Why Boards Need CIOs

Suzanne Woosley, a veteran corporate board director, makes the case for CIOs as corporate advisors

What can IT leaders contribute to the work of corporate boards?

Having CIOs on boards is a trend that hasn’t advanced as quickly as it should have.

Until recently, the board of directors didn’t require a deep understanding of the information space. In fact, many directors assumed that IT work was administrative in nature and downplayed its importance. But with the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, IT became part of companies’ financial backbone.

Board discussions regularly involve aspects of technology and would benefit from a CIO’s contribution. Operationally, cost control and cyber­security are big focus areas. Strategically, boards may focus on global expansion, which requires superb infrastructure capacity.

As a board considers growth opportunities and the competitive landscape, it closely tracks new technologies, particularly social media strategies. A CIO lives and breathes this world, and can provide a fresh perspective for the CEO and CFO members. One CIO board member I know turned around negotiations on the sales group’s system because of the experience he’d had with the vendor’s offerings.

CIOs can make the leap onto a board by building skills in areas such as high-level governance, finance and accounting, operations, negotiations, and corporate strategy—and by bringing a strategic view of technology’s value to these areas.

By its nature, the board has a stewardship role, and finance and governance expertise are critical for all directors. At the strategic level, CIOs who are board directors should not think solely about IT, but must be outwardly focused on increasing revenue.

Having the right vocabulary is also important. Much of a director’s time is spent asking questions. The majority of directors are not experienced in IT and need to spend time determining what penetrating questions to ask about technology issues. A CIO ready to serve on a board already has this capability and can teach us a few things by translating technology issues for everyone else.

Board positions don’t turn over very often, and we take great care to select new directors that we can trust. It will take awhile for CIOs to become standard members of this tight-knit community. But I believe that the perspective of a CIO—one with the right kinds of experience and skills—is not only good for corporate boards, it is necessary.

Suzanne Woolsey serves on the boards of directors for five nonprofit organizations and three companies, including Fluor, which is a member of the CIO Executive Council.


This story, "Why Boards Need CIOs" was originally published by CIO Executive Council.


Copyright © 2010 IDG Communications, Inc.

7 secrets of successful remote IT teams