“Hitting the Ground Walking”

By Brian D. Voss, Chief Information Officer
Louisiana State University

I joined the ranks of CIOs in April of this year, taking up my first CIO appointment here at LSU after nearly 20 years in IT at Indiana University. After my first two months in the role – yes, all of two months! – I’d like to offer a perspective to those of my colleagues to whom this might be useful. For those ‘more seasoned’ CIOs perhaps this will offer you a bit of nostalgic entertainment. Or a chance to chuckle, “Hey, look at the newbie talking the talk!”

I assure you that I have been – quite literally! – trying to walk the walk.

As I parted company from my former CIO, and as he quickly made the transition from on-a-pedestal-boss to mentor, he offered to me a great piece of advice: “Brian, walk about the campus and meet everyone you can before you do much of anything else.” While this thought didn’t seem at all revolutionary to me, turns out it was the most sound and concise counsel I’ve ever received.

Having just completed that initial walkabout, I see first and foremost that his advice provided the impetus for me to meet, face-to-face, with a significant portion of the community here on my new campus home. It’s one thing to meet people in the course of business over your first months on the job, or to see them in the audience of an auditorium as you’re giving a talk. And it’s quite another thing to walk across campus to their offices, visiting them in their “homes,” and getting acquainted over a cup of coffee or a bottle of water (a staple in every accommodating Louisiana campus office suite!). You learn a lot this way. And people are genuinely impressed that you’ve reached out to them first. And, of course, it provides the exercise the doctor is always ordering.

But aside from the benefits of making a good first impression, seeing things for myself, and sweating off a few pounds, I also extracted a great metaphor for a broader paradigm I should consider as a new CIO: Walk, Don’t Run. Let me elaborate with some anecdotes.

Recently, a vendor included a response to some off-the-cuff comments I had made during our first meeting, wherein I had said I eventually wanted to have a program encouraging student ownership of laptop computers. I made that comment trying to draw some broad-stroke outlines of potential initiatives I was sure would eventually come out of an IT strategic planning exercise. But she took me quite literally and walked in with a 5-point program all written up for my consideration, including mock-up Web pages. “Brian, we can get this ready for you in time for Fall semester!”

The same day, I was approached by someone on campus, who asked me – all of 44 calendar days into my role – if I was ready to make the “big changes” in my organization that everyone always expects when a new CIO takes over. “Can I get an early look at your new org chart, as I’m sure you plan to publish it any day now?”

And then, the next day, I was asked by another vendor [note to self: cut down on vendor meetings] what my major initiatives were going to be, and how quickly I anticipated getting results from them. “You look like the kind of person who wants to hit the ground running, Brian!”

What I find striking in these three separate conversations is the same theme: People were expecting me to be jumping to change things immediately. And they expected I’d want to move very fast because I was the “IT guy” … and IT guys (or gals) are all terabit-speed. Aren’t we?

So indeed, aren’t I the kind of person who wants to hit the ground running?

Well … no.

I’m the kind of person who wants to hit the ground walking. I want to walk into this new CIO role; deliberately, carefully, and with an eye for long-term results.

I have been told (by those apparently hoping to give ol’ wet-behind-the-ears-newbie some coaching) that most CIOs arrive on their new campuses with a satchel full of ideas and initiatives. Six of which they’d like to get accomplished before lunch Friday. They have an org chart in their minds (or already drawn up in a file on a memory-stick in their pocket), and enough canned PowerPoint presentations about initiatives to last them through at least six months. They run about trying to gain credibility by addressing issues ad-hoc (though perhaps in line with their vision), and trying to get some traction through instantly spending whatever funding they happened to discover available for discretionary reallocation.

And I will admit, I have been doing some of that. So perhaps I’m rationalizing and coming up with convenient ways to split hairs. But my intention in having some “first-strike” efforts is not so much to advance “the new CIO’s initiatives” as it is to do some “demonstration projects” to raise expectations and excitement for my one true initial initiative: Developing a campus-driven, user-written, strategic plan for information technology for my institution.

After 20 years of watching CIOs from below and outside I observed that a lot of new CIOs take the approach of trying to develop a strategic IT plan themselves (with some semblance of campus involvement, of course), and then spend their time running around campus trying to sell that plan, getting buy-in. After all, weren’t they hired for their experiences and vision? Isn’t the campus just waiting to see what new things they’ll bring in and make happen?

I suppose I’m not sure that’s what the campus community wants. I’ve come to think that perhaps the campus community – faculty, students, staff, and administration – has instead been waiting for a CIO to come in and provide a vision of what might be, and then to ask the community to articulate their needs in light of their unique campus/institution. And once gaining a solid understanding of what those needs are, they’d like the new CIO to then work towards providing those things, securing needed funding for those things, and using his/her experience and expertise to make the vision and plan a working reality.

Do I expect this to just happen? No way. I believe I must orchestrate the effort for the development of the IT strategic plan, but not orchestrate the plan itself. I have laid out a vision for IT at the university and will make suggestions for the structure of the plan document (i.e., what it should look like), and provide a framework for the basic areas it should cover (IT enablement of teaching and learning, research, student experience, managing information, and sound IT infrastructure). And naturally, I will make some suggestions on specific recommendations and action items as the CIO, but only suggestions. It’s their plan for me, not my plan for them!

And while that process unfolds, indeed, I need to grab some low-hanging fruit and use the things I have learned to make some quick-scores. But I do so to get the larger ball rolling, rather than to start crossing things off a to-do list of CIO initiatives. I don’t want to run headlong into implementing a strategic vision before the campus has articulated from that vision a plan for me with particulars. And of course, a major concern for me is that if I would take the option of the fast run out of the gate, I’ll end up just like Patton in France in August-September of 1944 – I’ll likely run out of gas (funding) and be stopped in my tracks. But by having a plan, I hope to articulate with my administration a funding strategy needed to implement that plan and pace the campus to make steady progress over a reasonable period of time (5-6 years).

I suppose a final relevant anecdote I can tell is from my early days here. Someone asked me, given all that needed to be done and with a scarcity of resources, how did I intend to prioritize my actions? My response was that this was the wrong question. The right question was: How do we go about getting the resources we need to do everything that needs to be done? I believe if I simply prioritize, and just get done what I can by running down my list of initiatives until I run out of money, after a few years (like maybe two if I’m lucky), I’ll be let go for not delivering on the non-prioritized things. And then my university will search for the next CIO, and the recruitment ad will focus on the need to do the things I didn’t get done during my tenure here, in my wild rush to get the prioritized set of my own initiatives tackled as fast as I could … before I ran out of gas!

So no, I didn’t want to hit the ground running. Never intended to! I wanted to come in at a good steady walking pace. I want to understand my new campus community, and what it wants in terms of IT enablement. I want to work with my campus as a member of the community (not as an outside consultant with insurance coverage!) to get things planned out, so we can get the funding we need to do all the things that need to be done over time. You know ‘time’ … that period after lunch on Friday through the end of this decade. And yes, I also want to make some progress along the way as I walk, so as to prime the pump for more progress later.

Wish me luck.

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