In this episode, we talk about strategic planning and the skills needed to traverse such a complex undertaking. Our guests include John O'Brien, EDUCAUSE President and CEO, and Chris Bradney, Director of Strategic Technology Initiatives at California State University-San Bernardino.
Sarah J. Buszka: Welcome to the EDUCAUSE Rising Voices podcast, where we amplify the voices of young professionals in higher education. My name is Sarah Buszka and I'm joined by ...
Wes Johnson: Wes Johnson.
Sarah J. Buszka: And we are part of the EDUCAUSE Young Professionals Advisory Committee, or YPAC, and we are the hosts of this podcast. Welcome. How are you doing today, Wes?
Wes Johnson: I'm doing good. The holidays are about to come up. We were talking earlier before the show about the need for recharge. I'm very much looking forward to forgetting about work for a little period of time and getting the shock of coming back. How about yourself?
Sarah J. Buszka: As well. I'm feeling very similarly. I'm also thrilled to introduce John O'Brien and Chris Bradney to the show. Hi, John. Hi, Chris. How are you?
John O'Brien: Hello. We're also looking forward to some recharge time as well. You too, Chris, I assume.
Chris Bradney: Yeah. Love it.
Sarah J. Buszka: Yes. Well, one thing ...
John O'Brien: The problem is it takes three days or two days just for your heart rate to settle, so it's really just three days. But hell, I'll take them however I can because it's ...
Sarah J. Buszka: Exactly.
Wes Johnson: Yeah, don't ruin it with the data.
Sarah J. Buszka: Exactly. Well, we are so thrilled to have you both here joining us today for this really important topic to talk about strategic planning, and I don't think we could be joined by better folks to discuss this topic with us and young professionals. So before we dive in, one thing we really love doing on this show is asking folks to introduce yourself. Share your name, your position, the institution, and what your superpower is. So John, we'd like to start with you. Would you be willing to introduce yourself to our audience?
John O'Brien: John O'Brien, I'm the president and CEO of EDUCAUSE. Superpower. I'm somewhat joking, but my family would say my superpower is worrying, which isn't always healthy. So when we talk as a community about wellness, I know what that looks like. And you can call it worry or anxiety or whatever, but it is a superpower. I mean, for me, worrying is this sometimes unfortunate ability or tendency to look ahead. One of the happiest years of my life, I had free access to a pool table and a friend who was better than I at pool. And billiards are great because if you're playing, you're always thinking not, "Am I going to make this shot?" but it's, "What about the next shot?" and, "What about the next shot?" And we're going to talk about strategic planning and that's what strategic planning is.
So in a good game of billiards, you're thinking about not just the shot I'm going for, but the one after and the one after. And we're going to talk about strategic planning where that's, maybe, the definition of strategic planning is thinking beyond the next shot. But for me personally, I do that maybe too much. Sometimes I don't enjoy the present moment enough thinking about what's next and scenarios in my head about what could happen next. So it's a superpower except for when it's not, if that makes sense. I could have a better answer, but that's what's on my mind today. Chris, what about you?
Sarah J. Buszka: We were just talking about vacations too.
John O'Brien: Yeah, we were talking about time off too.
Sarah J. Buszka: Very apropos.
John O'Brien: Yes.
Chris Bradney: Well, hello everyone. Chris Bradney, currently serving as the Director of Strategic Technology Initiatives at California State University, San Bernardino. Been here for about five years. I'm going on six years now. My superpower. I'm going to change it up. Not what Sarah's expecting. I'm going to say tenacity. And I say this for a specific reason. John and I have something in common in that we both recently hit 1,000 days consecutive on Duolingo. So that takes a lot of tenacity to keep that streak up. Really excited. I hit that yesterday actually.
John O'Brien: Congratulations.
Chris Bradney: A lot of fun. A lot of fun getting there.
John O'Brien: Yeah.
Sarah J. Buszka: That is great. What language were you studying?
Chris Bradney: I'm studying Japanese right now.
