describe really is an important element of the fact that we have so many skills that we need and that we can bring to the table that it's open to almost anyone in any major. And thinking about you, I've always thought of your super power as, you have many, but one of them is really your communication ability. And I've looked at some of your blogs and follow your writing style and you really connect well with the reader. And I wonder that idea of communication as a key element. How have you brought that in and how has that evolved both with you professionally, but also as you've been a CIO or associate CIO, because that's such an essential skill now in trying to think about how CIOs can be effective. I often think that we don't spend enough time on it. We make the assumption that everyone can communicate when in fact there're techniques and ideas you need to be leveraging. Can you talk about that a little bit?

Paige Francis: Sure. My undergrad is in communication, so it's just one of my favorite things. Of course, I started in IT before, really social media. So I didn't really have that place or that outlet. The audacity of me applying that first time for the CIO role at Northwest Arkansas Community College. I did it almost as a direct result of how I was received differently by executive leadership based on my communication style. The only way that that happens is through effective and persistent communication. And it's not one and done because that's worse. What I recognize pretty quickly is that I would sit in a room where maybe previous IT leadership had sat before and I was asked to stay for meetings at times where they were asked to leave. And it's because people wanted to hear how technology might be able to help them, and I explained it in a way that they understood. If I let an acronym slip out, I am immediately apologizing for it because it's not who I am.

So I've really used communication as a differentiator in my role as a CIO, because I know each place that I walk into, my predecessor was the polar opposite of it. Not better, not worse, just very different. So I have started to make sure that I am always talking to my campus, to where I am sending out communications, to where people feel comfortable reaching out to me delivering feedback. If I've taken a misstep, I want to hear about it before, during and after. Let me know how I can improve, and that's not typical for an IT leader.

I think that everyone's read the books about how important communication is, but it's something that you really have to be intentional about, but you also have to really want to do it because I've seen individuals read the books and try to mock the communication, but there has to be an authenticity there. And if it's not there, then it tends to fall flat and not be quite as effective. So now I'm at a point to where I really enjoy my campus communications. I'm not sure how many other people in our roles enjoy doing it, but I will tell you, I'm seeing more and more of us in these leadership positions who have a knack for, and an interest in kind of communication first. If people don't understand what you're doing and why you're doing it, and when people start talking about spending and cuts and priorities, you're not going to be the first person in any way, other than that technology should be cut unless they understand what you're doing and how it impacts the whole.

Cynthia Golden: Paige, I think you're right on that. And in my experience, if you can explain something to someone, they might not like it. They might not like the end result, but they need to understand why it's happening. And that's why the point you made about communication being a differentiator, especially for senior leaders, it is really a good one. I think that's something that our listeners who might be aspiring to more senior roles might be thinking about.

Paige Francis: And look at other leadership, whether it's in a university or whether it's in a business, these are areas like finance. Look at a provost. These are academics. A president is probably an academic. We've got accounting people. We've got athletics, alumni and university relations doesn't count because of course they're great at communications, but if our peers are executive leadership, you very well might be the best communicator in the room. And that's a big value.

Jack Suess: So Paige, you mentioned social media a couple of times, but you're really quite good at social media. The Huffington post has labeled you as one of the top social CIOs. You use it effectively. I think that's a skill that is really one of the tenants for emerging CIOs is how to be leveraging this. Could you talk a little bit about how you think about this and how you might think about what are some pitfalls or concerns, if any, that you have related to using social media?

Paige Francis: I can remember back when I was at the community college. I was fairly active on our Facebook IT page. And I can remember there was a time to where I was actually concerned about the possibility of someone running metrics and seeing that I had visited Facebook every day. And I just can't even imagine how foreign of a thought that is right now since social media is a part of just about everything that we do. It's more legit sometimes. Like I will often trust Twitter before I trust the news, or sometimes, or if not all times I get my news from Twitter. I know my areas of strength and I know my areas of weakness and I don't know everything about everything. So I get an enormous amount of value out of the EDUCAUSE CIOs [inaudible 00:15:00]. I use it probably to a point that I should be blocked.

For me, social media is the easiest way for me to do that. In order to do that, you have to feel comfortable with the fact that you're not always going to get positive feedback. Thankfully, I literally don't have an ego. And if anything, I err on the side of self deprecation for everything. So anytime anyone has feedback, I'm open for it. But typically when I want to bounce an idea off somebody, I rely on these networks, these social networks. It's a comfort zone for me now, but there are efforts out there, like the CIO Chat. Is a tiny group of maybe 100 of us. I'm not even sure if it's that many of us, but we meet every Thursday online. And for an hour, we talk about a topic and I learn things. I feel like sometimes when you reach a leadership level, that you stop hearing new things, that you spend so much time listening to your team report up to you and decide what the next steps are going to be technologically where you're at, that you stop learning new things.

