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Opinion: Crafting a Vision and Creative Persona as a CIO

Two of the most important jobs of CIOs in higher education are to have a vision and align it with the institution’s goals. Going on a listening tour is a good place to start, as it helps forge trust and relationships.

Following up on my column last month about guiding principles for IT leaders in higher education, I’d like to dive deeper into two of them: visionary leadership and alignment of IT strategies with institutional goals. While these concepts may seem straightforward, their challenge lies in the execution and the collaborative journey.

What is a visionary IT leader in higher education? They are someone who possesses a clear and compelling view of the current and future value and use of IT at a college or university. They’re forward-thinking and inspirational, while at the same time strategic, realistic and practical. They are inclusive and adaptable, but resilient and committed to success. They empower others and lead by example — not just dreamers, but doers — and hope their vision is impactful and inspires others along the way.

When I first joined the City University of New York 23 years ago with little more than my academic degrees as credentials, I quickly realized the importance of humility and the value of listening. Embracing the university culture and understanding its unique needs were crucial to my success. The advice I was given — go on a listening tour, and don’t dawdle — turned out to be some of the best advice and on-the-job training I could have asked for.

Over the next few weeks, I encountered as many people and points of view as possible, soaking up their experiences, frustrations, hopes and dreams. I tried to see the world from their perspective. It wasn’t just about learning their IT needs and desires, but understanding the underlying reasons they want to see the university move forward.

Armed with this knowledge and understanding, I was ready to craft and share my own vision. I welcomed both criticism and praise, along with suggestions for improvement, but ultimately, I had to take ownership of the vision — and most importantly, be prepared to act on it.

Throughout my 20-plus years at the university, I consistently applied this approach to my work as CIO. This ranged from understanding what our researchers needed for high-speed/capacity networks, to figuring out what upgrades students and faculty wanted for the new learning management system, to taking student engagement and college transparency into account when developing policies around how to use funds from student technology fees. Similarly, as we moved forward with a modern ERP system, aligning its functionality and features with the needs and expectations of users was paramount to the success of that significant university investment.

My style and approach weren’t always met with open arms. Let’s face it: Higher education is a melting pot of incredibly smart people brimming with diverse opinions and interests, and some of them are wedded to longstanding practices. Navigating these — on top of the classic constraints of time, staff and budget to fulfill big promises or deliver promptly — was a hurdle.

Then there are the challenges of conveying an IT vision to non-IT minds, breaking into areas where IT traditionally hasn’t been welcome, overhauling or maintaining existing systems to keep pace with rapid IT changes, and finally, communicating the ROI (return on investment) and impact that such initiatives can have without setting the bar unrealistically high. I am sure that some, if not all, of these challenges will strike a chord with other CIOs.

For those who aspire to become a higher education CIO, or are already in that role: Your success in vision and alignment hinges largely on your listening skills, your ability to connect and collaborate, and how effectively you communicate your thoughts to those who care most. Nail these skills, and you’ll have what it takes to master visionary leadership and create strategic alignment.
Brian Cohen is the Vice President of the Center for Digital Government and Center Digital Education. Prior to joining the Center, Brian served for 30 years in IT leadership roles with the City of New York and most recently with the City University of New York (CUNY).