Today’s CIOs talk about business, not technology
- CIOs are in a unique position to help with business strategy
- IT teams need to act as consultants and partner with departments across campus
- Developing and fostering strong leadership skills is essential to success of the CIO role
Cindy Leavitt is vice president of information technology services and chief information officer (CIO) at Temple University. In this interview, Leavitt shares her perspective on the CIO role, how it’s changing, and the importance of leadership.
Q: What changes are you seeing at your institution that impact IT?
A: What we're seeing here at Temple University is that we really need to act like a consultant. Anytime a vendor comes on campus or we have anyone go to a conference, they want to buy software that's going to solve all their problems. We are trying to build the muscle and the skills to have people come to us early about what they're trying to accomplish before they go find a solution, so that we can leverage what we have on campus already.
What we're finding is that we have to shift to being partners. We have to understand what the problem is and whether we can solve it with something we have on campus.
IT has always been collaborative, but the need for true partnership has truly elevated how we engage across campus. We need to make a huge shift in how we work in order to help the campus be successful long term.
Q: How do you see the CIO role changing?
A: The CIO really is in a unique position to add a tremendous amount of value if they're willing to step up a level and understand the business, to help with the strategy of where we're going. Not actually set the strategy, but certainly enable the strategy of an organization.
I believe that the CIO's role is shifting to be much more strategic, but it also requires talking in a different way. We don't talk in technology. We talk in the language of the business that we're serving. It requires looking at things from a strategic point of view, understanding the environment and how to position yourself to make the biggest impact, and to also enable everything that needs to get done.
That's a very broad answer, but that's the challenge that CIOs face now. We can either become completely irrelevant because everything's a commodity service that can be outsourced, or we become incredibly relevant to the strategy of the business.
Q: What challenges are you facing in your role?
A: I think the biggest challenge that I'm trying to figure out is how to prioritise and shift the way of thinking of all of our partners on campus as well as the people on my team. That it's actually not good service to try and work on everything at once. That we really have to prioritise.
This is something that's really hard to do because we want to say yes to everyone, and we want to provide good service, but we must focus and finish so that we can get things done with high quality, and then move to the next project. That's a huge challenge for us and something we're trying to figure out.
The other challenge is that, as our funding models are changing, there's a lot of pressure for shared services on campus that are centrally funded. Part of our income is now earned. We're asking people to pay for the full cost when they're bringing in software that's not being used across the entire university, which we call unit specific.
We have to act much more like a consultant. We have to be really good at setting boundaries around what we're going to do and not going to do, to help people understand what it's going to cost to do certain things. That's a huge shift for us.
Q: How are you managing change for your team?
We’re exploring what modern IT looks like through DevOps and Agile. We took some thought leaders from our group and showed them what it looked like to develop in a very different way, to interact with clients in a different way, and build infrastructure in a different way. We looked at those things in an attempt to say, "This is what it looks like to really change the way we gather requirements, the way we partner with clients, and these are the principles that we need to better serve the university."
We've been training on DevOps and unleashing experiments. We designated Wednesday afternoon as Wonderful Wednesday, no email, no meetings. We experiment with ideas or technology and figure out how we're going to bring them in to change the way that we're working. I'm giving a little bit of space to do that kind of exploration. That's one thing we've done to help with the change.
Q: You pen a blog about leadership. Why is leadership so important?
A: I am absolutely passionate about developing leaders at all levels of the organization and recognizing that we need leaders, and that leadership is independent of position.
When I write the blog, it refocuses me on the kind of leader that I want to be and gives me time for self-reflection. Stories are a powerful mechanism for communicating—stories are how we live in this world and how we engage others emotionally—to tell what I've learned and why it matters.
My blog is really about becoming the leader that I want to be. Sharing my experiences helps others think about these principles and apply them to their own leadership journey.
Q: How are you fostering leadership at Temple University?
A: When I first came on campus, I worked with our HR development group and we created a leadership programme, which we call the Wiser Way. That leadership programme is focused on how we each become our own self-managed and courageous leader. It's based in the stories that we tell ourselves and the fact that many of our interactions are based on habits.
We need to be intentional about why we're doing something and how we make that change. We're teaching very concrete skills about how to have difficult conversations. What does it look like when you participate in meetings? How do you actually create habits and what habits do we create that, at an institutional or group level, influence how things are going?
We have about 250 people that have gone through the programme and it has shifted the way that we work. It has increased our soft skills tremendously.
Q: Did you have any mentors in your career? How important are mentors and coaching to the success of a CIO?
A: Mentors are critical, absolutely critical. I've had many different mentors. I can't even tell you how important they’ve been to me. At my first job, I had a manager who mentored me, trusted me, and helped me grow. I worked with her at a different company later.
Every single place that I've gone in, I have found a mentor to help me along the way. When I was working in my last position, before I came to Temple, I engaged a professional coach. I hired her to coach some members of my team and worked with her to develop a coaching programme to teach our technical managers how to be coaches and get off the playing field.
That coach became my personal professional coach. And that experience changed my leadership skills. I think I have very good management skills, but that was a really big step in leadership.
I value good coaching. I coach people who I think are the next leaders, who I really want to take the next step. That's how I view coaching. I view coaching as a reward, something that helps you become a better leader.
Q: What’s the best way to find a mentor?
A: Pay attention to how things are done in your organization. In any organization, there's a formal and an informal structure. Become part of the informal structure and look for your mentors there. Those are the people who really are affecting change, and they're the leaders that are independent of position. That's how I found my mentors.
Q: Do you have advice for those interested in becoming a CIO?
A: I think you need to be really clear about why you want to be a CIO. What about the role is appealing to you? Why do you want to make that step? Because the CIO role, like any leadership role, requires a lot of sacrifice. It takes a lot of energy and effort to do it, so you have to be really clear about why you want to do it.
It was something that I learned when I went back to get my MBA at the University of Michigan. I thought I needed my MBA to become a CIO. In the process of doing all of the leadership training and evaluation, I decided that I didn't need to be a CIO at that point. What I really cared about was developing the IT of the future. I wanted to experiment with that, and I didn't need to be a CIO to do that.
It was after I was successful in making that transition at the University of Michigan Medical School, then it became very clear that I wanted to see if I could affect change at a larger level. That's when I became interested in being a CIO, because I wanted to see if I could really affect a positive change on a broader scale.
So, my advice is to be really clear about why you want to be a CIO. If it's just about money or status, it's going to be pretty exhausting. For me, the opportunity to develop positive leaders and create a culture where everyone can thrive made it worth the sacrifice.