CIO Advice for How to Get on the Board of Directors

CIOs share their tips for joining a board of directors and making the most of the experience

As I spend my days tracking CIOs and their career moves, I am beginning to notice a new trend: An increasing number of IT executives are joining corporate boards. This is no wonder, says Doreen Wright, CIO of Campbell Soup Company, who has sat on various boards for nearly 15 years.

"If you look at the average age of people sitting on boards, you'll find that most are in their 60s," she says. "That generation is not particularly knowledgeable about technology, and these days, you can't do anything without IT."

But before you hurry out to ride this wave right into the boardroom, let's be sure it is worth the time and effort. What are the benefits of joining a board?

Leadership development for C-level executives. "When you get to a certain level in the organization, your own development opportunities narrow a bit," says Elizabeth Hackenson, CIO of Alcatel-Lucent. She joined the corporate board of Serena, an enterprise software company, in June 2006.

"I joined a board because I wanted to expand my abilities by thinking differently about a company. When you sit on a board, you learn to influence strategy without direct control over operations. This is dramatically different from what I do day to day."

John Halamka, CIO of Harvard Medical School and Beth Israel Hospital and board member of Epocrates, a handheld-software provider for physicians, agrees. "I work in nonprofit environments. Do I know the first thing about venture capital or how underwriting is done in an IPO? There is a whole set of business processes I would never encounter," he says. "Maybe someday my hospital will want to spin out a company; I'll have all of that knowledge."

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Increased visibility for your company. If your own company is not already a household name, your board activity will broaden your brand across a new network of executives, says Moti Vyas, CIO of Viejas Enterprises and currently on the board of the San Diego Data Processing Center, which provides IT services to the city.

"Whenever possible, I host board meetings at my office and ask the chair to present to my CEO," he says. "In addition to saving a little time, it exposes my CEO to the board and to the fact that I am working to further our corporate goals."

New executive networks. Sitting on a board can help expand your circle of potential advisers. "When you're on a board, you get to interact with brilliant academics, engineers and major VCs," says Halamka. "I have access to this wonderful group of executives and can ask them how they would handle a tricky problem in their own industry that I am currently facing in mine."

OK, so now that I have you salivating over the juicy benefits of board service, let's get into some pragmatic advice about how actually to get the gig.

The majority of board appointments for large public companies begin with an invitation, so you cannot really "apply" for the job. If you have spent a career establishing yourself as an industry leader of a Fortune 500 company, you need only put the word out that you are interested in board service, and the recruiters will start calling. However, if you are not at that stage in your career, you need to work a little harder.

Start small. "If you don't have a relationship with the recruiters who are placing directors for large companies, you might want to start small," says Wright. "There are so many small technology companies and IT consulting firms that would welcome a CIO's contributions."

Not only will you have a better chance of using your connections to secure a board position at a small technology company, but the experience will also allow you to learn the ropes before you move on to bigger things. "There are little operating and procedural things, like Robert's Rules of Order, which can throw you," says Wright. "A smaller company is a good place to learn all of that."

Build direct relationships with the current board. According to Halamka, there are two ways to get on a board. The first is to establish yourself as an industry expert through years of publishing and speaking. But that can take time. If you're looking to connect with a board sooner rather than later, Halamka suggests that you "establish relationships with existing board members or senior management at the company." Like most great career moves, board appointments are all about your networks.

Join industry groups. Vyas was a member of a CIO forum in San Diego. During one meeting, he gave a talk on IT security. "One of the audience members was the CEO of the San Diego Data Processing Corp.," he says. "He liked what I had to say, and we built a relationship based on a mutual interest in the topic. A year later, he invited me to join the board."

Once you have received an invitation and you have checked with your own company's legal counsel, your CEO and your spouse (who will want to be prepared for the considerable time you will need to commit to the board), you are ready to join. Those who have been there offer the following suggestions on how to engage successfully once you are in your appointed seat.

Don't just talk tech. CIOs new to a board position have a paradox on their hands: They were invited on the basis of their technology knowledge, yet they do not want to be pigeonholed as the techie. "You don't want to be seen as contributing only to the product road map," says Hackenson. "So, even though your comfort zone may be technology, you need to be active throughout all of the discussions and participate in committees that have nothing to do with that particular area of expertise."

Stay strategic. "As CIOs, we are all about 24/7 applications support, high availability and other operational issues," says Halamka. "As a board member, I put on a different hat and focus on the future trajectory of the business. You can drive senior management crazy if you try to meddle in the day to day."

If you're going to commit, commit. All of the board members I spoke with echoed the same sentiment: Board membership takes more time than you can anticipate. Between traveling to and attending four meetings a year, reading through the premeeting documents and serving on committees, you are looking at three to four weeks of board service a year.

Regardless of the other demands on your time, "attend all the meetings," says Vyas. "It seems basic, but many people don't do it. When consideration for the second term comes up and members decide that you're not committed, you will not be invited back."

Martha Heller is managing director of the IT Leadership Practice at ZRG, an executive recruiting firm in Boston. Reach her at mheller@zrgroup.com.

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