What Swimming From Alcatraz to San Francisco Taught Me About Higher Education Consulting

Alcatraz Swim_DiannaSadlouskosGenerally, I write about strategic planning or operations improvement in higher education.  Last month, however, I swam from Alcatraz to San Francisco.  At first I didn’t know that setting this personal goal and the hours of swimming in the ocean as I trained for the event had any connection to my professional pursuits.

I was wrong. After the event, I saw how my personal passion for swimming and for challenging my physical limits related specifically to my work.

Six things I learned from the Alcatraz swim that transforms how I approach my higher education consulting practice.

 1. Jump off the boat with abandon.

The day of the swim, I was confident in my ability to swim from Alcatraz to Aquatic Park. Turns out, the swim wasn’t the hard part of the endeavor.  Jumping off the boat seemed more challenging. As my toes hovered over the edge of the boat deck, fear paralyzed me. I took a deep breath, looked up at the beautiful blue sky, then glanced down at swirling water. My heart beat fast in anticipation. The unknown energized me, and I leaped. I was exhilarated – not afraid.  My attitude during the whole of my training for this event was that it was a “swim”.  I learned that, once I hit the water, it became a “race.” My love of “the race” propels me forward in all that I do, in a most positive and spirited way. Racing requires strategic thinking and a methodical approach. There are always unknowns, but it’s ok to not have all of the answers- adaptability and creativity are key elements.
Lesson: Take risks – don’t look back.

2. Do the work- stroke, breathe, stroke, and breathe.

I’m an avid pool swimmer who had a fear of the unpredictability of swimming in the ocean. I feared shark attacks, stepping on stingrays, jellyfish stings, ocean currents, swells and surf.  Some of my fears were irrational; some were a matter of awareness and spending time swimming in the ocean (much different from swimming in a pool). I substituted pool workouts for coached ocean swims and in the process learned to accept the unknowns. On the other side of all the preparation and practice I am a converted open water swim enthusiast.
Lesson: Never underestimate the importance of preparation and practice.

 3. Keep sighting the course ahead.

In open water swimming, it’s critical to sight a landmark to stay on course. Every 20 or 30 strokes I looked to sight two tall buildings behind Aquatic Park (the finish line), ensuring I was on course. If the current took me too far to the right, I swam in the direction equivalent of 10:00, or 2:00 if I were too far to the left.  Sighting on a consistent basis kept me on track for a more efficient, linear swim toward Aquatic Park.
Lesson: Goals need to be tangible- check on progress regularly.

 4. Stop and look around.

In the middle of the bay, I paused to take in the moment. Behind me Alcatraz, on either side of me the Golden Gate Bridge and the Bay Bridge, in front of me, the city of San Francisco. The sheer size of these iconic landmarks, treading water in the middle of the bay on this gorgeous sunny day: I was in awe of the beauty . As I started swimming again, I thought “not many people have the opportunity to enjoy the view from where I am – swimming in the bay.” My perspective was forever changed from that moment forward.
Lesson: Be present.

5. Cross the finish line with a tear and a smile.

Once I passed the sea wall entrance to Aquatic Park, I knew I had only a short 500 yards or so to the finish line.  I still had so much energy that I accelerated my stroke. When I ascended from the water to the shore with a few other swimmers I was overwhelmed with emotion – smiling uncontrollably with a few tears as well. As I looked for my sister and my friends I thought to myself, “I can’t wait to do this again next year.”
Lesson: Relish in the success.

6. Set a new goal. What’s next? Perhaps a swim around Manhattan…                    
Lesson: Smart, confident and directed- that’s who I am.

You’ve just read my professional and personal manifesto.

Would you like a fresh perspective on your campus or technology strategic plan?  Let’s get the discussion started- contact me at [email protected].

Disruptive Change In Higher Education: From the Inside Out

Disruptive Change in Higher EducationOver the last year I’ve had many conversations about the role ed tech incubators and accelerators play in stimulating disruptive change in higher education.  Today I read an article  written by Andy Thomason about colleges creating their own in-house ed tech incubators.  Thomason positions the dialogue between the ed-tech startups and universities as a “two-way conversation.” Startups gain access to the rich intellectual capital cultivated at universities and colleges. Institutions gain perspective on what’s in the works for the future of higher education.  The first question universities and colleges must ask is should the investment be in an incubator or accelerator?

What is the Difference Between an Incubator and an Accelerator?