Sarah J. Buszka: Ooh.
Wes Johnson: That's cool.
John O'Brien: And I'm studying French.
Sarah J. Buszka: Wow. Well, maybe your next vacations will bring you there and you can actually practice when you're on vacation.
John O'Brien: I started studying French and Duolingo in 2020 just before our big vacation to Paris that didn't happen. Thanks, COVID.
Sarah J. Buszka: Didn't happen. Yeah. Awesome.
John O'Brien: Thank you.
Wes Johnson: I wanted to mention real quick for the audience, if y'all don't mind. A little add-on for Chris is that that tenacity also plays a big role in this show you have here today. Chris is part of our editorial team and he plays a big role in helping us set up these podcasts, so huge shout out and salute to you, Chris, for that tenacity, my friend.
Chris Bradney: I love it. It brings me such joy.
Sarah J. Buszka: We can tell and we're thrilled you're here. Thank you. So with that, we've been kind of swirling around the topic of strategic planning. And I just wanted to start off and maybe I'll ask John. And then Chris, of course, we welcome you to chime in. Why is strategic planning crucial for higher education institutions today?
John O'Brien: Well, I think it's crucial because I think you would not plan a vacation that involved travel without some map and some sense of where you are going. I think you could be overly-regimented about a plan and that you can do it badly. Well, you can do anything badly. But when it's done well, when a strategic plan is done well, it sets a framework of how you're thinking about the future, brings people together. The old saw about strategic planning is that the end product is less important than the process that got you there. It's by virtue of having people come together and talk about what matters to them and what's important to them and that that is always good. I was a provost of a large system and we went to do an HLC accreditation visit, and we were there in Chicago meeting with the accreditor people. And we looked around the room and said, "We've never met on campus before."
Strategic planning and to travel to another city is what it took to get these key people together to talk about the future. So you have different opinions about how valuable strategic planning as an end product is, but as a process, I think it's absolutely crucial. And I will say from my part, as an end product, it has been incredibly valuable. When I worked at the system as a Deputy CIO, I was responsible for overseeing technology strategic plans, at all of our 30+ campuses so I got to see the whole gamut. Plans that you could tell were really important and meaningful and consequential, and you could see right away plans that were meant to immediately go up on a shelf, gather dust, and be nothing other than check the box that yes, we did a strategic plan. So I think it's valuable. I think the process is invaluable.
Chris Bradney: Yeah, I love what you said. There's so much value there in having the conversations and really making it not the, "We've checked the box. We've done the work." I like to think of strategic plans in higher education institutions like ships. Like a large cargo ship, it's going to take a long time to turn, a long time to stop, a long time to pivot. And strategic planning is really just that looking ahead and saying, "Okay. Well, where are we trying to get to?" We're not going to prescribe every moment, we're going to change what lever, but just our intention is, "We're going this direction. We've got to start moving the ship in this direction."
The other thing I think that is really valuable for strategic planning is that it's really easy and fun to say yes to everything. But a good strategic plan is that filter in which you put decisions through to say, "Is this in line with where we're trying to go or is it not?" And it's really that filter to be able to say no to what you need to say no to so you can actually get to something meaningful and valuable.
John O'Brien: Well, I'm thinking, because we just did one, of an institutional strategic plan like we did for EDUCAUSE, but any area can also have a strategic plan. I remember I used to work in a large state system and it was super regulated, regimented, and so I was going to hire someone from another campus as a Chief Student Affairs Officer. But the way it works, you can't give them more money for the same job. So it's sort of like, "Well, I really want you to come. I can't give you any more money," and his answer endeared me to him for all of time. He said, "Well, I'm not interested in that. What I'm interested in is whether you'll let me do strategic enrollment management," and I said, "Well, okay. I can live with that." And in just that process of enrollment management strategic planning, the thing about that that really was unforgettable was it keeps you from over-reacting and over-steering in a way, too, when you have a plan.
