Contributing writer

How to get on a board of directors: 10 tips for CIOs

Jul 25, 2022
CareersCIOIT Leadership

IT leaders seeking board opportunities need to network, raise their profile, nurture their relationships, and pursue their passion to land the right board roles where they can have an impact.

board of directors
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Serving in a board advisory role is an increasingly important experience along the career trajectory of the modern CIO. It can expand your exposure to different businesses and a diverse set of leaders and give you an opportunity to expand your critical-thinking skills.

“The personal and professional networking from joining a board is tremendous. It allows you to get your name out there and be associated with other organizations outside of the company you work for,” says Josh Drew, regional director at Robert Half. “And second, and most importantly, many of these opportunities allow CIOs to make an impact on their community.”

And organizations of all types are eager to have CIOs help guide them, as IT leaders bring great value to corporate and nonprofit boards at a time when technology is a key success factor.

“Every company is now a technology company in some way, shape, or form, which brings technology front of mind at a board level. If they’re looking at systems implementation, data productization, or any sort of digital transformation, they will welcome a CIO or possibly a CTO,” says Sam Wallace, managing director at executive recruiter Sheffield Haworth. In fact, 79% of high-performing organizations had at least one board member with tech experience, according to Deloitte’s 2020 Global Technology Leadership Study.

Yet, as H. Michael Burgett, founder and executive chairman for CIO Partners, points out, “actively seeking such an opportunity can be a challenge.” While some CIOs may be recruited for board roles, the majority of assignments come from within the professional networks of existing board leaders, Burgett says.

Following are 10 tips for IT leaders seeking to increase their chances of connecting with board opportunities and landing the right board roles.

Clarify your intentions

“Board appointments don’t happen by accident, and it shouldn’t be a fortuitous meeting that lands the board seat,” says Wallace, “although that happens often enough.”

Larry Quinlan had already been serving on nonprofit boards for two decades when his retirement from the CIO post at Deloitte in October opened up the possibility of bringing value to public boards, which he had been prohibited from doing under his previous employment.

Quinlan reflected on where he wanted to direct his attention post-retirement and laid out a few clear goals: to serve on the board of a public company, where he might learn from business leaders and new business models; to join a private company board,  where he would have a more intimate relationship with those running the business; to work with private equity and venture capital, to remain current with technology trends; and to continue nonprofit work, which remains his passion.

“There are a number of different opportunities available to technology leaders and it’s important to think about what makes sense for you,” Quinlan says. 

Active CIOs can start by defining what type of board they’d like to join — public, private, nonprofit — and why. “If you really want to get on a board, you must put the work in,” Wallace says. “You need a board resume. You need to know what value you bring to the business. You need to know why you’re selecting the industry, company, or association.”

Nurture your relationships

In seeking board positions, Quinlan stresses the importance of relationships.

“My bio is a reasonable high-quality bio. My story is a reasonable high-quality story. Yet I believe the thing that made the difference was relationships,” says Quinlan. “Not one of [my board positions] came about from submitting my bio somewhere. I did that two or three times, and never heard back.” 

The problem is that operating CIOs can be so heads down in the service of their employer, they may forget to look up and around and develop their network of relationships.

“Not every interaction is distracting you from your day job, and I wish I’d understood that more,” Quinlan says. “The best relationships come out of shared experienes. Really nurturing those and spending time with people not because they can do something for you later but because the relationships with the people in and of themselves make you more well-rounded person, gives you much better perspective.”

Do some board-specific networking

CIOs intent on joining boards should find other leaders who are on boards to learn from, Wallace says.

“Share the fact that you are looking for a board, and socialize why, which industry, and the value you offer,” he advises, adding that it is also important to get in touch with board-specific recruiters. “They may not have a role for you but being in their network adds to potential opportunities.”

Follow your heart

Authenticity will go a long way, so look for those institutions that matter to you personally.

“Connect with the organizations that you’re passionate with and understand if they are looking to add to their board,” says Robert Half’s Drew. “You want to be able to explain why you are interested and what their mission means to you.”