I use social media to connect with people that I considered to be thought leaders. I learn things. And accidentally along the way, I think that I've been identified as a thought leader just because I'm present and I'm there. For someone who is starting in IT and wanting to move up, I think building your social media, building your brand is a smart thing to do. Find these interactions where you can meet every week and just join a conversation and get known that way. I think it helps people get to know you and it helps you have sort of a litmus test on what you want your next steps to be. And you can also hook up with some great people, mentors getting advice, getting support and advocates.

There's four people that... When I first started here, I wanted a copy of a strategic plan and I reached out to four people, all of whom that are well known among EDUCAUSE and I just sent them a message, "Hey, has anybody got one of these?" And they sent it to me like that day. So there's a definite power in leveraging all of these free tools that you have and social media is just one of them. And I think that building your brand, when you're thinking that you might want to move into IT leadership, I think that some of these social media outlets are the perfect place to do it

Cynthia Golden: And take advantage of what the social networking has to offer. Because prior to that, the career path, maybe to some of these more senior roles was longer because of not having the opportunities to connect so readily, happen more face-to-face at conferences and places like that.

Paige Francis: Yeah. And then, unless you're at Yale or Harvard, higher ed has never been one of those industries where we've just been swimming in money. And so the first thing to always get cut is going to be training and development. I would guess that the past two individuals in my position here at Tulsa, I'm not sure they ever went through professional development or attended any conferences. So what they were doing was kind of business as usual. And there's nothing wrong with that. I think that's what most everyone did in this role historically. They just kept the lights on. Let's just keep going, because that used to be what IT was.

Jack Suess: One of the things that we're really interested in is thinking about this concept of digital transformation. And I think there's opportunity at all institutions for what would be digital transformation, but I'm curious what you think it is, but also what you are trying to work on now, which if you're successful, you think will be a digital transformation that will benefit Tulsa.

Paige Francis: So the bar is low here. I'll just own that right up front. The bar is low. This is a traditional, highly thought of selective liberal arts private institution in Oklahoma. And my vision for TU is that prospective student coming to campus with their parent. If the parent is like me, they don't necessarily want to do maybe all the tours and be hassled. Like when I walk a store, I don't want anyone talking to me, just let me shop. If I need you I'll ask. And I want these individuals to come to campus and I want them to have an app on their phone or something similar so that when they come on campus, they're identified. Like we see them somewhere, but moreover, they get a welcome message, "Welcome to our campus." They can go on a campus tour as they walk by McFarland Library. They'll get a little spiel on that. We preload an account with $10, $15 as they start walking by the Student Union, "Why don't you pop in and get a bagel and a coffee, sit down, enjoy the atmosphere."

As they walk and look at the dorms, they walk up to a door of a particular dorm and the doors unlock or open based on who they are. It identifies who they are. And they're able just to have a sense of connectedness with a campus, which also doubles down on a feeling of security that this parent might have thinking, okay, my child's going to be safe here. That's my vision for TU.

If you imagine the exact opposite of that, that's where we are right now. And this is from, all of our systems are core systems out, like if we wanted to implement some of these changes, we couldn't because our network is set up to block it. Our devices at the registers and card readers are out of date and won't support some of these ID features. You can't use your mobile device to buy a coffee in the union. Just everything is set up in a way that I feel sometimes like I opened a time capsule from 20 years ago and here we are. That is my end state. And there's 7,000 different steps between here and there, but we've already started to embark on it and we're going to start in the areas where we need to start. We're not going to try to really skip steps. We're going to do things in a very thoughtful, deliberate way at a rapid pace. So that's going to be, for me, the tangible of what our digital transformation will look like here at TU.

Jack Suess: Now, have you shared that story and that vision with some of your colleagues outside of IT, and does it resonate with them and is helping you think about, as you say, the 7,000 steps that you're going to need to take?

Paige Francis: Yeah. And I've said it, and we've done conference calls with people across campus. We've already completed one or two of our open forums. We have five more scheduled over the next two months here on campus to get feedback. But I've shared that exact story of here's my vision, because I feel as if for this environment, it absolutely resonates because it's so opposite from where we are now. And it's really geared towards that perspective parent and perspective student experience, which historically has not been a number one priority for IT on this campus. Every step we're taking with ERP upgrades, every step we're taking with devices and Office 365, all of this, it's to support that digital experience for the perspective parent and student.

And we had on the call, one of the individuals from our admissions office, one of our leaders from the admissions area. And she was like, "I'm teary. I never expected to ever hear a story like that out of IT." And that's why I say the bar is low, because that story does not give anyone chills, but it's just really using the communication, making sure that people understand and tying in digital transformation to a real impact and how that could feel to a prospective parent and a student, that is how we should all be communicating.

