As you progress in your career, you may find yourself transitioning into management or leadership positions without adequate training or preparation. Your exceptional performance in your previous role may have caught the attention of your supervisors, resulting in a promotion to a supervisory position. However, this promotion can often feel like you’ve been thrown from the wading pool into the deep end. You might be left pondering: What is expected of me now? Where can I go for help? What steps should I take to become a successful leader?
As two former CIOs with over 70 years of collective experience in higher education IT, we have encountered numerous challenges throughout our careers. Now, in our consulting roles, we’re assisting others who grapple with similar issues. Over time, we’ve noticed recurring patterns in certain leadership challenges. Based on our observations, we are sharing our top five habits for success in leadership positions. We believe these habits offer practical advice and guidance to aspiring and current leaders.
Our five keys to effective IT leadership, expanded upon below, are:
- Communicate, communicate, communicate
- Focus on the vision, stay out of the weeds
- Don’t stop building your team
- Learn to speak the language of your stakeholders
- Remember that the institution’s priorities are IT’s priorities
Communicate, Communicate, Communicate
No matter where you are in your career and how much effort you’ve invested in communication, there will always be room for improvement. To verify this, consider gathering feedback within your area or department to identify areas for improvement. You will almost always discover some form of dissatisfaction associated with communication. This situation can prove frustrating for many leaders who believe they are constantly communicating through emails, newsletters, meetings, instant messaging, and various other channels. Often, the tendency is to feel exasperated that no one is reading what is being sent out or is actively listening during meetings.
Kirk: Like many leaders, I have faced challenges with communication throughout my career. I researched various approaches to improve communication and tried many of the recommended tools, including newsletters, weekly stand-up meetings, regular direct emails to employees, 1:1 meetings, leadership meetings, management meetings, department-wide meetings, and more. Through years of effort, I achieved some successes and some failures in this endeavor. I’ve come to realize it is nearly impossible to over-communicate and surprisingly easy to under-communicate.
When discussing communication, I often share a simple joke that effectively illustrates the significance of frequent communication:
One day, after being married for years and years, one spouse turns to the other and says, “How come you never tell me you love me anymore?” The other spouse calmly responds, “I told you I love you the day we got married and I will let you know if anything changes.”
This anecdote usually garners a few chuckles because it resonates with the audience, making them realize how often they inadvertently under-communicate. Just as saying “I love you” is something most couples say multiple times a day and is almost impossible to say too much, effective communication in the workplace also benefits from frequent and clear messages. We’ve all heard or said, “I sent an email detailing the technology upgrade and outage three months ago, didn’t you read it?” This highlights the common issue of assuming that one communication is sufficient when the first email should just be the start of a well-thought-out communication plan.
Michael: Another thing that took me a while to realize is that it’s not just a challenge to communicate with the campus; it’s also harder than you think to get through to your own team. Know what your two or three important points are, and get used to repeating them over and over, e.g., “In IT, we care about each other, we care about our students, and we deliver value every day for the campus.” If you do this for a while and check in with the folks in your department, you’ll probably find they appreciate the clarity, simplicity, and consistency of your message.
Numerous articles and books discuss effective communication, and the “seven-by-seven” guideline is a simple one to follow. When thinking about communicating something important, it’s advisable to do so seven times through seven different channels. For instance, consider a scenario where you need to inform people about an upcoming building network outage:
- Send an email to the relevant mailing list.
- Include the information in the IT newsletter.
- Feature it in the campus-wide newsletter.
- Reach affected employees through an instant messaging tool like Slack.
- Present the details in an all-IT meeting.
- Post signs on all entry doors of the building.
- Display the message on building digital signage.
- Bonus communication – send a post-upgrade email thanking everyone.
Some of these messages might be one-time posts, while others, such as emails or instant messages, could be sent multiple times with a message weeks before, one week before, the day before, and the morning of the outage. By following this straightforward seven-by-seven plan, you can enhance the chances of your message being effectively conveyed. The next time you need to communicate something important, try this approach.
Focus on the Vision – Stay out of the Weeds
Most of us become IT leaders because we’re good at providing some aspect of IT services to the campus. For example, we developed enterprise services, provided customer services or support, created and maintained web pages, or managed servers and networks.
Michael: I moved very quickly into a CIO role, and I was always interested in the details of providing and supporting technology. I wanted to help manage services, and install projectors, and configure domain controllers, and debug software. But I came to realize that by doing this I wasn’t helping my team; rather, I was (unintentionally) encouraging them to be dependent on me instead of trusting themselves. My understanding emerged gradually, but I specifically remember a server engineer on the phone who didn’t see me when he told a support engineer that he was “staring down the barrel of the CIO.”
