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  • Writer's pictureDr Pete Stebbins PhD

HPS Leadership Shares: The Power of Teams & Technology In Education with Michael O’Leary, CIO

In the HPS Leadership Shares series we interview education leaders nominated by their colleagues and peers as exemplars of excellence in building High Performance Schools.

Michael O’Leary, former school Principal and now Chief Information Officer (CIO) at Education Queensland, is deeply passionate about technology as an enabler of effective curriculum and pedagogy. Charting the course of his long career in education, Michael was there at the very beginning of the internet being introduced into schools. He has ridden the wave of continuous change as the role of technology has expanded dramatically in shaping the daily lives of students and teachers in the world of schools today.

Throughout the cycle of change in technology and education, Michael has always been striving to make a positive difference – from the early years working with students and peer teachers, to principalship and leading cluster based skills training programs, to project roles supporting system wide initiatives with ever increasing complexity and challenges.  Michael has a deep respect for the power of teams as enablers of technology and the importance of a customer centric view in shaping IT services to effectively support the schools of the future. Read the article below and watch the video here:

Early Career: Teaching, Technology & School Leadership

Q: What were some of your key early career leadership learnings and experiences?

A: Going right back to when I left university, I actually went to the Royal Military College in Duntroon. After I left Military College I went into teaching. I moved to Mt Isa where I lived with the local computer advisor so we had computers throughout the house and I took a bit of an interest in computing because of that. After Mt Isa I moved to Brisbane and continued working with computers as a side project in the schools that I was working at. I then went and worked in my first one teacher school. At the time I was working for a Principal, who I wouldn’t say was a great leader, and thought ‘I could do that job and be a nicer guy at the same time’. 

So I applied and I got my very first principalship at a one teacher school in Valkyrie – a tiny town out on the Dingo - Mount Flora road with no shops or modern conveniences. It was 50kms to go to Nebo to get a carton of milk and a loaf of bread and the Sunday newspaper was delivered on the following Wednesday. The location was made up of two dongas, one was the house that I lived in and the other was the actual schoolhouse.

You’d think there wouldn’t be an appetite for technology in such a remote location but the really interesting thing was that the P&C contacted me and said ‘Look, we’re thinking of buying some computers’ and I had said ‘I know a guy and I can go and get them and bring them back with me.’ So I actually bought the first few computers for the school, put them in my car and drove them to Valkyrie and unpacked them. We got into using computers straight away and the kids did a lot of their work on the computers even back then.

Strange But True... The Star Wars Connection

Q: What have been some of the more memorable moments in your career in education?

A: After working in a few more remote schools I settled working on the Atherton Tableland for a number of years. While I was there, there was a conference called the “1995 Information Super Highway Conference” in Sydney.  The priority country areas included our cluster of schools and at a cluster meeting a number of people were saying ‘we should do something about this here Internet thing that someone might want to go and learn about!’ So, in 1995 a couple of us went down to the conference and we said this internet stuff is going to be big and we should probably get on board with it!

We employed some computer model guys to do some work with us including a guy, called Jerry Jeffreys. Jerry was great at opening doors for us, he was a special effects guy in the original Star Wars movie and he had actually won an Academy Award! Jerry is an amazing person -  a total hippy - living the alternate life. I still remember how Jerry came down to Brisbane to help us communicate about what we were trying to do with technology to the senior executives in the Department of Education. Jerry would rock up and he’d pull out of his hessian bag the Oscar he’d won from the Star Wars movie and jam it on the table! It was a very impressive credential. We would then have a meeting about what we wanted to do with technology and internet in North Queensland and they said ‘Okay, we will let you have a crack!’ So with Jerry's help, our little cluster up in North Queensland ended up actually putting in the first wide area network in the department!

Early Technology As An Enabler Of Student Learning

Q: How did the early use of computers and technology enable student learning?