If you do strategic enrollment management, you say, "Oh my gosh. Enrollment's down. We're going to have to do this and this and this and this," or you can say, "Yeah, and it's down because we know the demographics. And in the longterm, in three years, it's going to be up," and we can sort of have a little more perspective. I do think higher education has a certain propensity for over-steering at times, over-steering and being responsive versus strategic. Over-steering sometimes, as we all know in IT better than anybody, hype. Somebody went to a conference, uh-oh. And then next thing you know, everybody's jumping on some bandwagon or another. Being strategic is sort of an antidote to over-steering and maybe a little bit of an antidote to hype as well.
Sarah J. Buszka: That's a really great point. And something that I heard Chris say as well, along the same lines, John, is applying some type of a filter when thinking about strategic planning. And I'm curious, maybe this is questions for you, Chris, if you could talk more about what that filter actually is. What's under the hood? What does that look like? Because I think for many young professionals and folks just coming into higher education, we may not realize what the filter looks like, first of all, but also how to calibrate that to make it fit our environment. So what would you say, Chris?
Chris Bradney: I think it's a complicated answer, but let me tackle it in this way. There's a couple things that I'm thinking about in terms of this filter. One is a strategic plan, when you are planning, there's going to be some very definite steps, action items that you're going to take immediately. But down the road, into the future, it's not a crystal ball that you're going to be able to 100% predict what the future holds. And so a good strategic plan, we really lay out, "What is the outcome we're trying to achieve? What is the change we're trying to make?" And as you get further away from the end of that strategic planning process and into that unknown future, that filter becomes, "Okay. Well, we know the direction that we're trying to go," and there's reasons for it. There's evidence behind it." And now, we're encountering situations in being able to say, "Okay. Does this decision, does this direction align with this bigger move that we're trying to make or is it carrying us off in another direction?"
Because if there's anything I've learned in higher ed, it's that there's opportunities everywhere that you could go do good work in 1,000 different directions. But the real challenge is finding the handful of right directions and right decisions to make that carry you in that strategic direction. Because ultimately, if we're all running around in different directions and trying to accomplish different things and not in a coordinated, synergized way, we are going to have an impact. But maybe not as great of an impact if we were to bring that effort and that work together across disciplines, across areas on campus that we're really focusing in on, "How do we drive the outcomes and the impacts we're trying to have?" So I hope that answers the question.
Sarah J. Buszka: It does and I'll keep asking questions. So Wes, you have to jump in and hold me back. I'm passionate about this topic.
Wes Johnson: I got you. I got you.
Sarah J. Buszka: Thank you. So one more question for you, Chris. I heard you say "right path." And I think for so many of us, especially as young professionals coming into higher education, it can seem like every path is the right path, right? And depending upon one lens you look at it through, it might be. So how do you recommend and how do you lead your teams towards identifying what these right paths are and do you have any advice for how to identify them? And that question also goes to John too.
Chris Bradney: So I'm actually making a pitch this afternoon, right after this recording, for ...
Sarah J. Buszka: This is your warmup.
Chris Bradney: Exactly. For how do we assess the work ahead of us, assess multiple different types of requests, multiple different opportunities, and say, "Okay" ... I'm going to make up numbers here. There could be 100 requests in front of us and they could all be really good things. They could all have a lot of merit to them. But which of these is feasible for us to actually take in and accomplish? And then which of these are going to create the most value in alignment with the direction of other departments on campus and other teams in a way that we're saying, "Yeah, there's many good things. There's many right things. But for us to be strategic, we have to select the handful of things we can realistically accomplish, get those things done," rather than, "Yeah, we had 100 great ideas and we're working on all of them." All of them are in flight, but none of them are actually getting done. We're not actually seeing the benefit of any of them. So it's really a way to, like I said, be able to say no to really good ideas because they're not right for the right time.
Sarah J. Buszka: Right. If everything's a priority, nothing is.
