OETC Spotlight

“I don’t think praise gets old”

How PSU CIO Kirk Kelly overhauled his department — and landed on Computer World’s 100 Best Places to Work In IT list

From the very beginning — before an employee is even hired — Kirk Kelly wants the cultural differences to be obvious.

As CIO of Portland State University’s Office of Information Technology, Kirk Kelly has instituted sweeping changes (at least 54, but who’s counting?) at his shop, which has been named one of Computerworld’s 100 Best Places to Work in IT three years running.

Portland State University CIO Kirk Kelly has implemented more than 50 changes in his time at the helm — all in service of a more engaged and actualized workforce.

Portland State University CIO Kirk Kelly has implemented more than 50 changes in his time at the helm — all in service of a more engaged and actualized workforce.

“If all levels of your leadership team don’t care about their employees, it’s not going to work,” he said, adding that it’s hard to teach the kind of emotional intelligence that allows for great leadership.

“I think a lot of people wind up in leadership roles because they were good technically, and it doesn’t mean that they actually understand the value of employee engagement — motivating the employees, giving them a sense of place where they feel cared for.”

It’s important, he said, to put employees first before they’re even employees.

“There are days in your life you remember,” he said. “The day you got married, the day a kid was born, the day you interviewed for a big job, and your first day at work.”

To this end, he revamped the hiring process entirely, interviewing for OIT’s Attributes for Success: Coaching, Communication, Innovation, Proactive and Team Player, each of which speak to the foundational quality of emotional intelligence.

A six-page spreadsheet lays out dozens of possible questions, each of which has an answer key column: one reads “asked for help quickly, proactively researched, accepted forces outside of their control.” Another: “didn’t let bad behavior slide but also didn’t disrespect the employee, listened, tried to understand by asking questions.”

Kirk also will meet with each prospective employee before the offer is made. The move is both warm and tactical.

“Two reasons: one, the quickest way to change the culture of any organization is through hiring — that could be a quick positive change or a quick negative change,” he said. “And the second thing — if you keep an employee for any period of time, it doesn’t take a long time to spend over a million dollars on that person,” between salary, benefits and office costs.

“There’s no manager or CIO I know that won’t look at a million dollar contract, but there’s a lot who will hire someone without meeting them.”

The difference continues through the first 30 days. Employees arrive to find a welcome sign, a lunch get-together, and a supervisor that is ready to make their entry smooth.

It has paid off. In the survey sent to new employees at the 30-day mark, they’ve ranked 9.7 out of 10 for “How welcome has OIT made you feel?” and “How likely are you to recommend OIT as a place to work?”

PSU is one of only three educational institutions on the 100 Best Places to Work in IT, along with Johns Hopkins University and University of Notre Dame.

PSU is one of only three educational institutions on the 100 Best Places to Work in IT, along with Johns Hopkins University and University of Notre Dame.

Ellen Weeks, who works as Associate Chief Information Officer, said that in her 29 years at the university, “I have never seen anyone in my career at PSU walk the talk the way Kirk does.”

“A lot of people talk about how important employees are … but Kirk has made it something that we all talk about. It informs our decisions‚ how we recruit and how we train … he very much gets and believes that line managers are the number-one reason our employees will stay or leave, so we want to make sure they’re the very best managers they can be.”

Indeed, in his presentation at OETC’s Summit 2019, Kirk flashed a slide on screen that provoked groans, and then applause from the audience:

So much of an employee’s day-to-day happiness is dependent on the people around them, Kirk said, and there is no substitute for a culture — starting at the top — that never forget it.

“Some people are very afraid to address the people that aren’t working very well, and Kirk is not,” Ellen said. “He’s truly a very unique and dedicated leader. He’s one of the best bosses I’ve ever worked for.”

Changes Kirk Kelly has implemented since assuming the CIO role in 2013:

  • He meets with each employee every year — which means one meeting every 2.5 days — to discuss their career, and solicit ideas for improvement;
  • Leadership Development Sessions: Twice a year, OIT managers read a book, then gather for a workshop. (See: Kirk’s Recommended Reads)
  • Flexible schedules and work-from-home, plus a summer 4×10 program: Employees can structure their hours and workweek as they see fit; during the summer, meetings are usually schedules Tu-W-Thu, so those with three-day weekends don’t miss them.
  • Socializing opportunities throughout the week, with options like walking, yoga, daily stretch breaks, “Show & Tell” lunches, cross-department meet and greets, and yearly parties.
  • Ergonomic workstations, including a treadmill workstation
  • A quiet lounge with comfy chairs, available between 11 and 1 for those who would like a meditation break or reading time
  • Consistent, ongoing surveys to assess whether employees are finding autonomy, mastery and purpose within their work, plus spot trends in satisfaction and happiness.

Kirk’s Reading Recommendations

Kirk’s Reading Recommendations:

Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, by Daniel H. Pink – An eye-opening and somewhat revelatory work about the real motivating factors for a modern workplace.

Working with Emotional Intelligence, by Daniel Goleman: An excellent read about emotional intelligence and its importance in the workplace.

Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes Are High, by Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, Ron McMillan and Al Switzler: Our whole management team benefited from this book and the admonition to speak boldly, clearly, and with compassion when it counts.

Take the Lead: Motivate, Inspire, and Bring Out the Best in Yourself and Everyone Around You, by Betsy Myers: Betsy shares many instructive personal leadership experiences from her time in the Clinton White House and Obama presidential campaign.

Hiring for Attitude: A Revolutionary Approach to Recruiting and Selecting People with Both Tremendous Skills and Superb Attitude by Mark Murphy: Reading this book makes you realize you didn’t really know much about hiring. We changed many of our hiring practices as a result.

The Employee Experience Advantage: How to Win the War for Talent by Giving Employees the Workspaces they Want, the Tools they Need, and a Culture They Can Celebrate, by Jacob Morgan: The focus on our employees’ work experience, as it is affected by culture, physical environment, and the digital environment, was instructive and illuminating.

Past Spotlight Posts

Q&A: John Peplinski of Beaverton School District

Silverton kids get hands-on — and paid — with IT

How Salem-Keizer’s Bob Silva thwarted a $1.5-million scam

Q&A: University of Oregon CISO Leo Howell

Newberg Superintendent Joe Morelock uses data to find unseen problems — and surprising solutions