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Opinion: How to Succeed as a CIO for Higher Education

From having a vision to strategic alignment to collaboration, innovation and talent development, here are 10 guiding principles for IT leadership success from a veteran CIO of the City University of New York.

A man wearing a business suit reaching out to tap on the word "CIO" in front of him. Arrows point from the "CIO" to other symbols like a cluster of buildings, a bar graph, a lock, a clipboard and a set of cogs and wheels.
The role of the chief information officer (CIO) has evolved, for many, from being the traditional IT management leader to being a pivotal partner of a university’s institutional strategy and enabler for innovation. To do this, today’s higher education CIOs need to be more than technology managers — they need to be visionary leaders who can bridge the use of cutting-edge tools with academic excellence and administrative efficiencies.

As someone who spent nearly a decade working in government before higher education, I found myself navigating very challenging and unfamiliar waters more than 22 years ago when I started working for the City University of New York. Government, for the most part, had a clear hierarchical leadership structure, and it was understood that when directions were given, they were followed. Yet what I found early on was that the culture in higher education was different. If leadership gave directions and the academic or administrative staff did not agree, they drafted resolutions disagreeing with you, took votes of no confidence in your leadership abilities, and openly spoke out against you to whomever would listen internally or externally. After coming to a full understanding of the culture I joined, I knew that my next steps needed to involve either finding creative ways to navigate these waters or simply abandoning ship!

While my love for challenges should have been enough to make me want to stay, what really drove my decision was the passion I had for the mission and who I was trying to help. For those CIOs who are considering this journey or already on it, below are 10 guiding principles I think will help. As an added bonus, with small tweaks, these can work for many other strategic leadership roles in higher education.

1. Have a visionary leadership. Lead with a future-thinking mindset and how educational technology can help innovate. Don’t be afraid to talk about your vision, and whenever possible lead by example to inspire others to embrace innovative solutions and new technologies. A CIO should never be afraid of or resistant to change! 

2. Create strategic alignment. Be sure that your IT strategies align with your institution’s mission, vision and academic goals. Work collaboratively with stakeholders to understand their needs and to align the IT department’s initiatives with the master plan and goals of the institution.

3. Follow a user-centric approach. Place the end user at the heart of IT initiatives. It’s not just about what IT wants! Understand your user’s needs, challenges and preferences, and offer ideas for using technology to enhance their work and learning experiences.

4. Enable data-driven decision-making. Embrace the new culture and need for evidence-based decision-making, and bring all partners and parts together to achieve the vision. See tools like data analytics as integral to your business partners, as network tools are to your network admins. You don’t need to be the expert, but you do need to gain insights from others, drive teams to meet expectations, and be willing to measure the impact IT investments have had on desired goals and institutional efficiencies.

5. Embrace the cybersecurity challenge. Take ownership, don’t stop advocating, and always prioritize the importance of security and privacy of institutional data. Don’t look the other way because of conflicting priorities. Instead, develop and enforce robust cybersecurity policies, promote awareness, and ensure the institution is always prepared to respond effectively to potential threats and recover quickly.

6. Foster collaborative governance. Establish and commit to a participatory IT governance model that involves key stakeholders in the creation, assessment and approval of new ideas. This collaborative approach ensures that IT initiatives are well-informed, supported and aligned with the needs of the institution and its various departments and functions.

7. Commit to an agile and scalable IT infrastructure. Build and maintain a flexible IT infrastructure that can adapt to changing technologies and scale to meet the evolving demands of the institution. Communicate plans and be transparent about what capabilities you have and are developing.

8. Don’t stop innovating. Create a culture and environment that encourages out-of-the-box thinking, experimentation and innovation. Support pilot projects, incubate new ideas, and facilitate partnerships internally and externally to keep the institution’s reputation as leader at the forefront of the community it serves.

9. Invest in professional development and talent management. Invest in the continuous learning and growth of your IT team. Encourage them to be ready with the latest skills, methodologies and knowledge needed to support the institution’s technological growth and educational goals.

10. Become the great communicator. Communicate effectively and always with your stakeholders. Don’t ever assume they already know your message. Translate complex technical concepts into clear, relatable language. Listen actively to the needs and feedback of the community and be transparent about IT initiatives, challenges and successes.

This list could be expanded, but I believe adhering to these 10 principles with sincerity and commitment will allow a CIO to succeed. There is no greater sensation than achieving success and having a transformational impact on those you support. Best of luck! If you believe in your abilities, others will believe in you as well.
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).