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Sharon Blanton on Change Leadership

min read
The Integrative CIO | Season 1, Episode 14

Hosts Cynthia and Jack talk with Sharon Blanton, Vice President of Operations at the College of New Jersey.

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Jack Seuss: 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: I'm Cynthia Golden, associate provost 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.

Hi, everyone. Today, we are joined by Sharon Blanton. Sharon is Vice President for Operations at the College of New Jersey.

Sharon, welcome. Could you take a couple minutes and introduce yourself to our audience?

Sharon Blanton: Yes, certainly. Thank you, and thank you for having me visit with you today.

I've been at the College of New Jersey for just over six years. I started at TCNJ as the vice president and CIO of the college. Then over the course of the last six years, I was invited to take on some other roles that expanded into what we call the VP for operations at TCNJ. That includes information technology, campus police services, institutional research and analytics, HR and campus facilities.

Cynthia Golden: With all of those as part of your portfolio, how long was it from the time you joined TCNJ until you expanded your portfolio?

Sharon Blanton: Thinking back, I think it was about a year and a half, maybe two years. What happened was our president retired and a new president came in. She had different thoughts about how the organizational structure might work best. And there was another role that had been ... Somebody else, another VP left, and then we started splitting up some of that person's duties.

The first area that I moved into was campus police, which might be surprising to you, but as the CIO, I had worked really, really closely with campus police to revamp all of their technology, the whole dispatch area, the systems that they use for record keeping, and security cameras system. So I had worked with them really closely and had gained a lot of knowledge of that area, but also just really, really deep relationships that ended up making sense for that to continue on and to grow.

Jack Seuss: Sharon, is there an area that, if your president came to you and said, "Sharon, I'd like you to take on advancement, student affairs, alumni relations," you'd say, "Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa. I don't see that in my core competence," or do you feel that really there's nothing in the higher ed portfolio that you'd be reluctant to take on?

Sharon Blanton: I think it matters what kinds of projects you've been doing and what areas you've been working in. As an example, HR started to make sense, because we did a major HRIS implementation. So again, there was this relationship that had been developed.

Jack, you mentioned advancement as an example. I'd be horrible at advancements, I think, because I go to bed at 9:00 at night. I'm not really good at going to events and doing a lot of small talk and asking for money.

So I do think there are certain areas that really are not in my core competence area, but if you're talking about areas where systems are really important, and customer service is very important, and building communication structures, those kinds of areas, that's where I think I can really bring something to the table.

Jack Seuss: How did it feel to let go of IT?

Sharon Blanton: I have to tell you, I mourned that for several months, maybe even a year. It had been my identity for over 30 years. I've been CIO at five institutions across the country. That's how I grew up. I grew up in that discipline. That's where all of my friends and colleagues and contacts were. As I started to move into other areas, I didn't have that network, that national network to tap into.

Although, interestingly, we're starting to see more CIOs move into expanded areas of responsibility. Some of us have sought each other out. We've started communicating. We've actually had that conversation, Jack, about, "How hard was it for you to step away from IT a little bit, and what were your struggles in moving," for example, "into facilities?"

IT versus facilities, completely different cultures. You have to learn that. You have to understand that people operate differently in these different domains. So you have to be the kind of person that can easily move among cultures, if you will.

So while initially it was really hard for me to let go of IT somewhat, as I started getting more and more involved in the other areas, I just was so darn excited about those areas that, over time, my loss, so to speak, of the IT domain became less painful.

Cynthia Golden: You somehow found a peer group too like yourself.

Sharon Blanton: Yes.

Cynthia Golden: Sharon, when we talked a couple weeks ago, you were saying that the more you take on responsibilities outside of IT, the more it puts things like the role of IT into perspective. Could you talk a little bit more about that?

Sharon Blanton: Yeah. In recent years, we've been talking a lot about the integrative CIO. At every point in a CIO's career, I think if you're successful in that role, you reach a point where you realize you're not really representing IT so much anymore, but you're representing the college. You're the VP of the college or of the university.

There is a natural kind of progression, where you start to step away from IT a little bit and look at the bigger picture. That is really amplified when you start taking on these other roles, and you start to realize that, "Wow! That project that I was just willing to fall on my sword for five years ago in IT, as I look back, that might not have been the most important thing for the institution at that time."

You have to start putting yourself in other shoes and really thinking about the institution more broadly. I think that really helps as you start taking on some of these other leadership roles.

Jack Seuss: That point that you just made, I think, is really critical, that when you're a vice president, you're a vice president of the institution, you may have an area that you're responsible for, but it really is this institutional context.

Especially now, as we've spent the last couple of years in the pandemic, I think of my student affairs colleagues, and they have just been through the ringer. So whenever I think of, "Oh wow. We've got challenges with this and with that," I think about just how much they've had to deal with and manage through this.

It helps, I agree, it really is important in putting it into perspective that there are some people who are dealing with just really crisis kinds of situation, often on a week to week basis. So our problems, while they're important, they aren't necessarily life and death.

