How to be a better leader and other CIO insights from the 2018 MISA Prairies conference

Pictured above — From left: moderator and District of West Vancouver CIO Kristin Wilkes; City of Yorkton CIO Kelly Caban; Strathcona County IT services director Russ Avery; City of Calgary CIO Heather Reed-Fenske; and MISA Prairies president and City of Red Deer IT services manager Dan Newton discuss their craft during the CIO panel at this year’s MISA Prairies conference on May 8, 2018.

RED DEER, Alta. – Collaborating with colleagues who are less than tech savvy is one of the biggest challenges facing today’s tech leaders, four of Alberta’s top municipal CIOs agreed during a May 8 panel at the 2018 MISA Prairies conference – but there are ways to bridge the gap.

For example, City of Yorkton CIO Kelly Caban said that he makes a practice of conducting frequent one-on-one sessions with colleagues from non-technical departments to ensure everyone is on the same page.

“We’re a smaller team,” he said. “We have between 150 and 200 staff in a community about 75 kilometres across, so I do a lot of personal business… my team does a lot of personal business… just like we build relationships with our vendors.”

Caban – who noted that he was getting a new boss soon – was also the panelist who most explicitly complained about his previous supervisor overriding IT projects without letting his department know and having a mindset of being right and assuming everyone else needed to come around to their way of thinking when asked to name the greatest challenge facing his department, but said it was getting better.

“My stakeholders – my customers… are the people I work with, and building that relationship, showing them I’m not a bad guy, that I’m actually an enabler, is a good thing,” he said. “But it takes time.”

City of Calgary CIO Heather Reed-Fenske said that her municipality has both hired an IT account manager to liase with other departmentsl and is adopting a form of governance that ensures IT plays a role in their strategy.

“We’re just moving to a model where we have portfolios and directors engaged in technology/strategy planning and talking through the investments they’re going to make,” she said. “I sit on those department portfolios… and being able to respond to [my colleagues] directly in terms of their strategies and investment [definitely helps].”

The new model also helps rebalance the City of Calgary’s haves and have-nots when it comes to municipal funding, Reed-Fenske said, with digitally transforming city services typically underserved in the past.

“We try to make sure that we’re not forgetting about some of our areas that typically haven’t had dollars in the past to become more tech-savvy in terms of delivering services to citizens,” she said.

MISA Prairies president Dan Newton, who in his day job serves as the City of Red Deer’s IT services manager, said his municipality employs a strategy similar to Calgary’s, but on a much smaller scale.

“We have business systems consultants assigned to the various departments… and they try to bring technology solutions to them,” he said, noting that his department takes a slightly different approach with the city’s emergency services division.

“They wanted to build their own IT department, and what we ended up doing is, we started creating a management situation where the IT stuff in emergency services actually reports back to corporate,” he said, noting that, crucially, corporate is represented by a manager on-site.

“It’s a system that’s really worked well for us,” Newton said.

Strathcona County IT services director Russ Avery, meanwhile, said his region’s most effective change to municipal planning was adding an IT checkbox to strategy reports, ensuring his department has a say in colleagues’ projects.

“We’re now part of the budgeting and planning process, recognized as ‘you must come see us, and we must have a response, to make sure that we have the capacity and capability to go ahead with your plan,’” he said. “So that’s good.”

Avery’s department has also helped Strathcona’s planning become more data-driven, whether explicitly tech-related or not, he said: “We made a form that’s actually connected to our open data portal, and so now through the power of AI, we can actually mine it to see who’s passing the mustard.”

Clueless colleagues not the only challenge, CIOs agree

Colleagues and managers who fail to understand the role IT plays in day-to-day operations aren’t the only challenges facing the CIOs of municipalities, the panelists agreed.

The City of Calgary’s Reed-Fenske said that one of her municipality’s greatest challenges was choosing between much-needed innovation and maintaining legacy systems, a decision that ever-advancing technology is making increasingly difficult.

