7 Keys to Success as a Higher Education

James Tagliareni, CIO, Washburn University
James Tagliareni, CIO, Washburn University

James Tagliareni, CIO, Washburn University

When I recently became CIO of Washburn University in Kansas, my new colleagues asked me what I planned to accomplish in my first 60 days. I joked to them, “Not much.” But in truth, I was extremely busy during those first two months. I was listening, learning and assessing the IT landscape. It laid the foundation for success. I’ve been an education CIO for 18 years, first in school districts and the last seven years in higher education. During that time, the technology and the needs of educational institutions had changed dramatically, from mobility and online education to the emerging field of data analytics. But to do a great job as CIO, it has to go beyond technology. It’s about understanding campus culture and politics, building relationships and developing short-term and long-term IT goals and the ability to deliver the perfect sales pitch to get those projects funded. It’s also about mentoring your IT staff, helping them grow and giving them the autonomy they crave. Whether you are just starting out as a CIO or an experienced veteran, you need a game plan to get things done at a university or college. Here are some of my strategies that have helped me succeed.

Create strong relationships: During my first several months on the job at Washburn, I met with everyone – my IT team, deans, chairs and administrators I had meetings with each of my four IT divisions. I let them dictate the format. Some wanted to meet as a group. Others wanted to meet with me individually. It allowed us to get to know one another, but it also let me gather information, to learn about what’s working and what’s not, so I can make intelligent decisions. I also filled my calendar to meet with every dean, chair and every department head on the business side. I chatted with them about technology and listened to what their goals are and how technology can help achieve their goals.

Get quick wins: Through these initial meetings, you can discover what the campus IT needs are and start updating the university’s long-term IT strategic plan. But you can also identify short-term projects and get early wins to prove yourself to the entire campus and build momentum. During my first 60 days, I learned that Washburn didn’t have true disaster recovery. They still backed up to tape. I also learned that we used old firewall technology and needed a new one to meet our cybersecurity needs. Through my vendor relationships, I got huge discounts that allowed us to afford new on premise and cloud-based disaster recovery and next-generation firewall technology. That leads to my next piece of advice.

 It’s about understanding campus culture and politics, building relationships and developing short-term and long-term IT goals and the ability to deliver the perfect sales pitch to get those projects funded 

Cultivate vendor relationships: Because they can pay dividends later. It’s important to develop strong vendor relationships because you can carry that with you from year to year and from school to school. When I learned that we needed to improve our disaster recovery and firewall technology, I Immediately reached out to my circle of vendors and told them, “We have a need. Can you help us?” Through my relationship with one vendor, for example, I was able to purchase a $331,000 back-up system for $84,000 – a $247,000 savings.

Be a salesman to get funded: Every organization is different in how finances work, so learn about your campus’ financial situation and budgeting process and then tailor your message to what your audience wants to hear to get IT projects funded. For some schools, it’s return-on-investment and total cost of ownership. So, share with the board how an investment today will save money tomorrow. Provide employees with training and career advancement opportunities. I’m a huge proponent of mentoring my IT team. I became a CIO when I was 27 because I had a mentor who showed me the ropes in my early 20s. As a result, I’ve spent the rest of my career paying it forward by mentoring my staff. Providing employees training opportunities and room to grow and advance in the IT organization is key to that. It not only improves employee morale, it makes your IT organization stronger and may assist in recruiting and retaining employees. I always make sure I have an annual budget for training, so employees can develop new skills and get new certifications. I also give workers opportunities for advancement, so when they do get the necessary skills and experience, they can get promoted within my organization.

Managing less is managing more: Every manager has his or her own management style, but I do not micro-manage. I don’t worry about the minutiae. I trust my employees and give them the authority to make decisions, good and bad, and we will live with those decisions, and together we will learn from them. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not a pushover. Sometimes the wrong person is in a position, and I will have to get more involved. But for the most part, I let my team do their jobs. I’ve mentored and trained them, so I let them loose and it allows them to be creative and think outside the box. That in turn, can provide us with new solutions to problems and new ways of doing things that we’ve never thought about.

Never stop learning: Speaking of training, I’m a firm believer that education is a lifelong endeavor and that includes you as an IT leader. It will make you a better manager and better CIO. Because technology changes all the time. I’m constantly reading to keep tabs on emerging technologies. I learn through webinars. I visit other educational institutions and talk to other CIOs. I also attend educational conferences and leadership training seminars. Vendors are also good educational resources. Through regular briefings, they teach me about the latest trends and forthcoming technologies.

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