How one CIO became a corporate board director

In this Q&A, Brambles CIO Jean Holley discusses her successful path to board service.

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Jean Holley, CIO, Brambles

Are today's boards appointing more CIOs than in the past? I've been hearing (and responding to) that question for years. However, when I asked Jean Holley, CIO of supply chain logistics company Brambles, about her board service, she suggested that the question may actually be irrelevant.

Martha Heller: What is your corporate board experience?

Jean Holley: Currently, I serve as a director on the board of VASCO, a publicly-traded data security firm. I am on the compensation committee and the audit committee, and I chair the governance committee.

Previous to this role, I was on the board of a startup, which we sold to private equity. I also serve on a customer advisory board for a venture capital firm. And, of course, in my last three CIO positions, I had ongoing interactions with our own boards.

How did you learn about the VASCO board opportunity?

I knew someone who knew someone who knew someone. I was not introduced to a board member right away. I had labeled myself a board director wannabe and spread the word to my networks. If I had done someone a favor, and they asked what they could do for me, I would say, "Well, I'm looking for a board position." This is an important point. Board positions are typically not one degree of separation away, they are more like three or four.

Once I had spent some time letting my networks know of my interest in a board, the phone started ringing, and I found myself having lunch with the head of VASCO's governance committee.

What was the VASCO board looking for?

VASCO is high-tech company with a line of security products, so they wanted a better understanding of new security technologies and the changing market landscape. They were looking for someone very familiar with security technologies and how to align the company to those trends. They wanted strategic thinking about when to make investments in technology companies and when to acquire them. Another important point: The board was not looking specifically for a CIO. They had a gap in some functional knowledge areas on their board, and they made a list of those capabilities which included technology knowledge and business expertise.  

How did you approach the interview?

First, I did not represent myself specifically as a CIO, because that was not what they were looking for. They were looking for someone with technology knowledge and business experience to fill the gap they had on their board. The fact that I was a CIO was irrelevant to them, so I did not press that point. I defined myself as a business person who happens to be responsible for IT.

For the interview, I prepared a list of questions, many of which focused on the roles and responsibilities of the board position, especially fiscal responsibility and liability. I drilled them on directors and officers insurance (D&O) and on the commitment required of board members. I asked them whether there was any litigation against the board. I also asked a number of questions about the composition and the culture of the board. All of these questions resonated very well with them, because they showed that I have board experience and I know what makes a board successful. 

What was the interview process like?

First, I had a conversation with VASCO's CEO. He was just checking me out to see if I had the basic knowledge and presence to be on the board. That went well, so he recommended that I have lunch with two board members, one of whom who headed up the governance committee. That also went well, so I met the rest of the board. 

While all of the board members had questions about my skills and experience, they were most interested in how well I would fit into the culture. Once they had decided, early on in the process that I had the basic credentials, they spent the rest of the interviews focused on culture.

How a new member impacts the composition of the board, how the board manages conflict, how it works together to make decisions — all of this is extremely important to the functioning of a board. Cultural fit is always important when hiring an executive to any position, but with boards, it is especially critical. The board runs the company, and while some healthy tension can be a good thing, in the end, board members have to respect each other.

What questions did they ask you?

They really wanted to see how I would work with each of the board members. They asked me how I analyzed situations, drew conclusions, and made recommendations. I explained that I am a very data driven person, and I look for the data that I can use to draw a hypothesis, and then I use data to substantiate and challenge that hypothesis.

They also drilled me on financials, my knowledge of a balance statement, my understanding of valuations and revenue recognition models. They tested my financial vocabulary and the finances involved in running a company. They drilled into my knowledge of acquisitions and mergers and divestitures. While as a CIO, I have always needed financial acumen, I have learned that the emphasis on finances on a board is much more intense.

I told them that not only had I run different aspects of a business but I'd furthered my education with an executive MBA. I talked through examples of my work with balance sheets and my role in acquisitions. I used every financial vocabulary word I could think of.

What advice do you have for CIOs interested in board service?

1. Don't present yourself as a CIO

I've been hearing a lot lately about whether boards are appointing more CIOs than in the past. From my experience, that question is irrelevant. Boards are appointing people with business experience in hot, transformative technologies, like IoT and cybersecurity. If you can demonstrate that experience, you'll be attractive to boards.

2. Understand and promote your brand

Are you an expert in cybersecurity trends? Digital technologies? IoT? Then publish on these topics, present on these topics, and make these areas of expertise a part of your brand. Promote your brand in social media and in your networks. When a board chair researches you, you want that specific area of expertise to be very apparent. If your brand equals your title, you will not get a seat. Your brand needs to be bigger than "CIO."  

3. Don't wait for recruiters

I found all of my board positions through networking. You need to let your networks know that you are in search of a board position and what your area of expertise is. This is where your reputation and your online image will really pay off. Expect that your first board position will not be a paying board, it will be on a nonprofit or academic board, most likely. In fact, during my interviews, I was peppered with questions on my previous board service. They wanted to know that I could speak to the way a board operates. Non-paying board experience allows you to give a much more effective interview.

About Jean Holley

In September 2011, Jean Holley became CIO of Brambles. Previous to that role, Holley was executive vice president and CIO of telecommunications services company Tellabs. Holley was vice president and CIO of building-materials group USG and also held senior information technology and information systems roles at environmental-services company Waste Management. Holley has a Master of Science degree in computer science an engineering from the Illinois Institute of Technology and a Bachelor of Science degree in computer science and electrical engineering from the Missouri University of Science & Technology.

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