Often the definition is blurred and the terms are used interchangeably. At a high level, here’s the difference. An incubator fosters a supportive environment to develop ideas, test solutions and examine business model options. Time spent in an incubator is usually less definitive than an accelerator.  There may be other start-ups in an incubator that form a cohort, a supportive community of peers.

Accelerators focus on nurturing startup success as well, however, the approach may include access to bundled professional services (business model development, branding, PR, product design),  seed capital, support for launch and is bound  by a time frame requirement. Often accelerators are defined as early stage investments and more questions are focused on ROI.

 3 Benefits to Universities and Colleges for Establishing In-House Incubators/Accelerators

  • Harnesses the power of one of their greatest core competencies – research- as a means to help craft the path forward
  • Nurtures a culture of innovation and entrepreneurism among students
  • Contributes to or leads the path forward to a long-term viable model for the future of higher education — basically taking an active role in disruptive change in higher education.

Questions to Consider:

  • What are the pros/cons for my institution to support an incubator vs. accelerator?
  • What support needs to be in place to operate an accelerator that is time specific, mentorship-driven with critical resources to drive rapid progress on product solutions?
  • What type of funding model makes sense?
  • What is the governance model for establishing selection and success criteria and providing oversight for the start-up?
  • What does a beta incubator/accelerator look like?  Does it make sense to establish a cohort environment supporting multiple start-ups?
  • What is the criteria for selecting a start-up for an in-house incubator/accelerator?

Interested in assessing the possibilities of an in-house incubator/accelerator? Contact me at [email protected].

Higher Education CIOs & Aspiring Tech Leaders: Use Social Media to Build Your Personal Brand

Social Media for Higher Education CIOsThis post is part of an occasional career focused blog series for aspiring Higher Education CIOs or sitting CIOs. Previous posts can be accessed here.

Yesterday I read a great blog post by Dr. James Michael Nolan, President of Southwestern College.  He makes a case for the importance of social media in the business of higher education.   Social media is in large part how students engage in and develop relationships. Prospective students use social media to research and select where they will ultimately attend undergraduate or graduate school. Dr. Nolan states that student recruitment efforts rely heavily on social media as a marketing (and dare I say sales) platform because it’s where students hang out. Social media is how institutions build relationships with prospective students.

For career strategy, I believe that social media is an important tool for building a personal brand. If you are a sitting higher education CIO or an aspiring CIO, it is critical to consider how you are perceived in the broader IT community.  What expertise are you known for amonst your peers?  What attributes do you want your personal brand to represent? Moving up the IT career ladder requires an investment in building relationships across the broader IT community. Social media is the new model for establishing relationships locally and globally with other IT professionals, faculty, staff, student and higher education service providers — from your desk.  Dr. Nolan correctly states, “…relationships no longer begin with a handshake — they begin with a Retweet, a Like, a Share, a Subscribe, a Comment, an interchange in social media.” Whether you are sharing your opinion in LinkedIn Groups with like-minded peers, or tweeting articles that catch your attention- social media provides a ready platform to launch your personal brand as a leader in higher education.

Where to begin?  Start by studying how the early adopters use social media. Review profiles on LinkedIn and join LinkedIn Groups that share your interests.  Examples of groups are “EDUCAUSE” and if you’re interested in discussions on the benefits of technology on learning try the group “Improving Education Using Technology.”

There are many savvy higher education CIOs that have established a presence on social media; in essence building their personal brand. The key is to provide useful information about your area of expertise/interest through the lens of your own unique personality.

 4 Higher Education CIO Twitter Accounts to Follow:

  • Tim Chester,  VP, for Information Technology at University of Georgia

Take small steps in delving into social media.  Start by reviewing (or building) your LinkedIn profile. Ensure the content is well written and represents your accomplishments professionally. Conduct a search for a few groups to join.  Take time to read posts and comments to provide a sense as to how individuals participate. Sign up for a Twitter account and begin following a few individuals and organizations that interest you.

Questions to Consider

  1. How do you think your personal brand is perceived by others?
  2. What do you want my personal brand to reflect? Academic Technology guru? Innovative solution provider? Higher Education IT Visionary?
  3. What steps do you need to take to ramp up to your desired profile?

Interested in feedback on your career planning efforts or professional portfolio? Contact me at [email protected].

photo credit: greyweed via photopin cc

Aspiring IT Leaders: 4 Actions to Get You Closer to Landing a Higher Education CIO Role

Higher Education CIO Career Coaching This post is part of an occasional career focused blog series for aspiring Higher Education CIOs or sitting CIOs. Previous posts can be accessed here.

