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Guest Post: A Different Approach to IT Leadership

Excellent leaders are essential. In this guest post, Klein ISD’s Vicki James shares her unconventional path to IT leadership and how a student-centered culture shift is making a difference.

Vicki James

Senior Executive Director of Technology, Research, Accountability, and Data at Klein ISD

Klein ISD has always been a district that has grown its own leaders. I should know – I’ve been here for 38 years. I began as a teacher, grew into a department chair role, and was then encouraged to pursue my administrative certification, leading to my time as an assistant principal in two schools.
One of my first interactions with technology in an educational setting occurred when my principal gave me a computer that had been donated. Before long, I managed to become a go-to person when new technology came into the campus. My career eventually brought me into the data services department.
IT and data services (student information) were separated out at that time. Our IT department was heavily involved in the hardware side of things while data services was doing more of the collaborative, strategic work. It was during this time that I had a chance to hone my project management skills as the scope of what our department was tasked with doing continued to grow with every success.


New Leadership

Last year, Klein brought in a new superintendent, Dr. Bret Champion. He came in with an aggressive, student-focused vision that was jarring for some. There were people who chose not to stay for the implementation of Dr. Champion’s vision, which – when combined with planned retirements – meant a lot of positions came open around the same time.
When Dr. Champion talked to me about moving into our top technology role (officially “senior executive director of technology, research, accountability, and data”), I felt like I should be up front about my lack of formal technical training or background. I told him, “I am not a CTO.” His response was, “I am not hiring you for daily operations. I’m hiring you to take our vision and help IT and data services understand how they fit in to that vision.”
The idea that our superintendent would go out on a limb like that and entrust such a key position to someone based on leadership qualifications over technical background is a microcosm of the culture we have established here at Klein ISD.



That culture shift has been an ongoing effort, and we’ve encountered some challenges along the way. The first step for me was to try and get everyone on the team to understand that I have their back. I encourage risk-taking by empowering our people to make decisions on their own instead of being driven to inaction for fear of consequences. My philosophy is, if you do a good job, I’m going to tell everybody about what you are doing. If there’s a mistake made, I’m going to talk to you about it, but the buck stops with me and I take full responsibility for the mistake. My staff are not “thrown under the bus.”
I make sure our teams are included in decision-making when it pertains to their area. Staff has the responsibility for gathering information, providing recommendations, and standing behind their choices. Hiring is one example of this approach. My supervisors screen their own applicants, then convince me why the person they chose is the best fit for the job.
Cross-training and ongoing development should be priorities if you want your best people to stick around. When I came over to IT, most of the people here didn’t know anything about the purchasing process – how to submit agenda items to the board, how to support your recommendations, and so forth – so I’m training them on that in the hope that it will foster more of a “big picture” mindset.


A Culture of “Yes”

One of the biggest sources of frustration for many years was the IT department’s default to “no” when another department would ask for something. One of the first things I said when I came in was that we were no longer going to tell people no without looking into their request. Now, our response is, “I’m not sure we can do that, but let me check.” Everything is digital now. We have to support every single department, no matter how much work it puts on our plates.
Now, other departments know they can ask for things without being immediately shut down.
We can’t say yes to everything that comes in, but we are committed to providing alternative solutions wherever possible when a request isn’t going to work out.
Instructional apps are one example of where this interdepartmental collaboration and trust is so important. The curriculum department has first shot at all app requests to determine whether the app is instructionally sound. When they sign off, it comes to IT, and we test it for accessibility and compatibility. Before an app ever makes it onto a teacher’s or student’s device, we know it has been rigorously vetted.  


Exciting Times for KISD

Promise to purpose.” Every student enters Klein ISD with promise and exits with a purpose. It’s more than a motto to us – it’s a vision we have all rallied behind. We are trying to target everything we do around educating every single child. It’s not just lip service; we really mean every single child. That’s why personalized learning is our top priority.
The superintendent’s energy and vision have energized our district. Klein ISD is a very traditional, conservative district, and we’ve been successful doing the same thing for a long time. Dr. Champion and the leadership team he has surrounded himself with have set us on a path where the bar has been set high and is always moving upward. The executive cabinet shares that vision.
I am hopeful that by sharing my story, other districts might experience a similar transformation. It’s not always about doing things the way they’ve always been done. Sometimes it’s about taking a leap of faith. I am privileged to be part of this new journey and excited to see what the future holds for our students here in Klein.
Want to see Klein ISD's culture in action? Check out their outstanding Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube accounts for a peek at everyday district happenings.


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