John O'Brien: Yeah. Stanley Fish had a great cynical response to the old standby about how there's no such thing as a bad question. He said, "There's no such thing as a bad question, but some are better than others." And strategic plan is what allows you to sort of decide priorities. And I'll just say it, based on lots of experience, that you know your strategic plan is authentic and powerful and strong when everybody tries to fall all over themselves saying that their initiative that they're requesting money for is aligned with the strategic plan. When they don't do that, you know you don't have a plan that's being seen as serious. But when you do, people will say, "Yeah, but I need money for this thing because it's going to advance the strategic plan."
Along those lines, I just feel super strongly about this one thing I'll say now, and that is go into a strategic planning process with everything aligned around having just a handful of priorities. And that's a tough one for higher ed because to our credit, we're all about inclusion in everything. We want everybody to feel valued. And our campuses do so much, so how are you going to have a plan that prioritizes just three, four, maybe five things? It's hard to do. I've been on campuses and we said at the very beginning, "We are going to only have six priorities because if we have more than that, then everything's a priority." And so we said we're only going to have six. We get to the end of the process and we've got 12.
There was an English major on the group who said, "Hey, I can combine them with semicolons and now we only have six," if you have a sort of a Frankensteinian stitching together. Again, if you can come up with just a few. And really, and to full disclosure, I couldn't do it. I mean, I'd be on a campus and we'd have, "How can you not have something about academics? How can you not have something about students? How can you not have something about diversity inclusion?" And then pretty soon, the real estate's all used up. And then it's a question of, "What are you going to say isn't a priority?" and that's hard. But at EDUCAUSE, we did our first strategic plan after I arrived in 2016 and then rolled it out in 2017, and we had only three priorities. And it was amazing what you can do when you just have three.
And this is our strategic plan for this next three to five years. It fits on a laminated page so we can bring it out and show it to people, and it only has three priorities. Just so pleased about that. It doesn't mean that all the other stuff that has to happen that's operational, that's important, that's ongoing doesn't happen. It just means that for the next three to five years, these three things are our areas of focus. So for what it's worth, maybe people listening are smarter and better than I am and are going to figure a way to do it on a campus. It's a challenge though.
Wes Johnson: So John, if I may, I actually have a question. So I had an opportunity to read through, I believe there was an article that you authored that kind of gave us a little context to the EDUCAUSE plan. And the section on, I think it was risk and resiliency, somewhere within there, there was a section where we spoke and said that, "Though innovation definitely plays a role in setting direction of strategic planning, often the risk and resiliency of a particular institution plays a great role." It didn't say greater, but I kind of read from it that it could play a greater role. I'll say in my own personal experience, the risk appetite of a particular institution generally played an even bigger role than coming with innovative ideas.
But connecting it to a recent episode, the last episode we did for this podcast when we were debunking myths for young professionals, one of the things that came up was that young professionals, we tend to feel like we get brought to the table when folks want new and different and refreshing ideas, so we get limited experience in understanding the risk and resilience of a particular institution. So I'll get to the question now. What would be some lessons?
John O'Brien: We haven't even been to the question yet?
Wes Johnson: Yeah, we haven't even gotten to the question. I wanted to paint a picture for you.
John O'Brien: I was already saying I don't know if I can remember this question. I'm glad this isn't a job interview.
Sarah J. Buszka: Wes is winding up.
Wes Johnson: With that humble windup, the question is are there things that either one of you have learned, whether through this process or throughout your career, that you want to pass on in young professionals of how to build up that understanding of the resilience piece that seems to play a big role in planning and how they can come to the table with a more holistic view? Because there's a hunger out there from your professionals to be a little bit more involved with strategic planning, so I pose that.
John O'Brien: You want me to start, Chris, or do you want to start?
Chris Bradney: Take it away.
John O'Brien: I heard a couple themes and both I really want to talk about. And one is ... Let me check. Unfortunately my eyes are so bad, I have to look at my screen. Strategic priority number two is build institutional capabilities to manage risk and build resilience in an era of systemic change. And what I love about that is if there was ever an area where we tend to be reactive and not strategic, it's risk. I mean, the part of risk management that can be very strategic is if you have a risk register. EDUCAUSE has a risk register template we can share with you. But then you're starting to get ahead of the risk as opposed to responding to it when it happens, and both are necessary.
