Leadership interview: Bill Ferris
Chief Financial Officer, UW Information Technology

Leadership hallmarks: > Open and honest communication > Following through > Supporting others

Bill took SLP in 2001, shortly after moving from assistant director of Planning and Budgeting to executive director in the Office of the Executive Vice President. When the EVP retired, there was a major reorganization across the University and Bill became the executive administrator in the newly created Finance and Facilities. He transitioned to UW-IT in 2008.

Thinking back to your SLP experience, are there any learnings or insights that have stayed with you?

SLP was a really strong program. The instructors were excellent and I remember to this day how well organized it was and how great the material was. There were a lot of teambuilding exercises, which I would initially roll my eyes at but found they really made a difference. The importance of teambuilding, collaboration and networking was one of the really big takeaways.

Probably my single favorite thing of SLP was meeting and spending a week with people from across campus. For years afterwards, I would be on campus and come across one of my classmates and we’d chat and compare notes. The importance of networking with colleagues throughout campus and maintaining bonds is impactful.

My experience in SLP was also an early opportunity to understand that people have different workstyles. As I have engaged in meetings, teams and collaborations throughout my career, that knowledge has been fundamental in my success.

What principles guide you as a leader?

Being open and honest in your communication as a supervisor certainly is important. Following through on your commitments is another key area; “do what you say you will do.”

How are things going right now for you and your team?

The key word today is “unprecedented,” right? We’ve never been in anything like this. We’ve been through tough financial situations at the University, but this is really different because there’s so much unknown and then the whole transition to remote work has been pretty dramatic.

In UW-IT, if we had said, we’re going to bring Zoom to campus and transition a significant part of our workforce to remote work, it would have been a 2-year-long project. Instead, we had to do it basically overnight, and we have all adapted remarkably well.

How are you managing the stresses and challenges of the COVID-19 crisis for yourself and your team?

I have never been one to remote work very much. I’m a people person, so I really enjoy the office atmosphere and my colleagues and collaborations. All of a sudden, I’m immersed in innumerable virtual meetings and a tsunami of email. It’s all working out, but it has its challenges.

In my current position I’m no longer a frontline manager, but I still used to spend a lot of time in the office making the rounds, checking in with staff, helping to build team cohesion. With almost everybody remote, keeping those bonds and connections going is probably the hardest part.

I do have some staff who are essential workers and are working on campus, and I have made a point to touch base and to thank them for being here. I believe it is important to show that kind of support.

What’s emerged from the current environment? What have you learned about yourself as a leader or about your team?

I was not opposed to remote work before, but I was a little bit hesitant knowing not everybody works well in an unstructured atmosphere. To be honest, I’ve been impressed with how everybody has stepped up. People are productive and responsive, and the work’s getting done. It’s not a surprise, given our staff, but it’s still been very positive to see.

In UW-IT, we have always had a robust emergency management office, and we’ve been through many drills over the years. Although none of us were ready for this kind of situation, our preparedness has still really paid off and we have responded incredibly well to this crisis.

Right now, it is about learning to adjust to the new reality while also knowing that things will be different when we return to the office. I think what comes next is probably going to be a hybrid of telework and being in the office. Given how well people have responded and how much people are stepping up, I feel really encouraged about the future.

What advice might you have for less-experienced leaders at the UW or for those who might be feeling overwhelmed?

It’s the managers, the leaders, the supervisors, the graduates of SLP who are able to help the University transition. As leaders, part of our job will be managing people through the changes that are happening now and that will be coming. Beyond that, I don’t want to sound like the old-timer, but… I will in that I’ve seen a lot of challenges at the University before and we always get through it. We are the university of a thousand years; we have that kind of resiliency and we will get through this.

Spring 2020 | Return to Issue Home