I tend to find myself in discussions with CFOs fairly often, and I never miss the opportunity to ask them a question: If you could wave a magic wand and change one thing about your CIO, what would it be?
The answer they typically give me? “I wish my CIO would provide more information about what we’re spending our money on. I wish I knew why we were prioritizing this project over that project. I wish I had more visibility into the IT organization.”
Now, there are countless books and models on governance and charge backs and project status updates, and all of the other tools available to CIOs who want to let the business in on what they are up to.
But there are other, more nuanced ways that CIOs are calming the nerves of their CFOs.
A few weeks ago, I was giving a talk to a group of retail CIOs, and I got to talking with Tim Lemieux, CIO of Ratner Companies, a large national chain of hair salons. Tim had the good taste not to mention that I am way overdue for a haircut, and instead mentioned an IT Advisory Board that he has put together.
I set up an interview to learn more, because I believe that Lemieux is onto a great idea in the never ending quest for IT transparency.
About three years ago, the senior executives at Ratner considered appointing a technology executive to the company’s board. “The executives understood technology enough to know that they needed it, but not enough to engage in meaningful dialogue about IT strategy with the board,” says Lemieux. “Since I am not at every board meeting when the subject of technology comes up, they thought it would be helpful to appoint a technologist as a new board member.”
The board’s primary question: When it comes to IT, how do we know our strategy is the right one? How do we know we are working on the right things?
From his experience at previous companies, Lemieux knew that appointing a single board member with IT knowledge is not necessarily the best course. “That person doesn’t always spend enough time with the CIO to know the reasons behind decisions,” he says. “And he or she might bring a specialized perspective that is not broad enough to cover all of the things we are doing with technology.”
So, Lemieux suggested that the company build a new structure, an IT advisory board, made up of a broad array of technology executives from outside the company. Ratner’s executives liked the idea, and Lemieux, working in concert with his fellow executives, put together the board. The board meets every six months and includes Ratner’s President and CFO, a member of the company’s external board, former CIOs, the president of an IT company, a legal expert, and Lemieux, who runs the meetings.
“The IT Advisory Board gives everyone the confidence that our IT strategy is the right strategy and that we are not jumping too quickly into areas where there is opportunity for risk and failure,” says Lemieux. “The board is also a sounding board for me.”
Lemieux estimates that 80 percent of the board’s work is in validating the existing IT strategic plan, and 20 percent is in discussing new opportunities. For example, the company was looking at putting kiosks into stores to allow customers to sign-in. The kiosks would require that customers give them some personal information. The board expressed concern that customers – new to kiosks in the first place — would be resistant to providing too much information, and suggested that the kiosks waive that requirement until customers have gotten more comfortable. “That was a great suggestion from people who have had experience implementing kiosks in the past,” says Lemieux.
Some advice for managing an IT Advisory Board:
1. Prepare: Lemieux puts a together a “board book” which includes architectures, project plans, budgets and org charts and sends it to the board a week before the meeting. “The binder grounds everyone and saves us all the time it would take to answer a lot of questions,” says Lemieux. Lemieux also includes a list of questions he’d like the board to ponder ahead of time: How are you using tablets in your organization? How are you using 2D bar code scanners?
2. Invite guest speakers: Lemieux asks the board to focus on two or three specific topics and will invite a direct report or another executive to present. For example, the head of marketing recently presented the company’s social media strategy along with the technologies used to drive it.
3. Follow up: “We record every action item, question and suggestion that occurs during the meeting, and I send out a recap,” says Lemieux. “The recap keeps us accountable to the decisions we make during the meetings and lets the Board know we are listening to them.
4. Lose the defensiveness. It would have been easy for Lemieux to balk at the suggestion of board-level review of his IT strategy. Why not just trust the CIO? “I live in the real world,” he says,”and people will always question what I do. I’ve seen CIOs get fired by saying, ‘My way or the highway.’ I would much rather be totally transparent.”
Martha Heller is CEO of Heller Search Associates, an IT executive recruiting firm specializing in CIO, CTO, CISO and senior technology roles in all industries. She is the author The CIO Paradox: Battling the Contradictions of IT Leadership and Be the Business: CIOs in the New Era of IT. To join the IT career conversation, subscribe to The Heller Report.