But this focus that we have for the next three to five years on resilience sort of becomes the strategic framework to approach risk. I mean, yes, managing risk is important. Managing managing. Managing strategic approach to risk to say, "How do we change our institutions? How do we transform our institutions to be more resilient to be able to proactively prevent a bad thing from happening? And then when the inevitable bad thing happens, how do we stay strong? How do we deal with it in a competent way?" And that's why I really love yoking those two together.
Your other question, and you used a word that I was going to get back to, which is "the table." That must be one of the most persistent questions, frustrations, lamentations of young professionals. It's like you know the table's out there, and you want to be at the table. Who wouldn't want to be at the table? But how do you get to the table and how do you behave when you're at the table? Strategic planning is a particularly tricky one because it tends to be senior people, which demographically is going to rule out people not maliciously, but if you're not a seasoned leader, if you've only been there a certain number of years ... So that's a really tricky thing. But what you can do, first of all, is remember I talk about strategic planning throughout an organization. So you may not be at the table for the college or university plan, but you could be the person who says to CIO at the organization, "Hey, I noticed we don't have a technology plan. I'd love to work on that. I'd love to put together a group and help with that."
Nothing more powerful to get at a table than to, as my wife used to always say to the kids, make yourself indispensable. Make yourself indispensable. Volunteer for stuff that's important. And then, you never know. Maybe you get noticed as a person on campus who is passionate, competent, and willing to do the work on this. You're going to get people's attention for that. But I do think the infusion of strategic thinking is also valuable. Whether or not it's directly, you personally are directly involved in the planning process. So with that, Chris, go ahead.
Chris Bradney: Yeah, I was going to jump in on that, the conversation around the table as well. And if there's one thing I really want to impart to higher education institutions, IT maybe specifically, it is there's a great need to avoid the echo chamber of the same people always having the same conversations, always moving in the same direction. There's a lot that can be lost there. I think while young professionals may have a bit of an appetite for more innovation and risky moves, I think the position that ... I really valued young professionals in our institution the last time we went through strategic planning. The perspective that they brought was, "No, these are the lived experiences of our customers. Here's what they're going through." And so then, it almost becomes a risk to not address these things, to answer that question. Or my least favorite phrase I hear on campus all the time is, "Well, this is the way we've always done this."
It's leveraging the talent of the young professionals to question those things and say, "Well, why is that the case? Here's the harm that this is causing our institution by carrying these legacy decisions that have been made a decade or more ago into the future. We got to drop those things and we've got to do it in a way that builds risk tolerance and resilience and all these other things for the institution." But sometimes, the risky thing to do is to continue doing the same thing. That's really where I've seen young professionals really excel is coming at things with fresh eyes and being able to [inaudible 00:24:54] those questions.
John O'Brien: Sarah, I think maybe before we started recording, or I heard somebody make some comment about, "Young professionals are called on when they need a fresh perspective and a fresh voice." That's the collective superpower of young professionals. All true. But I do think young professionals also need to think about having more than one voice. You have a risk of being a one-trick pony if that's your thing, and people only call on you when that's going to limit. And to Chris, what you said about the opposite of the sort of collective young professional voice, which is new, new, new, is that we've always done it this way, old, old, old. And I would encourage young professionals not to fall into a binary that there are things about the way we've always done things that are really, really good. There are things that are new that are really, really good.
And this is the era of two-letter acronyms. We're all running around, falling all over ourselves talking about AI. There's another AI that people who are old professionals, like me, remember. And it's an initiative, I guess, or a movement a while back called Appreciative Inquiry. And if you don't know, if you've never heard that, look it up. It's such a powerful way of approaching problems that I think it would be great if young professionals embrace because it doesn't say there's bad and good. Appreciative inquiry says, "There's a problem. Can we find one place on campus that has solved it?" Let's say that you have a problem on campus with thing A and it's a problem all over. But is there one department, one unit who has figured out how to do it better? Let's find a way as a culture to lift those up.
