by Madeline Weiss and June Drewry

How CIOs can engage the board of directors

Mar 27, 20154 mins

Are directors' eyes glazing over? Use mind maps, analogies and the rule of three to make your presentations come alive.

Mohamoud Jibrell took over as CIO at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) in 2010 with a clear mandate: Gain control of IT spending, improve IT service quality, and ensure that HHMI gets value from its IT investments. A seasoned CIO, Jibrell took the necessary steps to execute on that mandate. When it was time for him to report to the board of directors in 2011, he used a large deck of detailed slides to explain the initial problems and the positive effects of his fixes. But Jibrell left the meeting with a sense that he had missed an opportunity to engage the board in a high-level conversation.

At a meeting of the Society for Information Management’s Advanced Practices Council (APC), Jibrell asked his peers for suggestions on how to avoid a repeat performance. He got several good ideas.

John Hood, an IT program manager at ConocoPhillips, described his use of mind maps for executive presentations. A mind map–which often looks like a tree with the main idea as the trunk and branches and twigs of related thoughts–is a diagram used to visually organize information. Hood uses commercial software to create mind maps, which he displays on the screen in the conference room. He encourages board members to determine the level of detail they want to see (i.e., which branches and twigs) and particularly enjoys having decision-makers ask for levels of detail he had not planned to discuss. “It’s like the Dilbert cartoon where the pointy-haired boss says, ‘No, no–click there, click there’ to Dilbert at the computer screen.” Hood adds content to mind maps during meetings so participants can see their ideas captured. The tool also helps him keep a record of decisions.

Two APC members said they used analogies to explain technical topics. One CIO recalled comparing the term “asynchronous communication” (which could easily cause a non-IT executive to zone out) to the experience of waiting in line at a Disney amusement park. Tom Reidy, chief architect of insurance solutions at UnitedHealth Group, said he explains “loose coupling” of IT components, which enhances agility, by comparing it to stereo systems that have modular components.

Brad James, CTO of Tompkins Financial, recounted his use of the “rule of three,” which derives from the idea that people tend to remember lists of three things. James gives bimonthly updates to the senior leadership team on critical issues and also briefs the board of directors on the IT strategic plan. “By presenting concepts in threes, which is typically what the human brain can comprehend at one time, relaying the information in simple terms, and pausing for questions after the key concepts, the directors are more engaged and open to hearing the presentation,” he says.

Another APC member said he keeps slides simple–as simple as Google’s home page. Each of the few slides he uses features a picture or an idea. He fleshes out the real content in his spoken explanations. Success depends on “writing your own presentations and practicing each presentation a lot,” he says, adding “this takes time.”

Last November, Jibrell returned to update his HHMI board about IT’s accomplishments. Having learned from his previous experience, and from his APC peers, he brought only a few concise, high-level slides. Each slide followed the rule of three: past, present and future; red, yellow and green. He left the meeting with a sense of confidence that he had engaged the board at the right level. An unexpected byproduct of Jibrell’s preparation is that he now has a powerful, visual IT road map that can help him better communicate with HHMI executives, IT customers and IT employees.

Madeline Weiss is director of the Society for Information Management’s Advanced Practices Council. June Drewry is a former CIO of Chubb and an adviser to the APC.