University of Ottawa’s Martin Bernier on continuous learning

A CIO has to understand the focus of the overall business, of course, but there are usually many segments or different dimensions to consider. In Martin Bernier’s case, as CIO of the University of Ottawa, managing the hyper-dynamic environment of 50,000 students, faculties and research groups is a discipline that requires both a holistic and granular approach across many departments in order to bring everything together in relative harmony. It’s an ongoing learning process that he’s honed over many years and positions.

“My career hasn’t been a straight line,” he says. “I started in the public sector, switched to the private sector, started my own consulting business, went back to private and public sectors, and now I’m in education. One thing that helped is to be a rebel. Sometimes, that’s not something positive, but in the beginning, my self-confidence was quite high. Everywhere I was I pushed the limit and I was confident I could manage things. I think every leader needs to develop that rebel side as well. You need to do the right thing for the right reason and prepare to fight for your team. If I need to lose my job by doing the right thing, I’ll do it and be okay with what happens. When I was younger, it was just taking the risk, but now it’s more calculated.”

Leading by such an example, Bernier knows that when building teams, certain skills stand out beyond technology. Considering the ongoing talent shortage in tech, he understands that broader abilities and strengths are becoming greater assets.

“A leader has to define what the motivator is,” he says. “With some people, it’s to grow their careers and move on. I never had that interest. I wasn’t looking to become a CIO; I was just interested to transform and improve the organization. So people need to develop that. They need to focus on people and the relationship they want to build, and the organization they want to be part of. If I am looking at the last 20 years as CIO, I think the reality is quite different. At that time, the focus was more technology, people did not want to talk with IT. Now everybody has IT tools. Everybody has mobile. So before, I focused on expertise and experience. Now I’m more about bringing the right people and embracing diversity. The role of CIO is getting more complex. It used to focus on the internal technology, and now our focus is everywhere, but that’s why I love the job.” editor Lee Rennick recently spoke with Martin Bernier, CIO at the University of Ottawa, about continuous learning, building diverse and equitable teams, and allyship to support diversity in technology. Here are some edited excerpts of that conversation. Watch the full video below for more insights.

On complexity: I’ve been in the field of IT for almost 30 years—20 specifically as CIO. I love change. Speaking as a leader, we need to get more involved and embrace diversity more. Every IT organization serves very diverse communities, so I’m involved in D&I and I’m active in my community, being part of many boards. My role at the university is simple and complex at the same time. On one hand, I need to shape the technology direction and oversee all the IT initiatives. That’s what is expected of me. Everything is for the business, the organization. I’m in charge of a large, centralized team, which includes the strategy, governance, architectures, policy, and so on. But on the other hand, the university is really decentralized with 10 different faculties and 42 services, so it’s a complex ecosystem with a really diverse reality. We have close to 50,000 students so this is a small city, and every city has its challenges. There’s a lot of diversity of expertise and point of view.

On collaboration: You need to understand your organization. And everything I learned throughout my career—from CRA and Brookfield, to my own business as well—I am able to use all that knowledge now because of having pushed myself outside my comfort zone. I’ve been at the university almost five years and I’ve been able to leverage that in light of the ecosystem’s complexity. But collaboration is essential. We all need to work together. We still debate, but building relationships and trust in every sector is vital because when you build trust, everything is possible. If not, you can’t move forward. I also promote inclusiveness and transparency. Everything in IT is a service so for me, everything is open. If somebody at the university is asking questions about the budget or capacity or anything like that, it’s open book. I want to lead by example and that is what I am trying to do.

On the human element: Technology is always the easy part and I have the feeling so many IT groups or organizations are working just on the technology side. Yes, that is our job. We need to focus on technology but it’s really simple. For me, what I like to focus on is the human aspect. Every human is different, and each human can be different from one day to the next. Someone could say, “I agree with you.” And the next morning they’ll call and say, “Oh, by the way, I was talking with my brother and now I disagree.” That’s why I love the people inside an organization. If I don’t feel connected, I’m not going to join that organization. So you need to have the passion for your organization and your industry. How could you transform something you don’t have passion for?

On male allies: When I joined the university, I asked about their women in IT initiative but they didn’t have a specific initiative in IT. So my goal was to provide support and help, like a male ally to be available where needed, but I was not looking to be visible. But one thing I quickly learned was to lead by my own example. That was not my goal at that time, but was the start of my journey and learning something new. We realized a lot of women wanted to participate but we had the wrong name, so we came up with Women in Innovation, which is more inclusive. That was four years ago and since then, I’ve done event panels and started another initiative that was similar to Women in Innovation but more like a male ally event. We are trying to be more strategic about the kind of event we wanted to do. I like to support my people but more backstage. But for this, I learned I needed to be up front and visible to be a good male ally. So my advice is ask people what you can do for them. I’m trying to promote diversity and concrete action. We really have the power to change things.

CIO, Diversity and Inclusion, IT Leadership, Relationship Building, Women in IT