And I would say that's the voice for the young professional. Not just, "New, new, new, new, new. Old is bad, bad, bad, bad, bad," but, "Let's think differently and let's find things that are new within our own. I mean, we have the answers. These issues about enrollment and blah, blah, blah and workforce retention, we know the answers are within us. But what department isn't suffering a retention problem? Let's dig into that, who's not," and it changes the conversation. It makes things positive. And boy, wouldn't it be great if you were the person who steered the conversation in that direction? I'd encourage people to think about that.
The last thing, and then I'll be quiet for at least a little bit, is I have to share, and I can't remember who said it. It's probably attributed to everybody from Winston Churchill to Maya Angelou, but some amazing person said, "I'm not looking for a place at the table. I want to change the table," and I love that. I love that because that is fundamentally what needs to happen. We need to change how we bring people together, how we make decisions. We shouldn't be leaving out major voices like young professionals and others, and that would be a fantastic conversation to be a part of.
Sarah J. Buszka: Well, I think we have an opportunity for it. Actually, one of my questions channeling this appreciative inquiry lens is how would you recommend that folks get started on that, John? How can we flip the script, change the table, so to speak, and bring more of those maybe disparate groups together in new ways?
John O'Brien: I used to work in a department of academic affairs as a provost, and every month I think it was, this is back when everything was on campus, the academic affairs department would take another department out to lunch and it was as a thank you. It was just a way to thank a department, and so I think we did it every other month or something. So after a year, you took six departments out to lunch and built relationships and built connections. Can you think of anything more powerful than that? You remember that whole, "People don't remember what you said, but they remember how you made them feel." You just sort of do a Rolodex of your conversations with people for the last day. How did you make them feel? Are you sprinkling throughout, where you are the one reaching out to connect with people?
Because when people are setting a table, they're looking for people who they want at the table, who are gracious and who are thoughtful and courteous. And you can find ways to make it clear to everybody around that that's you by doing things like that, finding ways to be the person in your department. Imagine you're leaving in five years, what are they going to say about you when you leave? "Oh, Wes. He was so thoughtful. He used to do this and he used to do that," those kinds of things. And also, be really good at your job and be confident. Just do everything perfectly is all, and then you're good.
Sarah J. Buszka: No pressure.
John O'Brien: Yeah, no pressure. Where are we at [inaudible 00:30:10]?
Wes Johnson: If I many, I wanted to double down just a bit on what you just shared, y'all, because of probably one of the most impactful things that happened in my career. So I used to report to amazing CIO. His name is Timothy Chester, works at the University of Georgia.
John O'Brien: I know him.
Wes Johnson: When he first got there, IT had just become kind of a central department so there was a lot of trust that we were rebuilding and they had done a lot of great work. One of the seemingly minor at the time things he did that I think really played a big role in what he's been able to accomplish up till now is similar to what you just said. He set up quarterly meetings with the deans. He would invite multiple IT folks, depending on the topic, and then he would open the invite to whoever the dean wanted to invite to the meeting. And we would literally just meet to share what we've been working on at a high level and ask them what their technology needs are. And it would just be a quick 45-minute meeting, but those were his same allies when we started getting to the big hard meetings that we had to have when we really had to start saying no to this or saying yes to that.
I copied that same mythology in my own career and was able to see success just on doing that. I've never been much of an innovative person. I try to get to the simplest solution possible, but it made it a lot easier because I'd already built that rapport and kind of followed that similar model. So I just wanted to put that out there into the universe.
John O'Brien: Yeah. Think of every conversation in your life you've had about EQ, and I'll bet every single instance of that was EQ in leaders. But you need EQ all over the map. You need EQ as a young professional maybe more than anybody because you're navigating some tricky waters. "What's my place? What's my lane? What's my voice?" I think we should be doing EQ training, emotional intelligence training for young professionals, not just wait until you're a leader. And then if you haven't figured out EQ by the time you're a leader, you're probably in trouble.
