A Year on the Other Side

A year ago I took a break from being on the university side of education and joined Blackboard as a strategic consultant. Although I was on a higher education CIO trajectory, I felt I needed something different at this point in my career. That’s not to say I won’t return to the CIO path — I just needed to try something else at this point in my life.

One question I often get is whether or not I’m still enjoying being on the other side. My answer is simple: yes.

The second question is typically am I enjoying being on the other side more? Well, I am enjoying it about the same. The challenges and learning experiences are different and that’s invigorating whereas travel can be intense with long periods of being on the road, which can be challenging in a negative way. But on the whole what I enjoy most, regardless of what side of the fence I’m on, are the opportunities to think out of the box, solve problems, and work with a broad range of people to attain a goal, objective, or most importantly, a vision. These attributes are similar whether I am a technology leader within an institution or working with institutional leaders in a consulting capacity.

What I have learned is that not everyone is cut out to be a consultant in today’s world. Working at home as part of a global team creates its own unique kind of stress as you don’t have a team at arms length that you can reach out to and bounce ideas off of. At the University of Chicago, I had my staff (Catherine, Roberto, Kaylea, Ken, Emily, Quinn, Michael, Josh, Dale, Val, Beth, Iffy, Jamie and many others over the years) who I would regularly tap in “drive-by ‘Chaddings.’” I would hit them with crazy and sometimes outlandish ideas and convoluted questions about how to think about a problem, tackle a strategic issue, or envision a future state. It was a way for me to check in with reality and formulate concepts in my head, and hopefully for them provide an opportunity to step out of their respective roles and think about things in different ways.

Being “remote” and without a staff changed that dynamic, and that took a while to get used to. Fortunately, I had spent several years doing consulting work on the side and that prepared me for this at-a-distance experience. Had I not had someone like Shirley Dugdale to mentor me, I’d be lost today. She and the others at DEGW helped me better understand what it means to be a strategic consultant and the realities embedded in that experience. Distilling concepts and formulating ideas in a strategic consulting context is intense and draining. You have limited time to gather and analyze data, and even less time to translate that information into usable concepts, themes, and recommendations. Then when the contract is up, you provide a report that may or may not lead to something. Time to formulate ideas with others is much more precious as, frankly, time is really money.

My year on the other side has been intense and rewarding. It is something I’ve done that I don’t regret. For those of you who may be at a similar place in your career, I strongly urge to you to think long and hard about it before shifting gears. This path is very different from one you may have experienced before and as such, presents a very different kind of personal journey. You need to truly understand what inspires you and ensure that as a strategic consultant, you get that inspiration; without it, being an individual contributor can be a lonely place.