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How one CTO built a culture of trust and engagement

Sharon Florentine | March 1, 2016
When Joe McBreen took over as CTO of St. Vrain Valley School District in 2009, he walked into an IT nightmare. Seven years later, he's turned things around. Here's how he did it.

When Joe McBreen took over as CTO of St. Vrain Valley School District (SVVSD) just outside of Denverin July 2009, he was on top of the world and thought he'd be living a dream. But it almost immediately became apparent that he'd stepped into a nightmare. In a presentation at ITSM consultancy, education and training provider Pink Elephant's Pink16 conference earlier this month in Las Vegas, McBreen began by sharing an anecdote about one of his most memorable on-the-job experiences.

Shortly after he started, Breen heard noises and raised voices in a hallway outside his office. When he went to see what the problem was, he walked into the middle of a quickly escalating verbal brawl between two managers.

"Working in District Technology Services (DTS) was worse than a mess -- it was a horror story. I mean, there was literally fighting in the hallways. I witnessed that screaming match, and I had to break those two up before it got physical. That was my first clue. Then, I started interviewing people. I talked to 117 people in my first 90 days on the job -- administrators, principals, custodians, teachers, parents, students -- and with every person I spoke to I got more and more depressed," McBreen says.

Other district departments loathed working with DTS, McBreen says, so much so that instead of referring to the department as DTS, they were simply known as The No Department.

"When I first came on board, DTS was fractured, cliqueish. There was no focus on organizational goals, we didn't work well with others in the district, internal and external communication was poor and we had very little backing from leadership," said Steve Borecky, IT director at St. Vrain, in an audio clip McBreen played for attendees.

Over the next seven years, McBreen and his team turned the ship around, using an unorthodox approach and a generous helping of stubbornness. Now, McBreen says, the district's employees, administrators, parents and students love his department - but it certainly didn't happen overnight.

"We were really excellent at being horrible. That's how the story began and it was not a fun place to work. Years later -- let me repeat that. Years later, people in the district love us. They bake us cookies, they send glowing emails -- we get Christmas presents. They don't call us 'The No Department' anymore," he says.

A recipe for culture change

How did McBreen achieve this, while maintaining 86 percent of existing staff? And with an average tenure on-staff of about 19 years? The answer: He created a cookbook.


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