Are you a mid-level IT manager interested in preparing for the next step up in your career path?  If this is the case, take some time to evaluate your skills and experiences against essential skills institutions look for in a CIO.  The Center for Higher Education Chief Information Officers Studies, Inc. (CHECS), in their 2013 study of higher education chief information officers cite leadership, communication, technical knowledge, interpersonal skills and higher education knowledge as vital skills. If you find there are a few gaps in your background, here are 4 actions you can take to begin to develop attributes that are fundamental to the CIO role.

 4 Actions to Acquire Skills for a Higher Education CIO Role

  • Establish a mentor relationship. It doesn’t need to be an on-campus relationship; an executive coach or professional colleague will do. The goal is to gain valuable insight and guidance to begin positioning yourself for a leadership role. Reach out to someone whose career path you admire. Ask questions, run ideas by them, and learn from their experiences.
  • Engage in the IT professional community. Use social media to build up your business networking profile. Participate in groups on LinkedIn. Volunteer to speak at conferences or join constituent groups. Having a strong network of colleagues will be very useful throughout your career.  The goal of this action is advance your communication skills and position you as a leader in the IT professional community.
  • Form alliances in student services or other administrative units. Take time to understand current business issues across campus. When possible, volunteer to lead or participate in cross-campus committees. Reach out to your customer base– understand their business concerns and spend time studying your campus from a strategic perspective.
  • Have vision.  Develop opinions about how technology will transform the business of higher education.  Keep updated about current trends and controversies that fuel debates in the higher education community.

Questions to Consider

  1. What keeps the President/Provost up at night?
  2. What are your opinions about these issues and opportunities?

Interested in receiving feedback on your approach to landing your next career opportunity? Contact me at [email protected].

Higher Education Student Services Redesign Phase 6: Create a Go Forward Plan

Student Services Redesign Phase 6“Create a go forward Plan” is the seventh in a blog series that provides a high-level process roadmap for structuring a student services redesign initiative. This process can be applied in all higher education institutions for entire student services organizations or individual departments. To review this blog series from the beginning, click here.

 In Phase 6, the goal is to create an implementation plan that is concrete and actionable.  A key success factor for executing a student services redesign initiative is to assign an owner to lead implementation.  Oversight of the implementation plan should be formalized with performance metrics incorporated into the annual performance review process. Without formalizing this role the student services redesign initiative is at risk for being less of a priority than other day-to-day responsibilities.

Here are three characteristics to look for in selecting an owner for this initiative:

  • High potential, rising leader on campus with the ability to get work done
  • Strategic thinker with strong organizational skills
  • Politically savvy influencer who can build consensus and manage change

If the redesign initiative spans multiple service lines in student services, additional team members may need to be assigned.  Identify if work streams require full-time, part-time or ad hoc team members and plan resourcing accordingly.

 The go forward plan includes 2 components: a communication strategy and an implementation plan.

Components of a communication strategy

  • Goals for communication
  • Key messaging
  • Audience definition
  • Frequency of communication
  • Method of communication
  • Owner of content development

Implementation plan components:

  • Time-bound activities with defined start and end dates
  • Assigned owners for each activity
  • Stated milestones and performance measures
  • Detailed budget and investment requirements

 Questions to consider:

  1. Does it make sense to appoint the project leader who managed the student services redesign planning effort to implement the plan?
  2. How are change management activities accounted for in the go forward plan?
  3. In communication planning, how will the implementation team gather ongoing faculty, staff and student feedback about the redesign effort?

Interested in receiving a white paper focused on this student services redesign blog series?  Contact me at [email protected].

Higher Education Student Services Redesign Phase 5: Formulate Options for Student Services Models

Student Services Redesign Phase 5“Formulate Options for Student Service Models” is the sixth in a blog series that provides a high-level process roadmap for structuring a student services redesign initiative. This process can be applied in all higher education institutions for entire student services organizations or individual departments. To review this blog series from the beginning, click here.

In Phase 5, the goal is to develop model options. Documents that are helpful in generating student services model options include:
• Student Services Assessment Brief (Phase 2)
• Best Practices Research Results (Phase 3)

There are several approaches to generating model options. This approach works particularly well. Here are the three steps:

Step 1: Develop student services model options

If the “develop vision and goals” work session is a full 2-day work session, there is generally sufficient time to brainstorm possible options. This is ideal because cross campus leadership and other influencers in the design-and-decision-making process are generally represented. Towards the end of the second day, assemble breakout groups. Each group generates a draft student services model that reflects the vision and goals. The breakout groups capture the pros, cons and risks for their respective option. The goal is to present all the options to the larger group and select the best 2 or 3, which are then handed off to the project team.

