What Makes a Good GIS Leader?

17 May, 2011 By: Cyrena Respini-Irwin

Being well grounded in geospatial technology is just the beginning, says URISA's Greg Babinski.

The Urban and Regional Information Systems Association (URISA) is a nonprofit association of professionals who apply geographic information system (GIS) and other information technologies in state and local governments. One of the association's many initiatives is the URISA Leadership Academy, a training course intended to turn GIS users into GIS leaders.

But just what are the characteristics of GIS leaders? Are they managers, or something more? What is their role in an organization? Greg Babinski, the finance and marketing manager for Seattle's King County GIS Center and URISA's president-elect, cleared up all these questions and more.

Cadalyst: What are the characteristics that define a good GIS leader?

Babinski: A good GIS leader, like any leader, is characterized by having followers, and leading and following imply movement. I think that is the essence of leadership — motivating people or organizations to do things differently, or together, or with purpose. To me, GIS does not exist in isolation; it has no purpose unless it is serving the organization that is paying the bills, be it a city, county, utility, business, or whatever.

Effective GIS leaders first and foremost have to be well grounded in GIS technology, but that's not enough. Just being well grounded in technology and having some other interpersonal and project management skills can make you an effective supervisor; throw in knowing how to respond to clients, and balance a workload, and deal with procuring services, and you can be an effective GIS manager.

But being an effective GIS leader also requires vision: The ability to see what no one else can see, and then motivate the GIS team and the organization to effect change. To me it is often about doing things differently. The GIS leader can see better ways to do things internally within GIS, and has the capacity to look above the day-to-day details and change how a GIS unit delivers the same with less, or more with less, or much more with additional capacity. More importantly, the effective GIS leader is an advocate for change in the organization; he or she promotes the use of GIS to help the agency do its work more efficiently, or provide more service with the same staff, or put tools in the hands of end users.

Specific characteristics of good GIS leaders include strategic planning, capacity building and resource leveraging, team building and motivation, change management, navigating politics, continual self-assessment, and knowing the difference between management and leadership.

Who are the "leaders" in GIS; is it indicated by job title?

Within GIS and within agencies that use GIS, there is no "GIS leader" job title — one exception might be organizations that have a geographic information officer (or GIO) position. These are mostly found in state government, and often state GIOs are expected to lead but have limited power. A GIS leader can be the GIS manager, but it can also be an analyst, or a programmer, or the GIS program sponsor, who has the vision and the persistence to challenge people's thinking and lead them to embrace change. Good GIS leaders don't have to be managers or supervisors — it is possible to lead without power.

How did URISA determine the characteristics of effective GIS leaders?

Mostly by convening some of the most respected and experienced leaders in the field of GIS. The session authors spent a lot of time asking themselves that specific question. Part of the process was eliminating what is just good GIS management and focusing on leadership characteristics. GIS leaders vary from leaders in other fields because geography is so fundamental to effective governments (a jurisdiction's unique geography and its population are its primary assets).

Why did URISA choose to establish the Leadership Academy?

For years, URISA has had a number of day-long workshops that touch on individual topics related to GIS management. But when students would take "GIS Program Management" or "GIS Strategic Planning" or "GIS Architecture," they would often comment, "I wish this class were longer" and ask for more content and more intense coverage. But the only alternative was going to a GIS management–related academic program, usually requiring the commitment of a year or more of time.

We were also aware that many people come to URISA looking for support and mentoring and advice as they make or plan for the transition from GIS technologist to manager. URISA also advocates for the use of GIS to transform organizations — GIS as a change agent.

A small core group within URISA conceived a weeklong course focused on GIS leadership, with a small student body. Our course authors and instructors are recognized leaders in the field, but we know that students learn and become empowered by doing and discussing, not just listening. The URISA Leadership Academy (ULA)  encourages students to work as a team, to analyze their own issues and challenges, and to take on leadership roles during the week. It's mostly about learning by doing.

The Academy relies on volunteers as course material developers, content reviewers, and instructors. There is no direct vendor or outside organization support, though many agencies (like mine) know I work on ULA. I think those agencies benefit from the enhanced insights we all bring back from the close collaboration as a team.

How does your work affect the GIS field as a whole?

For all its advances over the past decades, GIS is still a poorly understood and underutilized technology. The ULA, by empowering scores of new GIS leaders each year, will raise awareness of the potential across the country. This can only have a positive impact on the field, whether you are a GIS professional, manager, user, or citizen.

How does the quickly evolving nature of GIS technology and applications affect your work?

GIS leaders need to keep ahead of the trends of evolving technology. Certainly the potential of integrating GIS and CAD to leverage the power of both is important. Laser scanned data, cloud computing, web-based services, crowd-sourced data, virtual servers — each one of these changes the technology landscape and creates new opportunities for leveraging the power of GIS. GIS leaders need to understand the potential of the technology and envision how it can be applied to real-world business needs.

What are your plans for the future?

I mentioned how the ULA grew out of people's desire for more than one-day workshops. Well, many ULA students tell us that they want even more! URISA conducted a retreat for the Academy last year that strengthened the current offering and also began discussion about a second week — or more. The demand for the Academy is still strong, and we are looking to expand the pool of course-content authors and instructors. The ULA will continue to evolve and improve, and will be around far into the future as the demand grows.

The next ULA session will be held June 13–17, 2011, in St. Louis, Missouri.

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