by Stephanie Overby

How to win over your board of directors

Sep 14, 2021
BudgetingCIOIT Leadership

A 15-minute board presentation can make or break a promising career. Leaders offer CIOs advice on meeting board needs and expectations and winning their lasting support and respect.

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Credit: Thinkstock

Veteran CIOs can remember a time when they had to fight for the board’s attention, eager for a seat at the strategic table. Today, all eyes are on IT as technology has taken center stage in all aspects of corporate performance.

“Even prior to COVID-19, the convergence of IT and OT required CIOs to evolve — as boardrooms increasingly prioritized how digitization and intelligent industry could transform their business,” says Brian Bronson, president of Americas & APAC at Capgemini Engineering. “With the arrival of COVID-19, that landscape has only accelerated, as technology is integrating into every facet of a company’s operations. This convergence can be the difference in speeding up revenue growth, improving profits, and staving off the financial challenges that COVID-19 created — hence the significant impact it has on the board.”

More CIOs are reporting to the board than ever before, says Martha Heller, CEO of technology executive search firm Heller Search Associates, driven by three factors: increased information security concerns and needs, the disruptive impact of digital technology, and the need for data and analytics as a core element of the business. “Boards want to hear CIOs discuss how they are managing investments and operations in all three areas,” Heller says.

Indeed, technology/cybersecurity is the third most important topic for boards today, just behind corporate strategy and CEO, according to JWC Partners’ 2021 survey of board directors. Respondents indicated that technology/cybersecurity would be among the top two most important topics in two years (just behind environmental/social/governance issues).

“Boards are increasingly getting more tech-savvy to help guide their companies to make the right decisions,” says Matthew Guarini, senior research director at Forrester Research. “As such, this can lead to greater demands on tech leadership to ensure that they provide the right insights and expertise.”

So how can CIOs make the most of this powerful board-level attention and avoid some of the most common errors when presenting to their board members? Following are some tips for wowing the board. 

Do your pre-meeting homework

Getting consensus and buy-in from peers and stakeholders is critical to ensure your position when presenting to the board, whether it’s a simple update on an investment or a proposal for a new initiative.

“This will also help to ensure that the data you are using and presenting brings in distinct vantage points from around the organization that truly demonstrates the need and results in a comprehensive solution,” says Bronson. In addition, “think broadly about challenges that are affecting the whole company and creative ways to fly outside of the pigeonhole of technology,” says Tony Greenberg, founder and CEO of enterprise technology advisory RampRate.

Know your board

“Boards are more diverse now,” says Jay Upchurch, CIO and executive vice president at SAS. “It’s challenging for a CIO to present to them because not everybody in the audience will have the same level of understanding.” CIOs must adjust their messages for the room. “It’s also important to invest time in getting to know the board members, their backgrounds, and their alignment with peers,” Upchurch says.

In some cases, CIOs may foster relationships with board members “so that [they] have friends in the room,” says Heller of Heller Search. Forrester’s Guarini suggests seeking out opportunities to meet with key board members prior to meetings to walk through your thinking and build support.

“On the back of board meetings, a similar approach is warranted,” Guarini says. “As you take the feedback, engage with your board contacts to ensure you understand the feedback and to test next steps.”

Avoid surprises at all costs. “The most successful board presentations have already been discussed outside the board room,” says Kevin McCaffrey, CEO and founder of digital transformation platform provider Tr3Dent.

Inform before you enlighten

Make no mistake about it: The nuts and bolts of IT are still important. Thus, IT leaders should briefly “provide a board-level update on the table stakes portion of their role,” Bronson says.

These updates, too, should be business focused. “Don’t ever gloss over or bypass your KPI message,” says Bronson. “I suggest leaders always start with showing the board a KPI-driven status on the core IT aspects of the business, and then transition to the transformational and business-partnering topics.”

But CIOs should quickly turn their attention to education. IT leaders can enlighten the board on the ever-changing  technology and operational landscape and the resulting opportunities that exist to transform the business. 

Stay out of the weeds

Unfortunately, CIOs are still far too technical when talking to their boards. “It is easy to go into your comfort zone and focus too much on tech details and tactics,” says Guarini of Forrester. “Leave these discussions for the right audience — this usually isn’t the board.”

In fact, some IT strategies are far too complicated to be presented or easily understood during a brief board presentation. “CIOs need to keep comments at a high level and allow the board audience to ask questions and dive deeper as needed,” says Upchurch of SAS, which recently announced its plans to go public. “A common mistake I’ve observed is CIOs tend to go into ‘geek mode’ too soon. Board members may be interested in a deep technology dive but let them lead you there.”

Communicate in the language of the business

A good replacement for tech-speak is ROI. “[CIOs] need to make improvements to how they wrap security investments in ROI discussions, for example,” says Heller of Heller Search. “The lingua franca of the board is finance.”

CIOs still have some work to do in terms of discussing technology operations, opportunities, and investments in financial terms. “Technology needs to be a profit center, not a cost center,” says Greenberg of RampRate. “You want success metrics that are centered on revenue creation, margin improvements, social impact, and building brand equity.”

Be transparent — and transformational

Technology is central not only for fueling corporate growth, but also in mitigating corporate risk: two topics near and dear to the board’s heart. “In this moment, the impact that IT leaders can have on their organization, in terms of the company’s overall performance and health, is greater than at any time in history,” says Bronson.

Presentations to the board should be clear about the profound impact technology has on the organization. “Take a strategic planning and business case approach,” advises Bronson. “Show that you are here to not only protect and operationalize the business, but to transform it as well.”

Align talking points with business drivers

“The first piece of advice we would offer is to tie the technology story to the business story,” says Guarini of Forrester. “Speak in the language of business and show how what you are doing is making the business more effective.”

Organize all comments around the key drivers of your business as laid out by your board and CEO. “If they hear goals and strategies that they have already endorsed, they will be much more open to your investments, requests, and roadmaps,” Heller says.

Listen more than you talk

“Streamline your content to educate while offering your thoughts, directions, and updates,” says Upchurch of SAS. “Leave a lot of time for discussion — it’s the most valuable part of presenting to the board. Boards are made up of amazing leaders, and it’s a chance to listen and learn from them.” 

Don’t be afraid to push back

A little knowledge (and hype) can be a dangerous thing. If board members are a little too enamored of a technology for technology’s sake, it’s the CIO’s duty to set them straight. “So, when a board member approaches a technology executive and says, ‘We need blockchain,’ IT leaders should not be afraid to push back,” says McCaffrey of Tr3Dent.  

Practice your presentation

Try rehearsing beforehand with other executive committee members who will be at the meeting and listen to theirs as well. “Look at their presentations to ensure that you are not misaligned in any way,” Heller advises. If presenting big ideas concisely is not your forte, consider hiring an executive coach to improve. “CIOs are increasingly driving major business transformations,” says Heller, “so the board’s interest in their plans will only increase.”

There is no better time to be an IT leader. “The winners will be those that build upon the creative approaches they bring to customers and employees while continuing to innovate new experiences into the future,” says Guarini of Forrester. “The key to recognizing this vision will be a strong link between the board and the CIO.”