Step 2: Refine student services model options

The project team refines each option to include the following detailed components:

• Description
• Benefits
• Potential risks
• Analysis of viability
• Critical success factors required for implementation.

Step 3: Select a final student services model option

The final decision will likely fall to the steering committee or to a sub-set leadership group, which may include representation from student services, academic leadership, and IT leaders. A facilitated, in-person discussion is optimal to capture ideas and explore multiple perspectives. The deliverable and expected outcome is a consensus for the future student services model. The model selected is the basis for developing an implementation/transition plan in Phase 6.

Questions to consider:

1. Are additional resources required to augment the project team to generate quality student service options? What other skills and expertise are required to recruit?
2. What mix of cross-campus representation should be included in selecting the final future student services model?
3. Does the future student services model align with the vision and goals?

Questions about this phase or how to begin a student services redesign initiative? Contact me at
[email protected].

Higher Education Student Services Redesign Phase 4: Develop a Vision and Goals

Student Services Redesign Phase 4: Develop a Student Services Vision“Develop a student services vision and goals” is the fifth in a blog series that provides a high-level process roadmap for structuring a student services redesign initiative. This process can be applied in all higher education institutions for entire student services organizations or individual departments. To review this blog series from the beginning, click <here>.

The goal in this phase is to begin crafting a student services vision to support an optimal student experience.  Inputs into this phase include a critical review of the current student services model (Phase 2) and research conducted on alternative models and peer institutions (Phase 3). Once the vision is created a set of goals is developed that are SMART (specific, measurable, achievable, results oriented and time sensitive) to successfully realize the vision.  Together, the vision and goals anchor the student services model to a foundation where performance measures can be set.  A best practice in this phase is to convene a 1 to 2 day work session with a cross section of campus and student services leaders and other key influencers such as faculty.  The retreat serves two purposes: creates a dialogue about the student experience as it exists today and second, harnesses the brain power and creativity of key constituents to envision an optimal student experience.

Vision and Goals Setting Work Session

Below is a sample agenda for a student services redesign work session:

  • Review current state assessment and best practice research.
  • Gain agreement on the strengths, weaknesses and opportunities for improvement which student services organization should prepare to address in the future.
  • Develop a vision and a statement of values to guide the behaviors of the student services organization members.
  • Identify major goal areas for discussion and development.  If this is a cross campus student services redesign effort, consider priority areas of improvement.
  • Identify next steps.

Questions to Consider

    • Do we have the right mix of campus stakeholders in the room?
    • Does the Student Services vision and goals align with the institutional mission?
    • Does the vision and goals optimize the end-to-end student experience?

Questions about this phase or how to begin a student redesign initiative? Contact me at
[email protected].


Higher Education Student Services Redesign Phase 3: Best Practices Research

SSRSlide3“Conduct Best Practices Research” is the fourth in a blog series that provides a high-level process roadmap for structuring a student services redesign initiative. This process can be applied in all higher education institutions for entire student services organizations or individual departments. To review this blog series from the beginning, click <here>.

The goal of this phase is to gather insight from external sources to help transform the student services organization.  The outcome for best practices research is to generate ideas to innovate student services. Here are 5 possible research options to help change the model:

1. Evaluate best practice student service models.

Identify improvement opportunities to optimize the end-to-end student experience. Understand organizational models that support a shift from a function driven to a purpose driven support model. Cast a wide net when evaluating student services models- review institutions of all sizes.

 2. Evaluate individual service areas.

Select one or two individual departments that require the most innovation. Identify external institutions that are considered forward thinking in how they approach these service areas. Examples may include student recruitment models that leverage social media or career services that leverage non-traditional pathways for job placement support.

3. Conduct student demographic market research.

Leverage student demographic data from the institutional research organization.  Use this data as a baseline and determine if there is additional information required to understand the needs of your student populations. Depth of understanding will provide context for how services need to change to maximize the student experience.

 4. Conduct peer institution research.

Look at peer institutions and what can be learned from them. Determine which elements of their models may work well in your institution. How are these institutions leveraging resources differently? What differs in the overall student experience?

 5. Understand overall trends and potential disruptors to higher education.

Consider MOOCs and other recent innovations that pose the potential for major institutional change. Try to estimate how trends in these ancillary areas affect the student experience and the potential to influence student service offerings.

Question to consider:

1. Review the State of Student Services Assessment Brief from Phase 2. What other research data may be helpful in redesigning student services?