A: By the mid to late 1990’s we had distributed the internet across classrooms and we had kids really involved in understanding the internet and how it worked. I used to teach students to hand code HTML pages in year 5 and year 4 and they were really excited about it. We also had a text-based environment called ‘Bush Net’ which we had put together. Students that were struggling in English got involved in this and it just propelled them forwards as it was a text-based environment and they would have to learn to explain the scene and try to describe the bush and this room and what was in it – having to get really rich with their language. So, this text-based computer environment really improved students’ vocabulary and language as they actually had to code the environment so people could read it and visualise it in their head like a book! 

I still look back on this experience as absolutely amazing – and in actual fact they only de-commissioned the whole thing about seven years ago so from 1995 to about 2012 it was still operating! 

Later Career: From Principal to Chief Information Officer

Q: How did your career progress from a school principal to becoming the CIO?

A: As a principal, I was constantly working with teachers to get an understanding of what they delivered and where they were going.  I then took a number of project roles in the Department to support some of the bigger technology implementation and integration projects that were happening. There was continuous change and advances in technology during this time and I worked with a lot of teams on supporting the schools in adjusting their pedagogy to use the digital framework and we would bring principals and school teams in and we would run them through two or three day workshops.

Then I became the Executive Director of Digital Delivery, which worked across websites, digital capability, new technology that schools were facing and the use of new online tools. I was then due to come offline and just work on NAPLAN online which was going to be my three year challenge but I was asked at short notice to take an acting position as the Chief Information Officer/ Acting Assistant Director General role which I eventually applied for and have been working in since.

Managing Technology & Teams in Education

Q: As CIO, you lead the Information and Technology Branch (ITB). What is the scope of work that this entails and why are teams important?

A: Managing the ITB team is a really interesting leadership role which ranges from the staff coding programs, to the those on the phones dealing with schools and supporting the resolution of their problems, to the staff who are imagining the next pieces and how they fit together and what comes next!

In this complex environment high performance teams are critical to our success! Teams are the linchpin that actually make things happen. At the end of the day nothing happens without people and when you look at IT the most complex component of IT is people. In the business of doing the work that we do there are three components that really go together. The first is the technological system which can only do so much. Secondly there are people and thirdly there are processes. These three thing work together  to make a solution and that is really important. How people work together as a team will usually determine whether the technology or the process is going to work - thus how people get on with each other within the team becomes really important. 

Teamwork is particularly important in ensuring technology delivers solutions without inadvertently creating more problems. While something looks like a good idea we have to go back and look at what are the unintended consequences of doing that. Because while our goal is to help people improve and we want to use technology in a range of positive ways, sometimes technology solutions may be used a different way to what was intended which causes people to do the exact opposite and then makes what you are trying to achieve even further away than when you started.

Building High Performance Teams in ITB

Q: What has been the catalyst to embark on building high performance teams as a transformation strategy for ITB?

A: One of the challenges faced by many IT based organisations including ours is the risk of people feeling disconnected, people not feeling like they fully understand what is going on, feeling that they’re not clear about the role of leadership and the future direction of the organisation.

It is really important that our leaders are able to lead in a way that meets the needs of the teams thus our leadership teams are the first layers of the organisation entering into the High Performance Teams program. We are focusing on understanding how we operate as leadership teams and trying to get a good structure for our people to do team meetings and progress key initiatives. 

A lot of our people are quite technical so we need to support them to become the great leaders that they need to be for their teams. By having great leaders leading great teams we will be able to drive forwards and allow our people to really enjoy the work that we are doing and understand their place within that work. We don’t want people to become dissatisfied when they don’t feel as though they know their place and space so part of this is about helping them understand that they are an important part of ITB. 

The other major catalyst for building High Performance Teams is our shift as an organisation towards a much stronger service orientated way of operating. Rather than looking at it like “I build widgets” it’s “I actually enable a service and the service is this and it enables the customer to do this”. That is really important in understanding the flow through so that we can get through any blockages in those ways of working.  We need to start working across the Branch rather than working outside the Branch – that’s the other reason why we really want to build High Performance Teams so that our teams aren’t just the individual teams that we think of when we are working with the people just around us, it’s the team above who work across and the team next to us and the team over there we don’t normally work with but today we’ve got an important thing we have to work on together. So our big goal in this space is consistency: language consistency, practice consistency, and process consistency so that people know how to operate in both their normal service delivery team and in project teams. 