So I learned that trying to be the alpha technician was counterproductive and wasn’t really supporting my team. Furthermore, I needed to be spending time listening to the campus, understanding their needs, and developing strategies for addressing these needs. I needed to be communicating with HR leaders, financial experts, procurement folks, and others, and helping them understand what I needed to be successful. I needed to work with other IT leaders to develop an architecture for the future. And I needed to support my team when they were challenged by projects and problems, and then stay out of their way.
As an IT leader at any level, you’re responsible for the overall strategy for providing services. You have staff to manage and lead, new people inside and outside IT who want your time and attention, and a role that brings with it new stresses and challenges. Most of us, when we’re stressed, will revert to what we know. The customer services manager wants to help a customer solve a problem; the enterprise services manager wants to write some code; the infrastructure manager wants to patch a server or update the firewall. After all, we’re good at those things, maybe better at them than the people we now manage.
Depending on the size of your team, you may still need to perform some hands-on roles in your IT leadership position. But you need to remember that you are the only one who can lead your function, and that means you have to spend a significant part of your time stepping away from those important day-to-day operations and participate in developing and communicating a vision for your IT group. You must be spending time communicating and coordinating with others, setting goals for your team, supporting them, and holding them accountable for results.
Michael: One useful tool for me is to ask myself frequently: am I the only one who could be doing what I’m doing now? If not, I need to challenge myself to find a way to delegate it, or perhaps to just not do it at all. The things that only you can do are the most important.
Kirk: I found more success as a manager or leader when I focused on “what” instead of “how.” It is very easy to tell people how to do something instead of what you want them to accomplish. Allowing individuals the autonomy to approach their work in their own way, while being available to guide or support them when necessary, yielded better results. I have never met anyone who enjoys being micromanaged!
Don’t Stop Building Your Team
Building a high-performing team and effective leadership are challenging tasks. If it wasn’t, there wouldn’t be so many books written about the complexities involved in leadership and team building. At the heart of successful leadership is trust. In strong teams, there is a shared and reciprocal trust between team members as well as the leader. Establishing this trust begins with vulnerability and it is the leader’s responsibility to start making the effort. It involves being authentic with your team members and encouraging them to do the same. A high level of trust requires deliberate effort, effective communication, and dedicated time. Not just chronological time in weeks and months, but actual time spent together each week. Leaders often wonder how much time they should spend with their teams. While it may seem like a substantial commitment, a 2014 study by Leadership IQ revealed that teams performed better and were more engaged when they had six hours of face-to-face interaction with their leader each week.
Kirk: During my experience as a leader, I quickly discovered that people will respond to what I pay attention to or prioritize. Once I started focusing on building a positive team culture and fostering trust, improvements began to emerge. I learned I could talk about it all day long, but actual change and true transformation occurred when I actively paid attention to and invested my time into building trust within the team.
As mentioned earlier, IT leaders often start their careers as successful individual contributors. Their accomplishments are recognized and celebrated by supervisors, clients, and peers, instilling a sense of value and importance in the institution. They know they are making a difference and are often connected to a work-related purpose that extends beyond themselves. Since their reward structure was based on their contributions, it is often a hard transition to managing individuals where your team performs the actual work.
Kirk: Many years ago, when I was in my first management role, I still relied on myself to get things done. It wasn’t that I didn’t trust those on my team; rather, I took great pride in everything I was accomplishing and I felt a sense of value. Doing more of what had made me successful to that point felt comfortable and always resulted in my boss’s praise. However, unbeknownst to me at the time, the dynamics of my work environment had shifted.
With the not-so-subtle assistance of my supervisor, I started realizing it was much more about my team than my individual contributions. It took some time, but I did mature as a leader and built some amazing teams. I did so by caring about people and I always try to live by this quote by Maya Angelou, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
Michael: The “stay out of the weeds” concept above is important here too. If you want your folks to get better and build confidence, you have to let them do their jobs instead of trying to do it for them. First of all, it’s the only way they will build their capacity as contributors and leaders. And second, I was often surprised by how often they came up with solutions that I never would have thought of. Every so often, ask yourself: am I spending time doing the things that only I can do? If not, you need to reassess.
Learn to Speak their Language
As an IT leader, we often also have a deep level of expertise in some aspect of technology. Part of being an expert is developing a vocabulary and even a way of speaking that non-IT specialists view as incomprehensible. As much as we try to do otherwise, it’s easy to slip into conversations that assume others will understand the jargon we use, the acronyms we’ve adopted, the names of products and even the high-level concepts (digital transformation, anyone?) that pepper our speech when we talk among other practitioners. If you want to be effective on your campus outside of the IT organization, you need to learn to recast your projects and priorities in language that’s meaningful for those you serve. Even better, you can strive to learn their language, which sends the message that you are listening to them and understand their needs.
Let’s take an example. Suppose you are redesigning the way you provide service by adopting a new approach to IT Service Management. Talking about ITSM and ITIL and your ticketing system (tickets to what?) and your knowledge base (huh?) to the larger campus is not going to have the effect you might expect. You are trying to improve your service, but they are going to think “the techies are doing techie things and I’m going to zone out now.”
