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Disruptive Leadership: Bowdoin College CIO Mitch Davis

Iconoclastic technology leader argues change management must start with IT itself.
As he rebuilt his organization at Stanford, he noticed that even his new, improved IT staffers could use some self-improvement. Partly to prove that "if we're going to ask others to change, we have to be willing to change ourselves," he decided that the whole staff was going to get in better shape. They started to do their staff meetings as walks around the campus, following a four-mile path. He would take vendors on those walking meetings as well, partly to "get them out of their element" while conducting negotiations, and it's a practice he continues to this day.

"What I try to do is make work a little uncomfortable every day, for everybody," Davis explained. "People are freaking pattern engines. If I can take them out of an element where they're used to injecting patterns, I can get them thinking. It may sound a little crazy, but it works. What I try to create is a thinking organization, not a reacting organization."

After starting in the law school, Davis moved on to roles as director and then executive director of the university-wide organization at Stanford overseeing technology initiatives. By the end of his time there, he was one of four people with that executive director title working on ways to improve university systems.

Bowdoin lured him away with the promise of a true CIO role and a chance to be part of the core leadership team of the college. His nine years at Bowdoin broke a pattern of staying in a job just long enough to make a mark, then moving on. On the advice of a friend, he decided it was time to see what he could accomplish if he stayed in one place for a while, he said.

"Usually, he goes to a place, fixes the problem and moves on, but we've figured out a way at Bowdoin to give him the space to really be a change agent," said Barry Mills, the college president. "He's part of the leadership team and has an understanding, 360 degrees, of what's going on in the college. We haven't put him in his little cubby and said, you support everybody who's here and we'll call you when we need you."

That's how Davis wound up overseeing marketing and social media. "I put him in charge of the guy we have doing it because I wanted him to have a boss who didn't have a lot of boundaries in the way he thought about doing things," Mills said.

Internal communications and marketing are among the biggest keys to success in IT, Davis believes, because knowing whether there is a market for the technology you are introducing and preparing people for the impact it will have are so important. Most organizations make the mistake of pushing technology on people and asking them to adopt it, which often leads to failed programs followed by another push with a different technology. "A little marketing and sales up front can avoid that whole mess," he said.

He tries to get people talking about options up front, over-communicating until they're sick of talking, and ready for something to happen. In this "marketing by deprivation" stage, he's building demand and making sure people know what they're going to be getting, so when they do get it they will be eager to use it, he said.

Mills said one of the things that impressed him about Davis was "he talked about technology in a way that I could understand." And Davis said getting Mills to understand the importance of technology initiatives is important to him. "If I can explain it to my president, I can take my president around and have him explain it to the staff," Davis said. "Having the president say what we want to do changes the communication."

He also insists on having members of the IT team trained in presentation skills so they know how to communicate in jargon-free sentences, speaking in the language of the business and academic groups they serve. "Nobody's allowed to go speak unless they go through the process," he said.

Davis is proud of the role he has played in academic initiatives, such as the creation of a Digital and Computational Studies program and encouraging the use of data analytics in otherwise non-technical fields. One of the ways he has gotten beyond the limits of his budget for technology is by seeking funding for inventive programs that use technology.

"We help the faculty, especially in the humanities, write grants that involve technology," he said. "Previously, for sociology the biggest grant they'd received was about $35,000 and we helped them get a half a million dollar grant."

Roberts believes one of the biggest challenges for many IT organizations is changing the culture and creating a more positive perception of the role of IT. "Mitch has done a particularly good job at that. I find him to be unusual and effective," he said. "Most people are just glad to get the job, but he's been very good at negotiating and carving out the role he wants to have."

Many other IT leaders are good at expressing a vision but weak on the follow through, Roberts said. "Those initiatives often fizzle out over time, and that just creates cynicism. You have to be willing to stay the course, sell the message, and sell the vision."

"The number-one thing I picked up from him is the importance of giving back to the career you've chosen in higher-ed IT," Sandlin said. "It's so important to develop your staff to their highest potential and never take the easy way out."

Follow David F. Carr at @davidfcarr or Google+, along with @IWKEducation.