Sharon Blanton: Absolutely. People are really struggling. We have to recognize that, and we have to think about whether or not this is the best time to implement a new product. Is that just going to inflict more injury on the community? Maybe some of the IT priorities need to be rethought or reimagined, or maybe pushed out a few months. Again, it's really thinking about the whole community of your institution.

Cynthia Golden: Yeah. I think that the more that CIOs are working across the university, you really do see the integration more and more, as you're working more and more across the institution.

Sharon Blanton: I think it matters. The TCNJ, for example, is a very centralized organization for IT. Pretty much everything that happens regarding IT throughout the college comes to central IT. So you have a real advantage there, where you really get to learn about all of these other areas.

Whereas at a larger university, you can have individual IT departments in the various schools. The CIO of the university might not get that benefit of having that regular contact and connection with other areas.

I feel really fortunate that I happened to be at TCNJ at the right time, where my skills matched the needs of the institution. I was able to grow, and I also was able to learn a lot over these recent years, and was able to develop new leaders coming through the ranks. I think it's really important, as you take on these other roles, you've got to be not just thinking about succession planning, you need to be living it.

Jack Seuss: One of the things that I think is definitely in your core competence, but I think it's an element that successful IT leaders have, is change management skills. Can you talk, as you've been in different institutions, I'm sure you've honed a portfolio of these, but what kind of change management strategies have been useful for you?

Sharon Blanton: We talk about change management. We also talk about change leadership. I see them a little bit differently, because change management can mean something pretty ... a little bit more technical and methodical in the IT world.

But when you expand that to talk about change leadership at an institutional level, now you're really talking about, again, being able to step into someone else's shoes, and understand their work life and their workflow, and understanding how any kind of change that you're contemplating, how that might impact them. So change leadership is a lot about influence and persuasion.

Jack Seuss: Trust is another core element of change in doing that.

We often talk, in higher ed, about digital transformation, which is kind of a buzzword for change leadership slash change management in some instances, but it's probably more change leadership.

Have you, from your perspective, and especially now being able to be at a broader level, do you feel that's enabled you to do more with digital transformation at the College of New Jersey?

Sharon Blanton: I think it's starting to enable me to do that. One of my core tenants with change leadership is I'm not allowed to implement a change that's going to make things worse for you. I can't implement a change that gives me an efficiency, but makes your workflow fall apart, or requires you to hire additional people, because it's now so complex for you that it doesn't make sense anymore.

So now, I think when we have more of these areas coming together under one VP ... It's really a shame that it has to come to this. You would think that all of these areas could just work together to initiate change. But it seems that it's not until you get these core leaders together, and you have some real responsibility and accountability to each other, that you can then really implement the kind of change you're talking about, Jack.

It's something that fascinates me about organizational culture and organizational communication, that we can't just, as individuals, come together and do a better job of cooperating and initiating change.

Cynthia Golden: I would like to come back to something you just said a few minutes ago about succession planning. Having worked with you on various committees over the years, I know that you see developing staff as very important, and an important role that you play no matter what your position is. How do you approach succession planning and building the next generation of leaders?

Sharon Blanton: I start by really putting a lot of time into hiring the right people. Too often, I see people make the mistake of just being desperate to fill a position. They see the process as bureaucratic, and it takes too long and so forth.

But it's so important to put that planning into it, to really understand, write a good job description that actually makes sense and actually reflects what you want the person to do in the institution, and then take the time to get the right person in that role.

Then you have to really spend the right kind of time with that individual, and help them really understand the culture of the institution. You don't want them to step into something that's going to be harmful, or that's going to set them back as a leader in an institution. So it's a lot of mentoring.

I feel really strongly that you should always have the expert in the room when you're discussing something. So I like to bring others to meetings, to cabinet, to a board meeting, whatever it might be. I'm going to bring the AVP for facilities management to deliver the asset management plan.

It needs to come from the experts, and we need for others in the institution to see that person as the expert, and as someone who could then step into another role. So it's so important, I think, for them to get that exposure, in different settings and in different ways, and in a consistent manner.

Cynthia Golden: Has the pandemic had much of an effect on your strategies for succession planning? There's been a lot of churn in our profession, I know.

Sharon Blanton: In IT at TCNJ, there has not been. It's been very, very stable. We did have a lot of churn in facilities management. We had a number of retirements. Almost the entire leadership structure was just wiped out within a matter of months, because of retirement opportunities.

So we had to really spend ... Well, it took me a little over a year really to start rebuilding that, and identifying the right people to bring into the institution. It meant providing new opportunities for some people who were already at TCNJ. In other cases, it meant bringing expertise in from outside of the college.

It was a lot of work, but it's really, really important foundational work, I believe. I do a lot of the interviewing and running searches myself, because I just feel so strongly about it, that it's so important to find the right people, get them in the right jobs, and then let them do their thing.

