by Thomas Macaulay

How CIOs can influence the CEO and the board | NHS Blood and Transplant Chief Digital Officer Aaron Powell discusses securing influence in the boardroom

Nov 25, 2016
CareersIT Leadership

Boardroom support is imperative to a successful digital strategy, and NHS Blood and Transplant Chief Digital Officer Aaron Powell has first-hand experience of how to get it.

The national body for organ donation and transplantation facilitates about 4,500 organ transplants per year and collects and supplies blood for all of England.

While medical practices have embraced numerous innovations in transfusion and transplantation over the years, that attitude hasn’t always flowed so easily through the boardroom with advancements in the IT and digital space.

[Read next: Nationwide Chief Operating Officer Tony Prestedge adds technology expertise to advise IT strategy board]

When Powell’s previous boss was reluctant to replace the outdated systems that allocated organs for transplantation he helped persuade them by effectively communicating the argument for supplanting it. She’s now leading the technology transformation in her area.

“To me that’s a statement of the success that we’ve had, that actually transformation is now embedded across the organisation and more and more people within the organisation are talking about it,” Powell told the audience at the 2016 CIO Summit.

His strategy has had striking benefits. A portal for donors for people to book donations attracted one million registered donors by January 2016, and half of all donor appointments are now booked electronically.

Powell can’t promise a magic bullet to make the board agree to everything you ask of them, but he can provide a number of tips to gain their support.

How CIOs can influence the board – Get on it!

Organisations that lack effective digital leadership on their boards are likely to struggle. The best way of influencing the board is to be on it.

Powell’s board has undergone a dramatic digital change of its own. The transformation spend of approximately £15 million over three years has leaped to around £50 million over the next three years, with an additional 24% more IT staff now working on it.

The cultural changes have been even more significant. It’s his colleagues on the executive team and the other directors that are now leading that transformation.

“The language of technology and digital transformation is now firmly embedded across the organisation and it’s the language that everyone uses on a day-to-day basis,” Powell said.

How CIOs can influence the board – Communicate

Papers sent to the board have little impact when the recipients don’t understand them. Effective communication doesn’t just simplify vocabulary, but translates it into language that is accessible and understandable. Relevant analogies are one of Powell’s favourite tools.

“The best analogies that I can use that make sense with my board are the analogies that fit the medical language that they’re using on a day to day basis because that’s the context that we work in.

“So I talk about IT infrastructure in the ways that we would talk about, for example, organ transplants and talking about replacing the heart in something or replacing the kidneys, or looking at the arteries that might be taking blood from one part of the body to another.”

Powell was asked to work closely with the least technical board member they had, an eminent haematologist who struggled with IT. They framed the new strategy together so she could explain it to the board.

“That’s what enables us to move forward,” he says. “When the last technical people can actually understand it.”

How CIOs can influence the board – Educate

Powell and his team spend a lot of time teaching the board about technical concepts, through seminars and workshops on subjects such as cloud computing.

“Fundamentally, it’s just somebody else’s computer,” he would explain. “We talk them through the different models of what a cloud looks like, and what you mean by private cloud and what you mean by public cloud and essentially who owns the computer that the system’s running on.

“They get it and then they can engage in the conversation and they understand the risks associated with the different options.”

Bringing board members from other organisations with technology success behind them generates further value by providing a perspective they can relate to.

Educating the board turns them from passive observers of fait accompli they don’t understand into constructive participants in the conversation.

How CIOs can influence the board – Triangulate

The finance director is often viewed as the most influential board member and a decisive ally. It’s a portrayal that Powell feels is too simplistic.

“To my mind there’s a sort of holy trinity of the chairman, the chief exec and the finance director. If you’ve got two of the three on side you can get just about anything through.

“I always work on making sure before I get to any board meeting that two of those three are going to back what I’m putting forward. Because two out of the three will always see it through.”

How not to influence the board

There are three tempting actions Powell is strongly against. The first is blaming your predecessor. Even in cases where they may be responsible, the board won’t know that and won’t want to hear it.

“They’re expecting us to turn up with solutions and with options to move forward, not with a constant look back,”explains Powell, a member of the 2016 CIO 100.

Powell also warns CIOs not to pass the parcel to leave others responsible and the focus of attention. It doesn’t solve problems and it builds resentment within the team, he explained.

A reliance on technology analyst firms is another urge to avoid. Consultancies such as Gartner are not without value, but their transformative guide won’t ensure that you thrive.

“The reality is the cookbook doesn’t work for your organisation,” says Powell. “It isn’t designed for your organisation and it won’t fit.”

Neither will they serve as risk mitigation for a strategic failure. They won’t defend you when something goes wrong, and will be absolved of responsibility by a long list of legal clauses. You’ll only be accused of misinterpreting their advice.

How CIOs can influence the board – Keep your head up and smile

Putting your head down and exhibiting your struggles will merely convince the board that the problems are severe. Keep your head up and smile to show the technology is working, and put a positive and approachable face on any negative stereotypes.

“Very often we’ve been criticised in the past for being too focused on the technology, for having our heads down in the weeds looking into the technology”, Powell said.

“That’s true of the language we use, but also of our demeanor and our approach.”

How CIOs can influence the board – Go back to your Mission Statement

If your strategy for technology meets the mission of the organisation, the board will support you. A potent mission statement is a forceful frame for presenting them with ideas. NHS Blood and Transplant has a consummate example:

“We stand for hope. We stand for life. We stand for helping people to do something extraordinary, save and improve the lives of others.”

“It’s a really powerful mission statement,” says Powell. “I try to use it to inspire my teams to understand what we’re doing so that they think about this when they’re thinking about the technology.

“I don’t care whether they’re repairing a server, whether they’re developing a new application, this is what they need to be thinking about.

“I think the number one tip I could give you for influencing the board is making sure that whatever you’re doing, you’re remembering what the organisation is there for. Because that’s what it’s all about.”