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].

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].

Corporate Tech Leaders: Interested in becoming a Higher Education CIO? Don’t Forget Your Cover Letter!

One of my ongoing consulting engagements is with an executive search firm that recruits technology leaders for higher education. Recently I’ve noticed an influx of applicants with a corporate background looking to transition to higher education. There are, of course, many similarities in the CIO role across industries. However, I find many industry changers make a detrimental error in their application packet: omitting a cover letter. Or equally unfavorable: including a generic cover letter.

Here are two tips that can improve the opportunity for a corporate CIO to be considered for a technology leadership role in higher education.

Why Higher Education?

Tell me, the executive search consultant, why you’re interested. Be specific. If you are interested because you are passionate- why are you passionate? Conduct research. What about higher education interests you? Demonstrate your knowledge of issues that impact technology leaders and the overall business of higher education. Don’t go overboard with details in the cover letter. Your cover letter should subtly show that you’ve done your homework about the institution and higher education.

Why You?

Technology leaders with significant experience in higher education are your competition. Help me understand why you should be considered for this role instead of an applicant with deep industry experience. In addition to a broad introduction to your background, correlate your experience to specific requirements for the position. Tell me about yourself in the context of the priorities for the role. If the primary priority for the new role is planning for academic technologies— highlight elements of your background that demonstrate your success working with a highly political constituency. What are the other experiences in your background that can correlate to a higher education cultural environment? If the institution priority is improved IT services, call out your experience in maximizing the customer experience. Have you led a strategic planning effort? Highlight experiences where you’ve provided leadership from both a technology and business perspective.  View the cover letter as the qualitative context for your application. Your resume provides the quantitative back up.

Questions to Consider

Does your cover letter augment your resume or replicate it? (opt for the former)

What three points do you want the evaluator to remember? Are these clearly stated with supporting data points?

And finally, review the position description and compare to your cover letter and resume. Does your application packet clearly illustrate why you are interested in shifting from your industry to higher education?

Questions about how to maximize your career portfolio for an executive position? Contact me at
[email protected].

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