Jack Seuss: That is so important, the advice that you're giving, because we all know that the wrong person in a position is almost toxic. When you look at some of the literature that Harvard Business has done and others, the effect that managers and leaders who aren't good leaders can have on teams and groups is just something that can really be challenging in an organization. So I think your point about spending that extra time is just a critical element that we all have to be thinking about.

Sharon Blanton: Jack, I can can give you a specific example of something just very recently that's very applicable to this. I, for about, I don't know, four or five years, was making the case that we needed a person that was wholly dedicated to emergency planning. We finally got that position through and approved.

Many thought that that position should report into campus police, and reporting to the captain there, because he really manages a lot of the emergency management protocol and procedures from a police standpoint. But I felt so strongly that this was an important campus-wide, college-wide position, that I have it reporting directly to me, at least for a while.

Again, I want to mentor the person, and help them get really into the culture of the organization, and help to really set him up for success. Then it may make sense, in a year perhaps, to relocate. But I think initially, it's just really important to put that time in.

Jack Seuss: You had let us know that you were initially trained as an instructional designer. I find that really interesting, because a great instructional designer is used to working with people. You're pulling things out of what needs to be done. I'm curious if there are certain elements of that skill and that capability that you think really set you on your path to be the leader that you are today.

Sharon Blanton: That's what gave me the foundation to move forward. I started off many years ago studying mass communication and instructional technology at what was then Towson State University in the 1980s. I really only got into the computing side of things because I was the person in the room when the computers arrived. I unboxed them and helped faculty learn how to use them, and set things up.

I've always been interested in the technologies, and how they're used as tools to improve communication, to improve understanding, to better workflow. Then I got more into instructional design. What really spoke to me about that is the process of instructional design, the systematic design of instruction.

As you said, there are ways to tease out the information and really think about what is the core goal that we are trying to achieve. Identify that first. Then you go back and figure out, "Well, how do you know that goal has been demonstrated?" Then you think about, "Well, how can you prepare that individual to learn that content so that they can then successfully demonstrate it?"

It's the same thing with all technology really. It's kind of the same process as me, going back to the question earlier about change leadership, change leadership and instructional design are very much alike in my mind. So I think instructional design was just a fantastic core foundational training for me.

I didn't actually do instructional design for that many years really, but I always came back to those skills, and applied them to program delivery, project management, project selection, tool ... roll out, et cetera, because I just feel like they're really core skills.

Cynthia Golden: I agree. The nature of that work makes instructional designers really good project managers.

Sharon Blanton: Yes.

Cynthia Golden: I see that here every day. At my institution, the instructional designers have been in high demand for individual consultations, particularly since the pandemic, because the remote teaching opened people's eyes to the way their courses are constructed, and how they want to get the material across, and suddenly learning objectives have become important. It's been interesting to watch that.

Sharon Blanton: It's been the same here. We hired some temporary ... Actually, we hired one or two new positions, I believe, and then there also were some temporary positions to really help with just this incredible need that you're talking about.

Cynthia Golden: And it continues to grow. We're doing our end of the year reports. As you're pulling the data together, you can see how attendance at workshops has gone up and individual consultations have gone up.

I will switch gears just a little bit, since we're doing this podcast under the auspices of EDUCAUSE. I just wanted to ask you, Sharon, how have organizations like EDUCAUSE played a role in your own professional growth and development?

Sharon Blanton: Well, EDUCAUSE in particular has been core to me. That's where I made so many connections. That's where I built my network. That's where I also learned to start thinking more broadly about the CIO role.

That's where I met key people like Wayne Brown. I met him many years ago, I think it was shortly after he had completed his dissertation. He was presenting his CIO in higher ed studies. I became very, very interested in his work. He and I started collaborating.

I think if hadn't been for that relationship, again, that started at EDUCAUSE, and then developed into this great friendship and working relationship, where I started really thinking about how the CIO role can be different from one institution to another, and I became tremendously interested in how we prepare people for the CIO role, and started developing and teaching courses.

I guess I think of EDUCAUSE almost like a lifeline, or it's the phone a friend. When you get stuck, and you're not quite sure what to do, you could always find a friend through EDUCAUSE. Many times, it's the EDUCAUSE staff, and all of the research and work they do. Sometimes, it's other members of EDUCAUSE, like the Wayne Browns and the Cynthias and the Jacks.

I could give a long list of probably hundreds of people that I've collaborated with over the years within EDUCAUSE, but also regionally. Sometimes it takes going to a national organization like EDUCAUSE to really get connected to someone in your own backyard, and then you start to develop that regional set of relationships.

But I've had the great fortune of working on, I don't even know how many different committees and projects over the years for EDUCAUSE. Every single time, I learn something. I meet new people. I learn new perspectives. It just makes me generally a better person, but it also makes me a better leader for my institution.

This episode features:

Sharon Blanton
Vice President of Operations
The College of New Jersey

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