Tough, Loved

University of Ottawa CIO Danielle Levasseur shares how embracing the power of difficult choices makes you an invaluable leader

As technology becomes more ubiquitous, so has information technology become integral to how businesses function. Danielle Levasseur knows this firsthand: her background in project management helped her land the position of chief information officer at the largest bilingual university in the world, the University of Ottawa.

“The line between IT and business seems to be gradually disappearing,” she says. “IT needs to have or be able to develop a strong business acumen of the industry and the business they’re working in.”

For Levasseur, part of her success in bridging the gap between business and IT comes from her ability to quickly understand and grasp the reality pertaining to different domain and assess situations, as well as her ability to make decisions—even the tough ones—with ease. Advantage spoke with Levasseur about three tough decisions she has faced so far in her career, and how she handled each.

“Sometimes it’s ignorance that gives us the courage to do things!”

1. No background, no problem

In 1998, Levasseur was pursuing a career in customer service management, and had just completed her master of project management degree when she made what she considers one of the biggest decisions of her life: she took a job working in IT—an area she had no background in. “They thought it would be easier to teach me technology than to find somebody with the technical background that could facilitate the relationship between IT and business,” Levasseur says.

“Looking back, I realized how very steep the learning curve was,” she says. “Sometimes it’s ignorance that gives us the courage to do
things!”

Although simply becoming accustomed to the industry jargon took some time, Levasseur did not let the intricacies of the IT world slow her down. She says she grew into the industry one project at a time, learning from the people around her and by doing hands-on research. Today she credits her switch to IT with giving her confidence in her ability to adapt to new situations and industries when necessary.

“It was a major decision that revealed to me my survival capacity and my courage,” she says.

2. Addition by subtraction

Part of being a good leader, Levasseur says, is investing in people—providing training and implementing methodologies and tools to support them in their achievement. Leaders also need to be available to their team to provide clear direction and remove obstacles to help them succeed. Although she believes in trusting employees, it shouldn’t be done blindly. “People don’t know what they don’t know and we must support them by putting mechanisms in place to catch and remedy oversights,” she says.

While investing that time and effort in employees can lead to a strong team, it can also make instances of letting an employee go even more difficult. Ultimately, Levasseur says, the overall health of a team comes first. “Although someone might be good at what they do, they might not be a good fit for the team,” she says.

Levasseur remembers a situation in which she had to let an employee go for the benefit of the team. On three separate occasions after this employee left, she had employees come into her office to thank her. She says they didn’t recognize the negative effects the former employee had on team dynamics until the employee was gone.

“As tough as it is, the result on the team is usually positive and the right decision,” she says. “You need to be sure of what you’re doing, but you can’t wait too long once you’re sure.”

Building to scale

The University of Ottawa is currently in the last stretch of implementing a new ERP—a large-scale project that Levasseur is very proud to say was used as a catalyst to modernize the related business processes with minimal customization. Instead, the focus was put on the expected end result and not on reproducing processes. This implementation is not without its challenges, but success was achieved by leveraging three critical orientations: building on partnership, implementing vanilla, noncustomized software, and using a one-release strategy.

And rather than drag on for years, Levasseur says the project is currently in line to migrate within the time, budget, and scope that she and her institutional partners and team originally set in 2015.

3. No hesitation

Sometimes, the toughest decisions are the little ones we’re faced with during normal project implementation or during a crisis. Rather than being timid, Levasseur says she practices good leadership by not hesitating.

“I work with the expertise required to quickly assess situations and ensure timely decision-making,” she explains.

One way to handle day-to-day decisions is by preparing for the future. Levasseur says she starts by adopting the university’s strategic approach, “Enterprise Architecture,” to complete a health assessment of her organization’s major business functions. “Once it’s completed and prioritized, I work with my team and business partners to review requirements by business domain. We identify optimization opportunities using technology and build a three-year road map to deploy solutions. This approach ensures clear direction and optimization of investment.”

Levasseur says that she and her team just completed the domain architecture for research at the university. They worked with the research community to determine its needs and defined a more researcher-centric environment. Some targeted objectives include better support for multiyear encumbrances, having the means to be able to quickly assess investment split by research field, and a shared platform for interest groups.

“Enterprise and domain architecture are really the compass for me and my team,” she says. “It tells us where to go and how to get there.”