Cynthia Golden: One of the things that you've talked about a couple times already is that you have a few children, younger children. I'm just curious about the strategies you use to balance what is a very demanding job. And we have, again, people who aspire to more senior leadership roles who also want to have a family and do other things. It's nice to hear once in a while, how people manage that. So how do you manage that part of your life?

Paige Francis: I have a 10 year old daughter and a 12 year old son. To put kind of a date to this, I was awarded my first CIO role when my daughter was three months old. So she's sort of grown up with this. And I am not going to pretend to have it all together. On social media, I look lockstep, like I've just got the whole world together. I'm as much a disaster as I would be if I were back waiting tables at the inner urban and downtown Tulsa. I manage it because I continually make sure that when I can, that my family is absolutely my first priority at all time. There may be times on a Saturday where I have to take a phone call and I have to explain to Bella or Fox that, mommy's got to get on a conference call. But beyond that, one of the great things about working in IT today is that I get to define my own work life balance. And I expect the same of my team.

So when I started here, I noticed that my leadership was not leaving until after I did. And there were times that I was receiving emails from some of my leadership team at 7:00, 8:00 at night. And if I would respond to it, they were still at the office. And I recognize that sometimes an IT, you get in the groove and you want to just complete things because it's fun. Our work is just flat out fun. And so you get that energy, but I needed to make sure that this was not an expectation that had been set for them. And in speaking to them, it was, they didn't feel comfortable leaving until after I left, and they would get in at 7:00 in the morning and leave at 7:00 at night, not because they had that much to work on, they were that jazzed about everything they were doing, but those were the expectations that had been set.

So we rebooted all of that. I think that IT is really ideal for me and that I can work from home certain days if I need to. I empower my team members if they need to work from home. We are all connected. We all have divisive. We have a solid VPN solution. We are in the cloud with Office 365. All of our systems are accessible from wherever we are, 24/7. And so, one of the things that I tend to live with is an appreciation for that work life balance.

These days, there's so many IT jobs out there that you get to choose the culture that you work in. And if you don't like, or don't appreciate, or if the culture you're working in just rubs you the wrong way, I recommend having the transparent conversation with management because they may not be aware of it, but also you have options, especially if you are in the IT field.

Cynthia Golden: It sounds like you've had the opportunity also as a leader to change the culture.

Paige Francis: It was a value that really was drilled into me at Fairfield and it's just this idea of supporting the whole person. I don't want someone that has a family at home to only be focusing on their job. At the end of the day, it's your family that you're going to want to have memory with. And so, I really encourage my team to put family first. I certainly put family first and I lead with that, and I think that IT is the perfect environment for

Jack Suess: The idea of modeling that behavior and making it explicit is just so important. I think that's going to be a great takeaway from this. I have another question that as our podcast is thinking about the integrative CIO, we've seen this marker show up on the last two, top 10 issues that EDUCAUSE has done. What does being an integrative CIO mean to you and how are you trying to sort of be one?

Paige Francis: For me, I think that these days, if you're working in a community environment, that you're not going to be successful from an IT perspective if you're not more integrative. What integrative means to me today is really listening, listening, and learning your environment, identifying the pain points, recognizing where there's duplication of efforts and coming up with ways to make the entire campus run smoother, run smarter and likely identify some savings along the way that can be reallocated on things that people really want to be working on. And you can't do that without rolling up your sleeves and getting to learn your campus.

What I'm seeing right now, I can remember seeing on some of our CIO chats and even, quite often I think on the CIO [Lister 00:29:07] at least a while ago, was this conversation about having a seat at the table, how important it is for the CIO to have that seat at the table. And what I always responded with was, well, the biggest mistake that you could ever make would be just using that seat at the table as a chair, which is really what so many people, that's all they're wanting. They're just wanting to sit there and bask in the limelight of sitting two seats down from the president of the institution or chancellor. That is a terrible misstep. Find someone else to do it if you're going to do that.

The value of sitting at that table is being able to say, I'd like to do this, which is a real hold my beer type of leadership move to really solve the problem. And without a blink of an eye, the provost or the executive vice president or the president saying do it. And I think that that is what the end result of being that integrative leader, when you are recognized as a business partner, who's effective and can actually make change in a great way and they can trust you with that. That's the output. Integrative is just digging in, learning the business and becoming just a persistent piece of their everyday puzzle and providing that value.

Jack Suess: I love that quote at the end, "When you get a seat at the table, just don't sit on the chair."

Cynthia Golden: Yeah.

Paige Francis: I've seen so many people do that and it's like, good Lord, what a wasted effort until you realize that was their goal all along.

Cynthia Golden: It's been really fun to talk to you, Paige.

Thanks for listening today.

This episode features:

Paige Francis
Art and Wellness Enterprises, Inc.

Cynthia Golden
Associate Provost
Executive Director of the University Center for Teaching and Learning
University of Pittsburgh

Jack Suess
Vice President of IT & CIO
University of Maryland, Baltimore County