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Ted Dodds on Leadership

by Liz Field for IT News

One of the things Ted Dodds is most proud of from his five-year tenure as Cornell’s CIO and VP for Information Technologies is the investment he’s made in leadership programs in IT@Cornell.

Since 2012, thirty-two IT@Cornell employees have graduated from the IT Leaders Program (ITLP), and fifty-one have graduated from the IT Emerging Leaders Program (IT-ELP). Both programs are run by MOR Associates and teach a variety of leadership skills.

Dodds’ own leadership style encompasses respect and kindness while acknowledging the importance of experience and goals. “I have a genuine respect for a diversity of opinions without regard to the hierarchy of the organization. I try not to make assumptions about people—or assuming, if any, that people are making a contribution and interested in their work,” Dodds said in a recent interview.  

Of course, sometimes leaders have to make decisions, and make them quickly. When Dodds started at Cornell nearly five years ago, he was asked to cut $8 million from the overall IT budget. He was also faced with wired and wireless campus networks that were either inadequate or missing in many academic buildings.

“I learned a long time ago about situational leadership, when the right thing to do is to make a decision, and when it’s time to be coaching and facilitative,” he says. He spent his first year at Cornell focusing on tactics and developing very short-term goals to generate a little bit of progress in each area that needed a lot of attention.

Dodds is quick to acknowledge that almost nothing is accomplished alone. In his first year, the network issues alone were estimated to take ten or fifteen years to remediate and cost somewhere around $35 million. “At some point I asked Sasja [Huijts] to come up with a plan that would do everything we wanted it to do at half the cost, and to do it in two years’ time,” Dodds says. “And more or less, over the weekend she came up with the Network Connectivity Program.”

Through the NCP, and with the hard work of IT groups across campus, they managed to complete the work in record time: 49 buildings were upgraded in two and a half years, and instead of costing $35 million, the project cost $18 million.

Cloud computing and Academic Technologies are other areas where Dodds focused attention. “Cornell is a leader in cloud, we understand and leverage cloud technologies. We are in the top five universities in the U.S. in that regard,” Dodds says, adding, “And we are quietly becoming leaders in Academic Technology in the areas of producing great online learning content. CIT is now seen as a player in the educational mission of the university thanks to Academic Technologies. And MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) helped to catalyze interest in and commitment to online learning.”

As Dodds was able to delve more into strategic thinking in his second year, he developed the IT@Cornell Strategic Plan, which focused on leadership development and creating a vision for IT@Cornell. That vision includes a broader understanding of student IT needs, developing IT to meet the unique needs of a research university, promoting a career framework and IT service excellence.

What will IT@Cornell look like in the future? Dodds hopes that what he set out to do with the vision of IT@Cornell is that in the future we’ll have a catalog of central services that all academic units and colleges use, enabling them to be more competitive and more research-based because they can focus their IT units on running specialized services and use CIT for central services.

Leadership, in short, plays a role in all of this, and in his hopes for the future of IT@Cornell. As Cornell develops a more mature model for the use of technology in support of its educational mission, and as CIT changes from managing IT infrastructure to managing IT services, Dodds acknowledges, “We need people with highly technical skills, but we also need to focus on the so-called soft skills. And don’t call them soft skills; they are actually very hard.”

Liz Field is a communications specialist in Cornell Information Technologies.

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