Questions about this phase or how to begin a student redesign initiative? Contact me at
[email protected].

Higher Education Student Services Redesign Phase 2: Assess the Current Organization

SSRSlide2“Assess the Current Organization” is the third in a blog series that provides a high-level process roadmap for structuring a student services redesign initiative. This process can be applied in all higher education institutions for entire student services organizations or individual departments. To review this blog series from the beginning, click <here>.

In Phase 2, the goal is to gather sufficient intelligence about how students are served as they navigate from being a prospective student to an alumnus of the institution. If an individual department is under review, the goal is to understand where these services fit into the student services eco-system. There are four steps in this assessment phase:

 Step 1: Review background data.

The background materials may include: department strategic plans, marketing materials, process maps, annual reports and other existing service materials. The goal is to understand the student services eco-system in its entirety.  Intelligence gathered during this step is used to develop interview guides, focus groups guides and survey tools.

Step 2: Conduct individual interviews.

Individual interviews are conducted with campus, academic, and administrative leaders in each of the student service areas.  The goal is to develop a complete picture of the strengths, challenges and opportunities to improve services.

Sample questions may include:

  • Describe the strengths of the current student services model.
  • What distinguishes your institution’s student services from others?
  • What is your institution’s vision for student services?
  • Where are there opportunities for improvement?
  • What role will campus leadership have in guiding student services towards their vision?
  • How will instruction influence this process?
  • What guiding principles should the steering committee consider when prioritizing initiatives?
  • Which external organization’s student service model do you recommend for best practice research?

Interview results are then used as input to design focus group guides.

 Step 3: Conduct focus groups.

The objective is to ensure that all key demographic perspectives are represented in the organization review.  Focus groups are assembled with students, cross-sections of departmental staff, and faculty. Focus group questionnaires are developed with the audience in mind.  As an example, student focus groups may focus on identifying experiences as they progress from enrollment through commencement.  The facilitators gather real stories to add qualitative context. Faculty focus group participants may discuss what they see and hear from students and how current service models impact the academic experience. Staff provides insight into opportunities for service improvement, service strengths and ideas for vision.

 Step 4:  Analyze data.

The final step in this process is analysis and synthesis of all data collected.  The project team will create a State of Student Services Assessment Brief. This document represents a summary of findings.

 Questions to consider:

  1. What student needs are currently going unmet?
  2. Does the State of Student Services Assessment Brief provide a complete picture of the current environment?
  3. Questions about this phase or how to begin a student redesign initiative? Contact me at
    [email protected].

Higher Education Student Services Redesign Phase 1: Launch Project

SSRSlide1“Launch Project” is the second in a blog series that provides a high-level process roadmap for structuring a student services redesign initiative. This process can be applied in all higher education institutions for entire student services organizations or individual departments. To review this blog series from the beginning, click <here>

There are two goals in the Launch Project phase. The first goal is to confirm the approach, scope and objectives of the project. The second is to establish the foundation for a well-structured project to ensure success.  Phase 1 is organized into 3 steps:

Step 1: Organize the Project Team

This is accomplished by allocating key project responsibilities and setting up project management processes and tools. In this step, the project leader ensures that each of these responsibilities are assigned:

  • Timeline, schedule and resource management
  • Project communication
  • Focus group facilitators
  • Interviewers
  • Best practices researchers

These responsibilities can be combined as required by resource allocation for this project.   A key deliverable of this step is a project charter.  This document will provide an overview of the project organization and plan; detail the approach, scope and objectives;  include a communication plan and qualitative and quantitative project metrics.

Step 2: Convene Project Kickoff Meeting

A formalized steering committee is the audience for the kickoff meeting. The project leader uses the project charter to guide the conversation to confirm the project’s approach, scope and objectives. In addition, the approach for data collection, draft list of interviewees, focus groups and proposed peer institutions for best practices research are presented. A formal communication plan is also reviewed and confirmed with the committee.

Step 3: Launch Project

The project leader is now ready to initiate the project.  At this point, interviews and focus groups are scheduled and formal communication is sent out about the student services redesign effort.

 Questions to Consider

  1. Does the project team have sufficient resources to enable success?
  2. Are project communication tactics with the project sponsor, steering committee, key stakeholders and campus constituents clearly defined and ready to execute?
  3. Who needs to be included on the steering committee to ensure project has cross-campus support and buy-in?
  4. Questions about this phase or how to begin a student redesign initiative? Contact me at
    [email protected].


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