And these gestures, like I said and like you just said ... This is such a strange thing to say, but I could tell you every single person at work who came to my mom or dad's funeral. I can tell you each and every one. I could tell you where they sat in the church because it was so powerful to me that they took time to come. And it wasn't a big special thing. It was just because of the relationships that they cared enough to come. And just think about stuff like that. And again, you don't wait to be a leader to do it. And I'll say, everybody who came were seasoned people who I worked with. Would've blown my mind if somebody who had only worked at the campus for three or four years showed up. That would've really given me something to think about.
Sarah J. Buszka: We've been talking about emotional intelligence, and I just think that is such a great example of a skill that is necessary for strategic thinking. And my question to Chris, and John really, is we've been talking about emotional intelligence as this necessary skill. But strategic thinking, when I think about it, it can be so many things. How might you describe strategic thinking and what are those underlying skill sets that you would recommend young professionals can start honing or prioritizing as they start building their careers and moving towards these executive leadership roles?
John O'Brien: Thank you. Good question. First, I'm thinking over what I said because I also want to acknowledge. I mean, lifting up emotional intelligence in EQ is not going to surprise anybody because it sometimes, maybe especially lately, feels like a skill that society is lacking. But I'll also just acknowledge neurodiversity is a thing and the collective conversation around, "It's really good to have somebody who's highly analytic," who maybe you don't want to hear the first thing that's going to come out of their mouth, but they're the person who next day is going to come back with a very thoughtful ... So I mean, it takes everybody, and the collective strategic voice should include all these other voices as well. I tend to value the emotional intelligence part, but I don't want to say that that's the only thing that matters. And the second part of your question was how do young professionals ...
Sarah J. Buszka: Yeah, you're on it. So really, my question is pretty broad. But we've been talking about emotional intelligence, of course, is this necessary helpful skill ...
John O'Brien: Oh, how do you prepare for ... Yeah.
Sarah J. Buszka: So what other skills can they be honing and thinking about as we grow and progress in our roles towards those senior leadership positions?
John O'Brien: I think Chris needs to get a word in here, edgewise, so I'll just say one thing and then hand the mic to him. To me, it's probably project management. It's been a long journey in higher ed. I used to say that the best you could hope for in higher ed was project management light. You can't sit and talk about float and things like that in higher ed. I actually had a terrible experience with project management that didn't go well because it was made to be highly bureaucratic and everything now. Project management meant taking three times as long to do everything you want to do because you have to do a charter and you have to do this, as opposed to picking up the phone and calling somebody. So I think learning project management, learning some of the fundamentals of project management. Because that that's not strategic, but tactically it's the structure on which you build the execution of a strategic plan. And having some familiarity with that, I think, can be really helpful. But Chris, what do you think?
Chris Bradney: So that's actually what got me invited to plan and build our strategic planning process was expertise in project management. So yeah, underscore that completely. I'm going to quote Michael Berman, former CIO of the California State University system.
John O'Brien: Former EDUCAUSE board member.
Chris Bradney: Yeah, former EDUCAUSE board member. He told me strategic planning in its most fundamental state is an exercise in deep listing, and so that's really stuck with me. And I've said it this way: Strategic planning has to start with empathy. If you don't start with empathy, having empathy for your customers, "What are their pain points? What are their experiences? What are they going through?" or, "What challenges are ahead of them that they need IT's assistance scaling a mountain that's ahead of them?" If you don't start there, if you start with IT folks in the room saying, "Well, what should we be doing?" and we're sitting here talking about AI for AI's sake, there has to be a practical expectation of, "How is this going to be useful for the campus in the future?" So I think starting there.