Instead, explain how your initiative will help people get their jobs done. Tell stories. Use examples. Talk about what hasn’t worked in the past, from the perspective of your campus constituents, and how you’re making it better. And when appropriate, put it in the language of those you serve. “Sometimes students have trouble connecting their devices to Wi-Fi. One student told us ‘getting on eduroam is so annoying that I just use my network minutes on my phone, and I always run out by the end of the month.’ We’re going to make it easier for students to get the technology help they need to be successful. By improving the student experience, we’re going to reduce the barriers they face so they can persist and graduate.”
Michael: Most IT leaders by nature are curious people. Learn to turn that curiosity toward how your campus functions and what it values. A campus isn’t just one culture, it’s many. A story that works for students might not work for faculty. A description of your networking project for the Engineering Dean might be very different for the Dean of Students. Be empathetic, listen actively, and use what you learn to hone your message. The best IT leaders at a higher education institution are the ones that know their institution best.
Kirk: Throughout my career, I have made numerous presentations to non-IT audiences. Among those experiences, one particular moment stood out when a board member asked me a question about statewide course articulation during a presentation about a degree audit project. While this topic wasn’t typically within the scope of expertise for an IT leader, I had recently been deeply involved in the degree audit project and had the advantage of being close friends with an employee in the curriculum department who guided me through course articulation.
Thanks to this unique knowledge, I was able to provide a satisfactory answer to the board member’s question. To my surprise, many non-IT institutional leaders approached me after the presentation, expressing their admiration for my understanding of their areas of expertise. Nobody mentioned the presentation I had spent hours preparing and rehearsing. I learned a lot that day about understanding the business of the college or university and being able to speak about a technology project in a language that resonates with non-IT professionals.
The Institution’s Priorities Drive IT’s Priorities
Business leadership expert Peter Drucker is quoted as saying “Management is doing things right; leadership is doing the right things.” If you’re an IT leader, you have to know what the right things are, and for that, you need to understand your institution. Yes, there’s a lot of infrastructure work that you need to do to continuously improve and develop the technology at your institution. But the value of technology is in how it can help the institution achieve its objectives. Helping students succeed, making your institution more attractive to students, supporting research, serving the larger community – if you can’t explain to campus leadership, and your own IT team, how you’re helping your institution be successful, then you may be on the wrong track.
Starting with the institution’s written mission, vision, and plan may be useful, but don’t stop there. We’ve all seen how often these are high-level statements of principle that often represent a generic consensus that could come from any college or university. You have to listen carefully to your campus, and not just the designated leaders but the influencers and thoughtful contributors throughout your institution, in order to develop an understanding of what your institution needs to be successful. The best IT leaders help set up their institutions for success because they have the perspective to see beyond the “cylinders of excellence” and apply technology to address the institution’s most important challenges.
Michael: You have to understand your institution’s most pressing challenges and make technology part of the solution rather than part of the problem. If you want to promote principles of “digital transformation,” you need to understand the why. The best IT department is the one that’s best aligned with the needs of the institution.
Kirk: Achieving alignment between IT initiatives and institutional priorities can be more challenging than anticipated. Often, written institutional plans and priorities are broad and lack clarity. It will take time to discern what the actual institutional priorities are and the tendency to take the easy road and become somewhat insular as an IT department is strong. Since IT is a quickly changing world, it isn’t difficult to create a list of viable IT projects and accomplish them. Completing projects successfully brings a sense of accomplishment to both you as a leader and your employees, but taking the time to ensure they are in sync with your institution’s objectives is crucial for long-term success.
To achieve this alignment, I have found success by engaging in strategic planning, cultivating strong peer relationships, and actively participating in the broader higher education IT community through platforms like EDUCAUSE. These approaches have proven instrumental in understanding institutional priorities and ensuring that IT initiatives are well-matched to achieve long-term success.
We learned in our CIO careers that these five habits – communicating well and often, staying out of the weeds, building your team, speaking their language, and aligning IT to campus priorities – are valuable in becoming the kind of successful leaders that we have aspired to be. Most of us find that some of these come naturally and others are more difficult, but this can be a lot to think about. Do you find one of these habits particularly challenging to develop? Perhaps you’ve found a way to address that challenge and get better at what you do. We’d love to hear about your leadership journey!
This post was co-authored by Executive Strategic Consultant Michael Berman and Vice President Kirk Kelly. Michael and Kirk are long-time and ardent supporters of aspiring higher education leaders, leading both internally at their former institutions and externally through numerous community organizations. Their current service includes membership on the Leadership Lounge Mentoring Team. At Vantage, Michael and Kirk advise clients on strategic planning; organizational assessments and development; CIO executive advisory services; culture and engagement; and much more.