How to win over your board of directors

A 15-minute board presentation can make or break a valuable project — not to mention a promising career. But there are steps CIOs can take to not only meet their board of director’s needs and expectations but win their lasting support and respect.

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Presenting to the board of directors is no longer a novel experience for CIOs. Given the importance of technology to business strategy — as both enabler and growth driver — IT leaders now make regular appearances before their boards, who themselves better understand the critical role technology plays. But that doesn't make the prospect of speaking to the board any less daunting. In fact, keeping the board informed and educated about the state of technology in the organization has become more difficult, given the quickening pace of technical change and the increasing tech-related risk companies must manage. 

These days, technology, cybersecurity and digital disruption are among the most important topics to corporate boards, just behind corporate strategy, leadership success, and CEO evaluation, according to JWC Partners’ 2017 survey of board directors. What’s more, the majority of directors surveyed (52%) say their companies address technology as a full board topic today.   

“The board wants to be assured that management team is on top of or ahead of consumer and technology trends,” says executive coach and communications consultant Suzanne Bates. “They depend on the IT leaders to provide them with insight and intelligence. This enables them to better evaluate management's decisions and to provide good guidance when management wants to implement new strategies.”  

Cyber security has quickly risen to a top agenda item for boards, given their responsibility to guide their management team’s enterprise risk mitigation strategies.

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“It’s become even more challenging for IT leaders to inform the board without drowning them in too much data,” says Bates. “They have to be even more discerning about what topics are important — and clear, concise, and compelling in the way they share information.”

In the 15 minutes a CIO is allotted to address his or her board of directors, a lot can go right and a lot can go wrong. Very wrong. Wrong enough to kill a valuable project. Wrong enough to cut short a promising career. But there are a number of steps CIOs can take to not only meet their board’s need for clarity and understanding but win their lasting support and respect.

1. Know your audience

It’s critical that IT leaders do their due diligence on board members before presenting to them. “If this is your first time presenting and you don’t know them at all, spend some time with colleagues that do know them and have presented to them in the past so you can avoid landmines,” advises Jay Ferro, vice president and CIO/CTO at ExamWorks.

It’s important not only to understand their backgrounds and personalities but their stance on the IT topics you plan to discuss. “Do they view [IT] as an opportunity?  A threat? What is their mindset likely to be when you join them in the room?” says Arthur Hu, CIO of Lenovo Group. “This helps you [determine] how to approach and frame the discussion with them and get off to a good start.”

2. Play to the room

CIOs who understand what most interests and motivates the board will fare best. Figure out if they have a particular focus on growth, operational improvements and opportunities or compliance and cybersecurity, for example, says Ferro, who has held CIO positions at AIG, the American Cancer Society and Earthlink.

French Caldwell, who ran popular board presentation workshops for CIOs when he was at Gartner, says most boards are looking for help with their risk intelligence. “Corporate directors are very concerned with what risks could emerge that will derail corporate growth,” says Caldwell, who now presents to the board every quarter as the senior marketing executive at MetricStream. “The board will appreciate investments the CIO makes to give them a better handle on emerging and strategic risks.”

3. Stay on top of the news

For every lead technology or business story in The Wall Street Journal or The New York Times, you’d better know about it and have an answer for what it means for your business. “Be on top of consumer and customer trends in your industry so when asked by the board you are prepared to discuss options for making the company more competitive,” says Bates. “Attend outside conferences, network with your peers, and strive to be one of the best informed CIOs in any industry.”

4. Lose the lingo  

Always speak to the board in the language of the business. “Often CIOs speak in terms of improvements in IT operational performance, improvements in security, and system reliability and availability,” says Caldwell. “If you really want to the board to appreciate fully the investments you are making, it’s important to identify the real business benefits.”

The universal winning approach is linking IT investment to the company’s growth strategy. “Now is not the time to ‘wow’ them with your command of hyperconverged infrastructure, packet loss on your network, or intricacies of agile,” warns Ferro. “ Your competency will come out when you’re able to weave technical items into a discussion of business outcomes. Show that you know your organization’s value chain as much as any other executive.” 

5. Get aligned

“Get as much input from various stakeholders before the presentation — and preview intended discussion and decision points,” says Hu. Depending on the context, that might include the CEO, a business unit leader, or a board secretary.

“Make sure you’re aligned with other senior executives — and especially with the CFO,” adds Caldwell. “If the CIO and CFO are speaking about the same strategic objectives but using different ways to describe them and how the IT investments benefit them, it just creates confusion.”

Working closely with the CEO and the rest of the executive team on the presentation will deliver the message that IT and the business are in sync, says Bates. 

6. Be clear and concise

Rule No. 1 for dealing effectively with busy board members: Do not waste their time. Keep the actual presentation short and focused and place the details in the board book so that directors can delve into them on their own time. “You need to come to each board meeting armed with a big idea and a well curated set of data that helps the board see around the corner and feel confident that management is making prudent decisions,” says Bates. Half of board members complained that the information they receive from management doesn’t provide sufficient transparency about problems and is hard to interpret, according to the 2016–2017NACD Public Company Governance Survey.

Also “it’s critical to remember the board members are a further distance from the day-to-day operations of the company,” says Hu. That may mean that you actually have to speak more slowly and deliberately on a topic you’d breeze through with your direct report. “In addition, during the discussion, remain flexible in allocation of time,” Hu adds. “Be prepared to move quickly if the board seems to get a point quickly, or slow down for critical points if there seems to be deeper interest than originally anticipated. It’s important to keep in mind not only your goals for the presentation, but also the board’s, to achieve a healthy balance.”  

7. Act like you belong

CIOs and their teams are of strategic importance to the company and the board. “If you’ve been invited and have done your prep work, then you deserve to be there. You’re a C-level exec — act like it,” says Ferro. “I’ve seen too many CIOs (including me at my first meeting years ago) come off all ‘aw shucks, just happy to be here,’ and that doesn’t inspire confidence in you as a senior leader.”

Think of yourself not as an IT leader, but a business leader, says Bates. “Make it obvious in your presentation all the ways you are actively striving to collaborate with the business to drive the business strategy forward.” 

8. Prepare — and prepare some more

The goal of a CIO’s board presentation should be to deliver simplicity around what is inherently a very complex topic. The presentation desk should reflect that. “Less is more. Be thoughtful about what you present,” says Bates. And allot plenty of time for preparation and rehearsal. It actually takes longer to prepare a shorter and informative presentation, but the returns are huge. “The result of an excellent presentation and a well-conducted Q & A session, is that your board gains confidence in your ability to lead such an important part of the business,” Bates says. 

A board presentation is not a lecture, but a performance, adds Caldwell. “The CIO is on stage — and like any major stage production the preparation ahead of time is much greater than the stage performance itself. But that prep is what creates the value in the production.”

9. Be receptive

A good meeting with the board is not only about imparting valuable information, but gaining some. Be open to learning from the board through their questions before, during, or after a meeting,” says Bates. “They are typically CEOs and executives or retired executives from a variety of industries. They have their own networks and can provide intelligence that can be invaluable to you and your team.” The knowledge gained from board interactions can further inform and improve future presentations to the group.

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