The other thing that really comes to mind for me is being very open to hearing negative feedback and not becoming defensive in that. This is the thing that we were telling our campus going through the strategic planning process is, "We want you to tell us where we're failing you. We want you to tell us where we're sucking because want to be better." We had to coach our IT leadership team to say, "Look, don't start off by being defensive. Don't try to solve the problem when someone says it. Just listen. Hear what they're having to say and then bring those things together." So that gets into the EQ part of it is making sure that you're positioning yourself in a way that you're open and receptive to hearing what they're saying and not just solutioning right away.
Because strategic planning, you're not trying to solve today's problems and only today's problems. You're trying to solve today's problems, tomorrow's problems, five years from now, the problems that you could experience. So I think that's a lot of those skills that, young professionals, I would advocate for them to start developing now is the ability to really listen. Not be defensive, especially IT folks, not try to solve everything right away, but to take a step back, be contemplative about it, and say, "Well, what does this mean collectively? We're hearing this from multiple places, multiple customers. Well, what does this mean systematically? What should we be doing?"
John O'Brien: That's a really good point across all stages of a person's career. Certainly as a leader, that's been a hallmark for me. Would I have even said it's an emerging superpower because in my career as a leader, when I've hired, mostly thinking right now of chief diversity officers, the first conversation I had was, "If you're not making me uncomfortable on a fairly regular basis, you may not be doing your job." And I've told every VP at EDUCAUSE, "I want you to tell me what I need to hear, not what I want to hear." And I think based on the number of things I hear that I don't want to hear, I don't want to say that people do feel ...
And again, why is that just a leader thing? I think Chris is right. That can be a feature of you in your first major professional ... "Tell me what I need to hear." That is strategic. I mean, yes, it's empathy and it's all the good stuff in that quadrant of thinking, but it's also pretty damn smart. Wouldn't you want your boss to be honest and tell you when you're doing things that fall below her expectations? Wouldn't you want to probe and coach and get that out because it shows you care? I don't know. I think it's a really emerging necessity for a successful young professional and absolutely as a successful leader.
Wes Johnson: And I'm also hearing a bit of maybe a slight call to action to the higher education community, ask us in leadership positions when we're thinking about our own strategic plans, looking for opportunities to bring folks who may not be as experienced in that process. Even if it's just a small time to focus on something, very focused in on their work to help them exercise those muscles so that when they do get in these seats, they're more prepared than we were the first time we had to come up with a strategic plan.
John O'Brien: Well, Wes, you just gave me an idea that I didn't think of until I listened to you. And wouldn't it be a cool thing? When I was doing the EDUCAUSE strategic plan and I had my key people of seven people or whoever it was that I worked with, I should have asked each one of them to work with their staff, set up similar groups with their staff. Now I think, honestly, most of them did it. There's not just one table. There's the big table, and then there's tables that the CIO at an organization creates. So what would it be like if the CEO who's on the strategic planning group held a meeting with their staff? And that would be a point where young professionals could shine.
Wes Johnson: A lesson to learn for all of us. We'll remember that next time we do our plans. I know we're cutting up on time now though. It sounds like maybe another episode with this group is in order in the future. There's many other questions I wish we had time to ask. But I just wanted to express my gratitude, Chris, John, both of you, for joining us and giving us this very insightful confirmation. I'm over here writing my own notes, getting my own nuggets out of this to bring back to my own team as we're going through a strategic planning process ourselves. So I'm even learning my own lessons through this. But Sarah, is there anything else we wanted to get out before we take it home?
Sarah J. Buszka: I think I'm okay with questions. Thank you. I just wanted to say for our audience especially, this podcast welcomes your feedback and questions. And if you have any for John or Chris, or any of our future guests, or ideas, we welcome you reaching out. And you can also follow us on the EDUCAUSE platform or anywhere you get your podcasts.
Wes Johnson: All right. Well, with that, we're the Rising Voices podcast. Thank you so much again. We will see y'all in the next episode.
This episode features:
Director of Strategic Technology Initiatives
California State University-San Bernardino
President and CEO
Sarah J. Buszka
Senior Relationship Manager
Executive Director Campus IT Experience
University of California, Berkeley