Transformation: Coping with the Challenges of Change

Q: What do you do when you feel overwhelmed or unfocused during times of change?

A: Look there’s no doubt I go through my own ups and downs, just like everyone else, when I’m in the midst of managing major change and dealing with major challenges at work. And it’s not just work that creates challenges for me. Like many other colleagues in ‘mid-life’ I have plenty of other work/life challenges thrown into the mix such as caring for my elderly mother and supporting my now grown up children in their early forays into adulthood.

When it comes to stress and coping, I’m fortunate in some respects that I’m an introvert and very analytical which, whilst making it harder for me to be high energy and outwardly engaging with a wider audience, provides a much needed automatic shield  to both myself and others when I’m feeling stressed and frustrated – simply because I withdraw into my shell to think and reflect before speaking. This leads me to ‘ask’ before ‘speak’ which is a great safety behaviour in times of conflict. Sometimes I see my more extroverted colleagues suffering the curse of damaged relationships because of their impulse to ‘speak’ before ‘ask’ – so am silently grateful for my introversion despite its own limitations in leadership.

Naturally as an introvert I enjoy many interests and hobbies which can be done either alone or in smaller groups. One of my secret skills is also computer games – being able to lose myself in long sessions of action computer games – either playing by myself or with my kids – is a great way to switch off when I find myself overwhelmed. My other ‘go to’ activity in times of stress and challenge is long walks on the beach – our favourite stretch of beach is at Mooloolaba on the Sunshine Coast where many a long walk staring at the ocean has bought me happiness and contentment.

The ocean is truly my happy place and I am also an occasional sailor with sailingbeing something I like to do but not always getting the time to do it. Having the wind and the sea determine your speed, direction and time is a great challenge and a great escape – it’s a mental exercise as much as it’s physical.I find that time spent in the vastness of the ocean gives me much needed perspective to face the challenges of a very busy role as an executive leading a complex people and technology focused organisation.

High Performance Teams Journey: The Half Way Mark

Q: As ITB approaches the half way mark in the High Performance Teams program, what’s been working well and what has surprised you? What are some challenges on the horizon?

A: I think, the senior leaders in ITB are beginning to Level Up in terms of how they work together and communicate with each other in a business as usual environment where the catalyst of an immediate crisis is not the driver. IT leaders are generally very good at managing crisis situations, we always have been good under that type of pressure. But we have needed to to apply the same sort high level leadership and team collaboration that we do within the crisis, where we all get together and we solve the problem, over here into the normal way we work as part of business as usual. By working closer together in that way and applying the High Performance Teams framework we are actually starting to see some very positive results. 

However, I think the challenge we’ve still got is (because we are very technically orientated people) we try to take out or minimise the relational components of the program simply because we are less comfortable with them and end up suffering accordingly. We need to overcome our avoidance of these relational aspects of being a High Performance Team and adopt all the needed behaviours and accountabilities to ensure every team member feels included and valued. A medical analogy comes to mind in that we need to continue to take ALL our medicine – the full dose for everyone, not a half dose based on our own preferences and opinions, and take it for the full course of the treatment to make sure we get the best results for ourselves and our organisation!  

As we head into the next stage of the journey, I’m looking forward to our teams challenging why we do things the way we do, I think that’s part of the work we do. A lot of things we’ve done traditionally because we have always done it that way and a lot of businesses have that.

I’m looking forward to our teams applying this sort of logic and having rich conversations and rich debates about why we do things, how we do things and about how we can make it better. Not just for ourselves, but for our customers and clients and I think this is really exciting and it will enable people and empower people to have those conversations.  It is these conversations which are so vitally important because they create the spark that ultimately makes a huge difference for the end user - our students, how we can make things better for the students, how we can make the learning process easier, and how we help them become great citizens and contributors to society over the longer term! 

Thank you Michael O’Leary!

Dr Pete Stebbins PhD

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