“Those are always two competing interests, and the business gets impatient, but we also have to make sure that all of your core systems are doing what they need to do,” she said. “But what you see coming at us now with artificial intelligence and 5G technology – it’s just a sea change.”

The increasing digitization of municipal services also means that IT is increasingly the “lifeblood” of city governments, and that creates pressure as well, Reed-Fenske said.

“Helping our executives know what some of the implications are… really getting them thinking about where they want to take their different lines of business, I think is probably the most challenging piece,” she said.

Strathcona County’s Avery agreed with Reed-Fenske’s assessment, saying that as digital transformation has empowered governments and citizens alike, it’s also created challenges such as data management.

“Say you have a cloud strategy… and you’re 80 per cent in the cloud, you’ve got data everywhere… how do we integrate, then get that data back?” he said. “Because it’s our responsibility to be able to actually recover that data.”

That said, MISA Prairies’ and Red Deer’s Newton acknowledged that one of the leading problems he faced was users seeing the IT department as simply service providers or barriers to reaching whatever goal they want to accomplish, and that his solutions have involved figuring out how he can turn that mistrust into an understanding that IT is actually a trusted partner.

“The fact is, we want to be trusted partners, and we want to be part of your decision making, and we should be bringing innovation to users,” he said. “But that perception is sometimes a tough one to come over.”

With cloud, for example, he said, the City of Red Deer has adopted a risk-based approach, with the IT department retaining veto power.

“So we’re not telling them no, we’re doing a risk analysis, letting the department head make the decision about whether to proceed,” he said.

‘Chill out!’ and other advice for your younger self

When asking the CIOs what advice they would give their younger selves, moderator and District of West Vancouver CIO Kristin Wilkes answered the question first.

“Chill out,” she said, to laughs. “Like Jesus Christ, calm down.”

She also said, in a reference to the conference’s day-one keynote by former Fort McMurray chief Darby Allen, that she would encourage her younger self to trust her colleagues more easily.

“We heard something about trust this morning, and I think that’s a really powerful message, especially in those emergency situations,” Wilkes said. “We might not be putting out actual wildfires, but in IT we do have a lot of crisis situations, and trust is an important part of crisis response.”

The City of Yorkton’s Caban said building trust was an important goal for him too, and one that, as a perfectionist, he admitted finding difficult to adopt.

“I remember there were a couple of key milestones in my earlier years where I did let go and was so impossibly impressed by what happened, just by me giving that whole area of the company over,” he said.

But the advice he would give himself, he said, would be to embrace what he called the “80-20 rule,” and learn to accept 80 per cent as good enough.

“I expect a lot from my staff and from myself, but sometimes 80 per cent is good enough, and nobody cares about that other 20,” he said. “You notice your own faults, but nobody else does.”

Strathcona County’s Avery, meanwhile, said he was reluctant to offer employees a mantra because, as a control freak, he fails to follow them himself. So his advice to his younger self would be to – however difficult – practice giving that control to others.

“It’s hard when you’ve got [a control freak’s] of personality,” he said, to laughs. “But I think giving [your employees] a measure of trust and purpose is important.”

Calgary’s Reed-Fenske said she remembered a former manager telling her that the higher you go up an organization, the less control you have – advice she would still give her younger self.

“Another one – this is my own personal one – is that every conversation counts,” she added. “Don’t ever waste a conversation with staff.”

Finally, MISA Prairies’ Newton echoed Reed-Fenske, saying a former manager’s advice of looking “like a duck on water” in the midst of a crisis had stuck with him.

“Your feet might be going 100 miles an hour, but you look really calm,” he said.

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Eric Emin Wood
Eric Emin Wood
Former IT World Canada associate editor turned consultant with public relations firm Porter Novelli. When not writing for the tech industry enjoys photography, movies, travelling, the Oxford comma, and will talk your ear off about animation if you give him an opening.

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