Sharon Pierce and Tiffni Deeb on Leaders Working Together [podcast]

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Community Conversations | Season 1, Episode 3 | Originally recorded on 3/2/21

John O'Brien, EDUCAUSE President and CEO, talks with Sharon Pierce, President, and Tiffni Deeb, Vice President of Information Technology, Minneapolis College, about how they work together effectively.

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John O'Brien: So welcome everyone. And I'm excited today to be able to meet and have a conversation with Sharon Pierce, the President of Minneapolis College and Tiffni Deeb, the Vice President of Information Technology at Minneapolis college back in my hometown of Minneapolis, St. Paul in Minnesota. So it's a pleasure to have you here. And I thought what we might have a conversation about is how do presidents work with information officers and how do presidents work with technology leadership at a time when technology is everywhere and a lifeline, and also maybe an occasional headache. So we've got lots to talk about. And I think maybe where I'll just start is to ask each of you to talk a little bit about the relationship you have together and how do you work together effectively, especially in the context of a pandemic?

Sharon Pierce: Well, that's a really good question. And I like to start off by just saying that I think presidents need to understand that information technology is in part about infrastructure. It's not an add on. It is fundamental to the functioning of the entire enterprise system. And so you need to have a relationship with your vice-president of information technology or the senior administrator, whoever you're working with so that you can trust that that person understands the needs of the institution, and that they're able to be bilingual, as it were. They need to be able to explain information technology challenges, opportunities in a way that you're able to understand them and then communicate that out to the entire campus, because essentially without information technology right now, we are not able to function or function well or function better, which was sort of what happened with COVID-19. We were challenged and we had to do some very quick pivots and we had to trust that our division would be there for us and get us over into the next place where we needed to be.

Tiffni Deeb: It is a great question from the position of the leader of the information technology services division. I have a fantastic relationship with Sharon, our President, as she has an understanding of technology. I'm fortunate to have the ability to have some technical discussions with Sharon. She has taken the time to understand it, taking the time to listen, and then also challenge me with some of the deliverables. As John indicated, technology is a lifeline and yet sometimes a disruptor, right? And so how do we do that well, how do we work with my colleagues and with our leadership team to ensure that we're delivering the business needs and then strategically planning. And so to have those conversations with Sharon, I can be honest. I can be open. I trust her judgment. I trust her guidance. And sometimes it's like, well, not quite yet, or yes, let's go. Because having that relationship is absolutely critical to the success of the technology and innovation at our campus.

John O'Brien: This all works really well. And part of the reason I wanted to talk to the two of you is because I've known you for a while and I know how well you work together. And I suppose maybe some of that's luck, but what's your advice for each of you for presidents and information officers who don't have that chemistry between the president and the technology leader. What advice would you have for building one when you don't have that foundation? Start with you, Tiffni.

Tiffni Deeb: I would advise technology leaders to really dedicate the time to understanding what the position is of the president and their understanding of technology so that you can be influential and really communicate effectively at their level. Again, I indicated Sharon has some technical understanding, which has been beneficial for me. If I was with a president that wasn't quite as technical, I would spend the time understanding their understanding of technology so that I could communicate well to them, so that we could strategically plan and we could communicate on the same level. That is absolutely critical. So whether somebody has a lot of technical experience or not, it is essential for the technology leader to understand where that is and to position themselves to be influential and communicate effectively to the president and the leadership team.

Sharon Pierce: I completely agree with Tiffni. I think that from the president's perspective, you're expected to know something about a lot of different things. You need to have at least some surface understanding of knowledge across the institution. It's very difficult to lead if you can't communicate with your senior administrators. So for a president, or anyone who wants to be a president, it's important to learn something about technology, because it is part of the infrastructure.

It's like not knowing what you're building. It's like not knowing how many square feet of space you have, or how many buildings you have on campus, if you don't understand the current level of technology and its use in your institution. So doing your homework I think is critical and certainly understanding that you should not get into the weeds, that that's not your job, understanding that it's your job to work and collaborate with your senior administration and not do their job. And I think also understanding the synergy between your budget and information technology, because that's where things can break down very quickly. You have to have enough resources to support technology, but not give the impression that technology is driving the budget, because that will also hurt the relationships across the campus.

Tiffni Deeb: But working with the president that trusts the leader of the technology division is absolutely critical. Sharon has demonstrated many times when we've had critical outages of trust and patience and her willingness just to say, it's okay, we'll get there, is essential. It also positions us so that my role with my team is similar. I continue to encourage them and be their leader and not get in the weeds with them and let them do their good work in those critical times as well.

