Higher education is at an interesting crossroads with respect to our workforce. Historically, getting in on IT teams has been a career destination. The mission, working environment, and culture of higher education have been a powerful combination that has steadily supported workforce retention. Yet, there have been periods when economic conditions in other industries or other factors have led to significant turnover in our teams. Whether pandemic induced or otherwise prompted, we find ourselves at one of those crossroads once again. Adding to that situation is the looming retirement or departure of a significant number of higher education CIOs.
There couldn’t be a more important time to reflect on our leadership development processes and how they are helping our next generation of leaders move into new positions. Given our current challenges with recruitment, we should think even more critically about providing and supporting growth from within. Could we do more or do it better?
Who is trying to grow in your organization?
As leaders, we look for opportunities to continually develop those who report to us. Ideally, we have a relationship of trust that fosters regular conversations about growth, seeking and seizing opportunities as they arise. Yet it may be during annual performance reviews when we most intentionally consider not only how well someone is performing in their position, but which development and growth opportunities should be pursued during the upcoming year.
First and foremost is understanding the unique path being forged by each team member. Growth goals vary widely across an IT team depending on their areas of interest, leadership aspirations, and family considerations. Some (but not all) will want to be a CIO. Some might be looking at a next step as a deputy CIO or CTO. Some may want to explore completely different areas of the academy. A significant number of your team may feel that opportunities are not available to them because they are place-bound, while others might be navigating whether they need to leave in order to grow.
How are you investing in them and their growth?
For some people, growth seems to naturally happen. Perhaps they are in an area of IT with lots of opportunities, they are seen as skilled and capable, and they are provided with a steady supply of opportunities to broaden their scope and increase their visibility. For others, it’s more of a struggle. Perhaps they have some opportunities, but they don’t add up to something that coherently would convince someone that they are ready for a new role or the next step in leadership. It’s not unusual for our IT teams to have great longevity and low turnover, making it more difficult to provide growth opportunities for those who want them and have been patiently waiting their turn. And then there may be others who want to grow, but you either don’t know it or haven’t settled on how to help them with the growth they are looking for.
A More Intentional Plan
Let’s examine some ways for thinking through and organizing leadership development efforts. There are a couple of resources that could easily be used more intentionally in the process. For example, CIO or other applicable job descriptions are a ready source of defined skills and experience for growing leaders. Performance evaluations and team member achievements are a corresponding map of existing skills and experience against those job descriptions. A sample process for working toward a plan might include:
- Get together to review current performance reviews, current job position descriptions, and achievements.
- Help team members identify strengths and agree on current levels of skills and experience and discuss career options.
- Review CIO or applicable job description (or postings) with direct reports who want to grow to help them understand and provide perspective on desired skills and experience in a new role.
- Where are there gaps? What’s missing that would better showcase leadership abilities?
- What opportunities would help fill an organizational need and help the team member grow to meet experience requirements for a new role?
There are several areas that usually arise as a great place to focus to build experience and leadership skills, especially as someone is working toward becoming a divisional leader. For instance, we can confidently say that it will be useful to construct opportunities in relationships and team building as well as technology strategy.
Relationships and Team Building
The skills for building relationships and for team building are often similar. Both require the ability to connect with others, find common ground, and focus on empathy as an important skill. Identifying shared values and developing goals that you want to work on together are important for sustaining relationships and developing strong teams.
One of the best ways to help develop skills within the IT organization is through opportunities focusing on budget, people, and culture. Becoming a divisional leader requires collaboration, negotiation, and building a solid leadership team. As a CIO, one way to build a strong leadership team while providing leadership opportunities for everyone is to break down silos and provide team leaders with shared leadership work. If you want to try this out, you may want to meet with the leadership team to discuss goals and guardrails, but then have them work together while reporting in periodically. For instance, perhaps the leadership team has working meetings together every other week without the CIO, or even works together weekly, meeting once a month with the CIO. Here are some possible organizational steps to consider:
- Remove budget silos: Reorganize budgets and financial responsibilities by removing budget fiefdoms across teams. Set a goal for your IT leadership team to best use funds for operations while liberating as much as possible for growth and transformation initiatives. This would mean that they all get to collectively do a pretty deep dive into IT expenditures. The charge might be to identify and manage the budget needed for core operations while working with you to prioritize remaining available funds for growth and transformation. They should have an opportunity to understand multiple budget areas, set shared spending standards across teams, and become empowered to decide on tradeoffs and efficiencies to realize organizational goals.
- Collectively manage team structures and vacancies: Work with your IT leadership team to solidify how the organization needs to evolve or transform to meet future institutional needs, then have the team decide which positions need to change/evolve and how to move forward to meet institutional needs for experience and diversity. The leadership team could create consistent approaches across teams for performance reviews and work together to determine how to use vacancies, professional development, or other resources to achieve organizational goals. The team might utilize methods like The 25% Plan to regain capacity for teams to work on innovations and institutional priorities.
- Collectively build IT culture: Work with your IT team to define values and goals, then have the team work together on efforts such as customer service, improving understanding and workflows across service areas, and improving relationships across teams. The team might be responsible for inclusivity goals and DEI initiatives across teams. The team might also work on ways to build bridges and incorporate distributed IT teams on institutional initiatives.
Emerging leaders need exposure, practice, and visibility to develop into trusted strategic technology leaders. As a CIO you try to ensure you are in conversations to understand issues and goals that are driving institutional change. You work to build solid working relationships and understand complex and varied institutional environments. When you develop an IT strategy, you account for the institutional goals, while being mindful of what will succeed within those complex environments. This can be a difficult area in which to share leadership or provide leadership opportunities. Here are some steps to consider:
- Share IT governance work: Work with your IT teams to help build and be involved in IT governance committees. Ensure your team focuses on stakeholder relationships and needs in broad services areas (academic, research, administrative). Charge them with working across broad central and distributed technology areas to develop shared strategies and solve big technology issues.
- Partner in stakeholder relationships: In one-on-one meetings with leadership colleagues, begin to foster relationships for bringing emerging leaders together. You and your colleague might both bring a second to meetings and get them meeting and working together so that you are all collectively partnering in shared institutional goals. Sharing these relationships helps emerging leaders to learn how to develop, communicate, and get buy-in for shared strategies. Bringing seconds to meetings also helps develop leadership relationships in order to represent the CIO as appropriate for leadership team meetings, audit meetings, or board meetings.
- Collaborate on strategic planning: Find opportunities for team members to participate in institutional and IT strategic planning. Allow team members to get involved, then lead, and finally sponsor institution-wide technology initiatives and IT strategic plan implementations.
There are so many other ways to bring emerging leaders into this work. Your environment and opportunities will undoubtedly lead to many variations on leadership development options for your teams. As with so many things, the opportunity to step back and come at this work with some intentionality will help both you and your team to be more successful for those who want to grow and for the organizations that we all serve. So, what are you doing to bring along the next cohort of leaders?
This post was authored by Vice President Cathy Bates, who advises clients on technology strategic planning, information security, and initiatives that transform institutional academic, administrative, and research capabilities. A former CIO, Cathy speaks and writes frequently about how to build and sustain effective organizations and programs. Connect with Cathy via Twitter and LinkedIn and read her previous CIO Strategic Minute posts, Embarking on a New Leadership Role and Getting Ready for a Move to Leadership.