Correcting Career Missteps

min read
EDUCAUSE Exchange | Episode 6

We can’t always make the right choices on our career path, but if we learn from our mistakes, we have a much better chance at future success. In this episode, we ask higher ed IT leaders, what was your biggest career misstep and how did you course correct?

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Gerry Bayne: Welcome to EDUCAUSE Exchange where we focus on a single question for the higher ed IT community, and hear advice, anecdotes, best practices, and more. We can't always make the right choices when it comes to our profession, but it's important to learn lessons along the way. In that spirit, for this episode, we asked several IT leaders, what was the biggest misstep you made in your career and how did you course correct?

Deborah Gelch: My biggest misstep when I thought back about my career, which is, I've been doing this. My first job in computers was when I was 20 years old.

Bayne: That's Deborah Gelch, former CIO for Curry College, and current higher education consultant and principal at Excel Together. She expresses a bit of regret at having waited to fulfill some academic goals.

Gelch: When I thought back through that career and all the changes that I went through, corporate, and then to higher education, what was my misstep? That I didn't get my master's degree until later in life. I really believe that if I really had a better connection to understanding how businesses worked, and the inner workings of the different departments of business, and really sat back and reflected on the different areas, I would have jumped into the connection of IT to business much faster. And I think that's what transformed me.

Bayne: She says that getting her master's degree really opened her eyes to the big picture of technology and business processes.

Gelch: Kind of like, "Oh, I see how it fits together now." I see how we are the business and we need to pull apart how we interact and work together, that we're on the same team and working together. And I think my master's program helped me understand that better. And I wish I had done that sooner in my career, 'cause I think I just would have had more years of actually doing this, kind of changing around the way of thinking of IT.

Orlando Leon: Big data exposure happened at the beginning of 2018, and it was a pretty big one. We had a hard drive theft, and I was just trying to figure out, well, what's the actual process? There was nothing really documented.

Bayne: Orlando Leon is chief information officer at California state university, Fresno. He says when he encounters a misstep in his career, the most important thing he can do is learn from it.

Leon: So I reached out to our chancellor's office, and of course I reached out to campus council and everyone else involved. And I would say that the misstep was really not really a big deal. It was just how I approached that, and making sure that I connected with all the right people. There's so many federal and state regulations that drive how we notify people, for example. So there was a lot of learning. And so I would say the next time around, I would know better when there's a big data exposure. I have a professional coach and she would ask me every time that there's something that I've done, maybe not to the best of my ability, or chose the wrong direction, perhaps. She would ask me, what have I learned about that? What can I learn to move forward? So naturally when I do have a mistake, I will, of course try to talk to other people about it. My boss, in this case, the president, to be very honest about it so that I can learn from it. So I can be accountable to my mistakes, and then grow from there.

Bayne: Sometimes your career misstep can creep up and surprise you, like it did for Karen Warren. She's deputy chief information officer at Wesleyan University.

Karen Warren: A recent example of a major project where some stuff went wrong was just the choice of my communication style, which I had thought was thought out. I had asked for advice, that I thought I was putting the information out there, in this case to our faculty in such a way that was pretty clear and straightforward. And when it wasn't, and things didn't go terribly well, and there was a lot of backlash and frustration and--

Bayne: And here she takes a long pause, reflecting on what seemed like an ambush.

Warren: I had to sit and figure out, well, what do I own in that? Like, which part of that was mine? The seems like it was really good. A lot of people read this, so it wasn't just me, was the kind of initial reaction. And I looked again and I said, "All right, you know what? "I think I almost sounded too marketing." I think I almost went for this spin and did not go towards complete frankness about what would or wouldn't be perfect. And since then in other, honestly, less consequential, but in smaller ways where I could kind of try that out, I've just said, "Look, I suspect this is probably "not the answer you may want to hear, "but I need to tell you that there's this, this and this "and the priority for this is going to be this right now. "And here is why." And I've had some good response for that, right? So that was one where it took a little bit, it wasn't immediately obvious to me. It wasn't like clicking send to the wrong person, or anything like that. But it was afterwards, like where did this go so awry? And it was really around that communication, and the frustration and the constant feedback I got, which was that they were misled. And I thought, "Wow, that, that seems extreme." And then realizing what the implications for that were.

Bayne: Karen says that while her slip up wasn't career altering, for her, it was about taking ownership of the mistake.

Warren: It was a project with a high enough profile for sure that I had that takeaway and said, "Okay, let's think about lessons learned here. "and figure out how to do that again." And also come away and make sure that I've got some credibility. And there've been times since then, where I've had face-to-face contact with a lot of faculty in very informal settings where this has come up, and where I just have owned it and said, "I have received that feedback numerous times, "and I appreciate it, and you're absolutely correct." And I did not get it right that time.

Wendy Woodward: When I came from corporate into higher education, I didn't understand what a provost was.

Bayne: Wendy Woodward is chief information officer for Wheaton College. She says that moving from the corporate to the academic world left her a little bit confused.

Woodward: I didn't understand the value of faculty to the educational experience. I just didn't know. So frequently in my early days, I would view a faculty member as more annoying, getting in my way of getting things accomplished versus as a partner. And I did learn pretty quickly. Once in my mind, I realized the faculty at a higher ed institution are somewhat the equivalent of a high-powered salesperson in a corporate institution, right? It's like, "Oh, I get that." These are people who are retained for the extreme value they provide to the overall educational experience. Therefore, while it may feel like sometimes there's resistance, they're also very busy people who have competing demands from all over the place. And anytime we change one piece of how they do their job, it's hard. It's hard. And so I think now I try to have more a position of empathy towards faculty. Not empathy in a sense, but I try to have more of a understanding position and take that view into account, where just because a faculty member is presenting an opposite view to what maybe I think we need to do, let's listen to that. Let's understand that a little better. Let's unpack it. And then let's use that information to minimize the stress of whatever change is coming.

Bayne: If you're curious or concerned about your own career in higher education IT, EDUCAUSE has a wealth of resources from professional development help to job searches, visit our career development page, at to access those resources for your higher ed IT path. I'm Gerry Bayne for EDUCAUSE. Thanks for listening.


This episode features:

Deborah Gelch
Higher Education Consultant Principal
Accel Together

Orlando Leon
Vice President for Information Technology and Chief Information Officer
California State University, Fresno

Karen Warren
Deputy CIO
Wesleyan University

Wendy Woodward
Chief Information & Campus Services Officer
Wheaton College

Recommended Resource

EDUCAUSE Career Development Page