How to Communicate with the Board of Directors

CIOs share tips for working effectively with the board

By Carrie Mathews
Wed, October 29, 2008

CIO — IT leaders often find themselves called upon to address their companies' boards of directors. For many, the boardroom is an alien environment, full of high-powered execs with little affinity for technology. To succeed in this setting, CIOs must effectively convey their wins, opportunities and challenges in helping achieve business goals. For tips on wowing the board, we turned to some of the more board-seasoned members of the CIO Executive Council.

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Know the players.

Jeff O'Hare is senior vice president of enterprise information technology at business process outsourcing provider West Corp. At past employers he has researched board-member backgrounds, then used this information to frame his presentations and follow-up conversations. O'Hare focused his information gathering on areas like functional experience, industry, company size and comfort with risk.

"When I was making a presentation to a board with heavy finance and operations experience, I made sure to include an appendix of highly detailed financials and a snapshot of rolled-out milestones directly from the actual project plan," says O'Hare.

Develop ongoing relationships.

Pamela Rucker, vice president of IT at PSC, a privately held environmental services company, holds regular pre-meetings with directors from the PSC executive board and representatives of its ownership to learn their points of view. Rucker estimates she spends 20 percent of her board interaction time in these one-on-one meetings. She also uses them to ask questions and air concerns privately. "The actual board meeting can't be the first time that you're telling the board about changes or plans, or they're going to feel blindsided," she says. Rucker suggests using these meetings to sell your ideas prior to presenting them formally. They also let you tell your story not only multiple times but in multiple ways. "Sometimes I may have to present information three different ways in three different meetings in order for everyone to get it," Rucker notes.

How does Rucker get time with individual board members? Her face time with directors from her own company happens in monthly IT Steering Committee meetings they attend. For members from the company's ownership group, Rucker watches for their particular interests during board meetings, then establishes a rapport around those topics.

David Webb is former CIO of SVB Financial Group, where he is now chief operations officer. He agrees that engaging the board isn't just a quarterly, formal interaction. "You need to want more interaction and find ways to do so. If you don't, you won't build that relationship," he says. Webb finds that access to board members becomes easier over time as long as you have good reason to meet. "The first call is always the hardest. If you have difficulty making a cold call, have the CEO clear the path for you," he says.

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