Even If there is no board seat available, there may be opportunities to offer time and expertise that could earn good will when a seat does become available, he adds.

Passion is key, Quinlan says. “The last thing you want to do is to be parachuted into areas you aren’t interested in,” he says. “Sitting in board meeting all day long wishing you weren’t there is painful. Think of where you want to end up: what kinds of people you want to work with, what kinds of industries you want to work with, and what kinds of things you want to be doing.”

Build your brand

If serving on a board is the goal, CIOs must develop their public profile.

“Writing articles, speaking at conferences, and attending cross-functional networking events can all contribute to being recognized as a technology thought-leader,” Burgett says.

Start small

When you have no previous board experience, consider unpaid roles with a local nonprofit as a springboard to bigger opportunities.

“Aspiring to join a Fortune 1000 board might be a long-term goal, but without previous board experience, landing that first opportunity might be a challenge,” says Burgett. “Another option would be to get involved in your local technology startup community and offer to mentor younger entrepreneurs in their journey.”

Quinlan stresses the importance of seeking out nonprofit boards, especially if your employment doesn’t allow you to serve public and private companies, which was the case for Quinlan at Deloitte. Still, doing so shouldn’t be considered only a stepping stone.

“Getting that first board seat is important. But it’s really important to serve on nonprofit boards because you are passionate about the organization, not because you want to add it to your resume,” says Quinlan, who derives joy working on the boards of NPower, which launches digital careers for military veterans and young adults from underserved communities, and KIPP Miami Public Schools, which operates free, public, open-enrollment charter schools in Miami’s Liberty City.

“If you look at the miraculous work some of these organizations do, just helping the organization is the greatest compensation you could ever have,” he says.

Don’t be afraid to say no

A board’s seat for the sake of a board seat will end up being a lose-lose proposition for board member and organization. Quinlan, who now serves on multiple public, private, and nonprofit boards always asks himself what his voice is.

“What would I say in the boardroom? I don’t want it to be manufactured; I want to be reasonably within my wheelhouse,” says Quinlan, who notes his expertise in IT operating models, technology for competitive advancement, systems implementation, risk management, cyber governance, and people and leadership issues as core areas where he feels confident he can contribute meaningful to a board.

Quinlan recently began the interview process for one organization that seemed to be more in need of a financial operator.

“It was an interesting opportunity and I was interviewing well, but there are so many people who could do better at that than I could,” says Quinlan, who removed himself from the running. “I want to pick those opportunities where I’m most comfortable and enthusiastic about leaning in.”

Adjust your expectations

Many CIOs may be surprised at the slow pace of board decision-making but those who want to keep their seats will need to adapt to their new role.

“Once you do acquire that first board assignment, recognize that boards can run quite differently than what you may have experienced in your traditional CIO role,” Burgett says. “One has to remember that a board role is not focused on functional delivery but rather on assessment of current strategies, advisement, and alignment. It is important to understand the role you have been enlisted to play and focus primarily on bringing that specialized expertise to the organization.”

Self-manage your performance

Never just phone it in, Wallace advises. “Show up. Don’t take a board seat just to have one,” she says. “Understand how and where your contribution adds to the business and to your peers and lean in.”

Quinlan makes an effort to understand the business by talking to people in the organization, reading about the industry, and serving on committees. Board meetings themselves are opportunities to up his game.

“You can watch the chairman of the board and take cues from them,” Quinlan says. “The pre-read for the board is also incredibly important. It reveals what’s on the minds of management. My style is also to ask questions, not to trip anyone up, but to better understand the issues.”

Build your board portfolio — realistically

Once you have a role on one board, you can expand your participation to others. Always be mindful of what might be next. However, says Wallace, “you also need to be realistic about the time commitment and the preparation required.”

Serving on a board of directors involves more than a monthly commitment. CIOs must invest time and energy expanding their market knowledge and preparing for their board meetings.

“The problem with boards is things don’t always go well,” says Quinlan, who recently had to attend a Sunday morning emergency board meeting from the Bahamas. “You have fiduciary responsibility to serve on that board when things aren’t going well, so too many commitments can become a real problem.”