CIOs are increasingly eager to put their business strategy and governance knowledge to
good use by serving on external boards of directors. Their reasons—personal and
professional growth and benefits to their companies—are well founded, according to TK
Kerstetter, president and CEO of Board Member, which publishes Corporate Board Member
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For CIOs, “there is probably no better training than board service to understand all of the
challenges that a business has to deal with and to learn about other industries,” he says.
“CIOs can then take this enhanced knowledge back to their current jobs and organizations.”
That’s how it played out for Jeff Steinhorn, CIO at $31 billion energy company Hess.
Steinhorn serves on two university boards, primarily as a give-back opportunity. “Being on
these boards has opened up a new personal network for me—my fellow directors are CEOs,
CFOs, consulting firm partners and other business leaders,” he says. These contacts have
been a valuable resource that Steinhorn has tapped with his own business-related questions.
His board relationship with the universities has also paid dividends in talent recruitment.
“Professors know who I am and often contact me or have their top students reach out for job
possibilities,” he says.
But board directorships are not always bonanzas for CIOs and their companies. They can be
disappointing and draining experiences if you don’t go in with clear and realistic
expectations. CIO Executive Council members
participated in a survey on their board
experiences in August 2008, providing several caveats for those seeking a seat in other
companies’ boardrooms. (Download the results from the Connect box at council.cio.com.)
Gauge Your Commitment
The decision to join a board, and your ultimate satisfaction with the experience, depends on
two factors: your passion for the organization’s mission and the time you can afford to
Most CIOs aren’t prepared for the time and energy their commitment will actually consume.
Sixty percent of CEC survey respondents complain that board service is “too draining on
their time and energy.” Tim Young, vice president of IT at Bright Horizons Family Solutions,
made it a priority to understand the time commitment prior to accepting his director
position at a private Christian school in New Hampshire. “I take it very seriously and
wanted to make sure that I could give 150 percent,” says Young.
On average, CIOs spend 18 hours per board per quarter, including meeting, prep and travel
time, according to the survey. Monsour spends between 80 and 100 hours total per quarter on
his four boards. He feels the time crunch most at fiscal year end, when he must sign
documents for multiple organizations that are geographically spread out.
Strut Your Business Stuff
CIOs bring both technology knowledge and strategic business leadership to the table. Young
has found that show
casing his business acumen in the public setting of a board is a great
way to demonstrate that a CIO is more than just a technologist. Indeed, the chance to flex
their business strategist muscles is the chief personal motivation CIOs cite for joining
boards, followed closely by the opportunity to gain exposure to board-level corporate
Yet, the board’s perception of the CIO role may be at odds with your own view of your
potential contribution. Michelle Beveridge, CIO at IDP Education and a director on four
boards, has had to teach some how best to use her skills. “I constantly emphasize to other
directors that I am chief information officer, not chief technology officer, and that
information—whether it’s accounting, financial or business strategy—is what a
business runs on,” she says. A quarter of survey respondents complained that the boards they
serve on underutilize their contributions and involvement.
Be the Governor, Not the Manager
Another major adjustment you may have to make as a director is a shift from a practitioner
mind-set to one of governance. It’s one of the biggest board frustrations, according to
Butch Leonardson, senior VP and CIO at credit union BECU. “I know I can do the job, but in
the end it’s not my job to do,” he says. “I have to remember that my role as a director is
one of governance, not management.”
Despite the challenges, Kerstetter is confident we’ll see an uptick in CIOs serving on
outside boards, especially as more are named to their CEO’s management team. Technology is
clearly a competitive business strategy for organizations, he says, and having this
expertise in the board room is a huge asset.