February Issue

For CIOs, Joining a Board Requires Role Reversal

board of directors
Credit: Thinkstock

Boards of directors today are asking lots of questions: Can costly IT infrastructure be replaced by cloud-based systems? Can cheap apps replace expensive software? Which is better for business--Android or iOS? Cybersecurity: What's our risk? And what's our solution?

Information technology is now a board priority. Discussions of IT were once relegated to uncomfortable sessions where directors nodded off, chafed at random acronym attacks and struggled to tie the technology budget to anything good for the company. But no longer. Now boards have very serious worries. They don't want their company to be the next Target or JPMorgan Chase, and they're wondering how in the world such big problems could emerge from IT. Nobody wants to be out-of-date using BlackBerries while competitors use iPhones, or using cash registers while competitors check out shoppers on tablets or smartphones.

Increasingly, companies are seeking tech expertise on the board, not just hoping to absorb knowledge from management presentations. Asking the CIO questions is a waste of time if the questions aren't very good. If nobody on the board knows how to formulate the right questions, directors won't get the answers they need.

Sought-After CIOs

So there's a real demand for CIOs to serve on boards, and many companies are seeking IT leaders who are qualified candidates. Would you be prepared if a company asked you to serve on its board?

The key is to understand that there's a big difference between being a good CIO and being a valuable board director. A good CIO's job is to do things right: budgeting, implementing, advising the CEO, executing. But a board director's role is very different: It's figuring out whether the company's executives, including the CIO, are doing the right things. Are they asking themselves the right questions? Are they investigating all the right options? Do they have the right processes in place to make good decisions? Are they fulfilling compliance requirements and innovating for future growth? Do they have contingency plans, and are those plans adequate? Are they meeting customer technology requirements? Are they vigorously managing tech vendors? Is the money spent on IT making the company more competitive? Is IT creating advantage? Is management anticipating game-changing technology, experimenting with it and preparing to use it? Is the CIO keeping an eye out for disruptive technology and competition from the fringes? Are IT's processes capable of sensing market changes, and is IT preparing for technology shifts?

In addition, a CIO who becomes a board director must help fellow directors understand critical IT issues, and help them get comfortable asking their own questions. You aren't a consultant, but you are their coach regarding technology, and part of the team. You are expected to contribute on all aspects of corporate governance and help all board members feel as though they know the critical IT questions, understand management's answers and grasp the business implications.

In many ways, being on a board is the flip side of being a great CIO. A board director will grill the CEO and the CIO about whether they have the right technology strategy. It's a role reversal that not many people make easily, because most C-level executives are experts at execution, but not necessarily experts at governance.

Even if you aren't currently being pursued to fill a board seat, understanding the different roles should help you be better prepared for making board presentations. If nothing else, you'll understand why you're being peppered with all of those questions.

Adam Hartung is a speaker, author, member of the board of a public company (Six Dimensions Global), and fellow of the National Association of Corporate Directors.

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