John O'Brien: One of the things that EDUCAUSE has tracked and taken an interest in over the years since we were founded is the strategic placement of the information officer in our institutions. And so I'd love to hear each of you talk a little bit about that reporting structure and what is the reporting structure that has worked so well for you? And do you think the reporting structure is all that important or not? Is it more about the relationship?

Sharon Pierce: I do believe the reporting structure is important, and I think that it is material to the outcome that you receive. So relationships are critical, and if the person who is your senior information officer does not report to you and reports to someone else, then essentially you've got a triad there. And if that person who's in between is instrumental in building the trust amongst the three, it can work, but it still means that there's a barrier in between, and the quality or characteristics of that barrier will have a direct impact on how information technology services are delivered across the campus.

For me, I believe having the senior information technology officer report directly to the president makes a huge difference in how we operate on our campus, because they don't have to go through another person to advocate for what's needed. What type of resources are required, where the holes are, how much money they need in order to maintain the technology at a level, where we're falling behind and where we need to make strategic investments. And so being able to have that conversation directly with the president, I think can't be understated, because then you still end up in the triad because the president doesn't make decisions alone. And I know you didn't ask this, but that's part of the function of the cabinet, to bring all of those pieces together and then have some priorities setting, some negotiating, some horse trading that happens within the cabinet. And if as the president, you don't understand what the needs are, you can't facilitate that conversation.

John O'Brien: We've been talking about influence on the cabinet, Sharon, you mentioned it, and the reality is that our data shows that 45% of the time, the information officer isn't on the cabinet, making it even harder to have those strategic conversations where it matters most.

Sharon Pierce: That's a disservice to the institution. That's my personal opinion. I know folks will say, well, we don't have any issues. It works out fine and it's serving our institution well. But from my perspective, I think it's a missed opportunity because you would not try and have a cabinet where the facilities people are missing. You don't talk about strategic planning in the future with institution without considering the physical plant. Well, physical plant is full of technology. They are critical to the infrastructure of how an institution works and to plan without them at the table is a daunting task that I think is probably associated with poor risk management, or not the best type of risk management. I probably shouldn't say poor risk management because I don't want to offend anybody who's CIO officer or senior information technology officer is not at the table and their system may be working for them and serving them very well. But for me personally, I think it would be a huge hole.

Tiffni Deeb: As the leader of the information technology work, I believe it's more impactful for the leader to be on the cabinet. It provides me an opportunity to be strategic, innovative, and influential. Without engaging and being at the table with my colleagues, I would not have the understanding of the business that I do now. I can clearly understand some concerns. I can understand some planning and with that information, I can be strategic and help guide and provide the partnerships and the tools and the information appropriately, whether that's data, whether that's security, whether that's tools, whether it's infrastructure transitioning. With being at the table, I can do that. I can listen. I can hear what my colleagues are thinking about. I can be a part of the strategic planning and again, just be much more influential and help our strategic priorities come to success with that engagement.

Sharon Pierce: I think it's very hard to come up with solutions when you don't know the problems and having that person at the table where you are identifying and discussing the problems, makes it a lot easier for them to be part of the solution, as opposed to coming in at the tail end.

Tiffni Deeb: We also have a little bit of a view across the campus, similarly to other divisions like facilities and our academics with just a little bit of a different view across all channels, that we can piece together some of the tools or some of the efforts to be more efficient as well with our resources. If our academic affairs was interested in implementing a tool that perhaps our student affairs have already implemented, the technology folks are the ones that are aware of that, right? So we can help be effective with the utilization, which impacts our students. So we want our student experience to be very seamless and be very effective. And so our view and work can help provide that environment for our students and for our employees.

We also, being at the table, I'm going to bring up the topic of security. Here at listening to my colleagues and participating in discussions, I get a different view of security components of our environment and our world. It helps me and my team do security in an improved way because we have a better understanding of some of the work and some of the concerns that are in place. And so I believe we are providing a more secure environment and improving processes and procedures due to those conversations, which then we're reducing the risk, which Sharon really enjoys.

John O'Brien: Perfect. Well, I can talk for hours. So I've really, really enjoyed our conversation. Thank you, Tiffni Deeb, Vice President of Information Technology and Sharon Pierce, President of Minneapolis College. It's been great to talk to you.

This episode features:

Tiffni Deeb
Vice President of Information Technology
Minneapolis College

John O'Brien
President and CEO

Sharon Pierce
Minneapolis College