Leadership in the Time of Corona

Recently Maurice Ferrell, the Assistant Dean and Chief Informational Officer at UNC’s School of Government sat down with Sanjog Aul, who is the founder and host of CIO Talk Network.  Tarek Tomes, the Commissioner and Chief Information Officer for the State of Minnesota, joined the pair to talk leadership and problem-solving in a pandemicHere are highlights from their conversation. 

Sometimes, You Have to Scrap the Tried-and-True 

When the coronavirus pandemic hit, executives everywhere were forced to reevaluate their prioritization and rationalization formulas in order to adapt to the new normal. Here are some of Dean Ferrell’s tips for finding creative solutions to never-before-seen problems.


Remember What You Do Well 

UNC’s School of Government is best known for its ability to disseminate information; the School provides a valuable service to their local, state, and federal communities by making sure that they share quality information that can be used to support their local government client group and students. “It’s really important,” says Ferrell, “to understand what you do well... you’re looking at it from a holistic perspective of what this means for your future.”


Put Existing Information into a New Platform 

According to Ferrell, one of the most difficult challenges during thpandemic was transitioning the School of Government’s incredible information and assets into a new medium or platform, that still allowed stakeholders to engage with their client group. This differed from the approach of the larger university. At the time, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s top priority was to replicate the tried-and-trueThrough time, however, the university eventually changed its approach and eventually joined the School in shifting its critical focus: Offering quality content in remote environments.


Once the School of Government decided to go virtual, it was important to prepare their clients for the switch between onsite and virtual assistance.  Maurice Ferrell told Sanjog Aul that after a few faculty members went through the process of transitioning everything to online, they started to feel more comfortable with the new normal, which enabled the entire School to focus on future challenges presented by distance learning. 


Look at Problems as Opportunities, Not Burdens 

Problems are often perceived as burdens and obstacles to success, but it is crucial for leaders to train themselves to frame problems as opportunities instead. Once an organization can view problems as opportunities, executives need to be able to take a step back and see a particular set of problems as a set of capabilities for the organization to develop along the way.


You Can’t Cherry-Pick Your Problems 

We all like to think that we can pick problems and opportunities that nicely align with our own strategic goals, but this is not the case. Once we accept this fact, we can perceive problems as tools to help us better position ourselves, and our organizations, not just for the current situation, but also for the future. Instead of succumbing to problems, we need to retrain our minds to find solutions that will catapult us toward success for the years to come.


Understand What Your Team Members Bring to the Table 

In his interview, Dean Ferrell told Aul that it is in an executive’s best interest to really understand and develop the skill sets of their team. Ferrell used the Digital Solutions and Services for SOG (DS3) department as an example. “We had a great group of IT professionals who were very technical,” said Ferrell. “We quickly saw that we needed to ramp up in certain other areas, so we brought in instructional designers, we started to develop individuals that had user design experience... and that has paid dividends for us.”


Instill Intentionality 

Major shifts in organizational structure are usually met with enthusiasm and energy, but it’s difficult to keep that initial excitement from fizzling out. Aul asked Ferrell how to ensure that intentionality becomes a part of the DNA of an organization. Here are his tips.


Don’t Be Reactionary 

Instead of simply reacting to problems as they arise, leaders need to be strategic and proactive in their approach to resolving issues. The key? “You really have to have your team see the value in the work that they’re doing,” said Ferrell. “Our team [is] seeing the benefit of the work that they do on a day-in, day-out basis, so that helps them stay locked in... not because [they’re] solving this problem just for the problem’s sake, but they actually see the benefit of the university being able to do online or remote instruction.”


Prioritize Quality Over Budget 

IT departments’ customarily small budgets lend themselves toward the tendency to make decisions based solely on expenses. However, it is critical that leaders don’t cut costs at the expense (pun intended) of quality, problem-solving tools. Ferrell advises his fellow executives to keep the problem and strategic vision at the forefront of all decision making. “You can’t shortchange yourselves,” said Ferrell“Thinking holistically about what you’re trying to do and what systems make the most sense over the long haul [is the best practice].”