CIOs in the Boardroom: Don’t Be a ‘One-Note Piano’

George L. Davis, Jr.

George L. Davis, Jr. Egon Zehnder, Global CEO Practice Leader

Chris Patrick

Chris Patrick Egon Zehnder, Dallas

We once heard a board chairman call a CIO serving on his board a “one-note piano,” because the CIO repeated his same theme over and over.

That’s a serious problem. CIOs today need to serve the boards on which they govern as well-rounded, experienced business directors, grounded in all facets of the organization’s strategic growth goals and day-to-day operational challenges. Sure, the CIO comes carrying gold-plated technology credentials, but that is not why he or she was asked to sit in the boardroom. It’s about strategic governance – not technology know-how.

When CIOs enter boardrooms as independent directors they come bearing the intelligence honed over their careers. Expert credentials are mere table stakes. The boardroom is looking to their expertise across financial stewardship, people and team leadership, strategic problem solving, long-term visioning and operational expertise – in addition to their functional technical body of experience. It’s about the macro picture – not the micro – the whole keyboard, not the singular note.

It takes a shift of mindset to move from directing a functional perspective to strategic governance and counsel at the highest levels of leadership. Some things CIOS need to keep in mind:

Solve across the broader business. Broaden the mindset of the board. Advise on benefits as well as risks. If the board had believed your contributions would be limited to offering expert opinions, you would not have been invited to serve as an outside director. Most independent directors bring one or more forms of valued expertise to a board, such as deep knowledge of risk management, global markets, or mergers and acquisitions. The best independent directors enhance their value by actively expanding their knowledge beyond their own field of expertise. Rather than seeing yourself narrowly as the board’s digital director, understand the broader impact technology plays on all facets of the company. Explore the critical variables across marketing, finance, supply chain and HR. Study the regulatory environment. Seek insight into what worries management. In short, be an advisor as much as an expert.

Be a translator. Boards are frequently frustrated by the “technospeak” used by technology managers and consultants seeking to explain the company’s choices to them. You can bridge that gap by helping management explain technology issues and choices to the board in simple terms that non-experts can understand and use. Take care to translate objectively, without slanting information toward positions you happen to support. Be clear – in your own mind and with others – when you are translating versus when you are advocating a particular course of action.

Be inclusive. Resist the temptation to immediately state your opinions. Instead, broaden the discussion. Encourage your fellow directors to speak to each technology question or issue from their own expert perspectives (e.g., finance, capital allocation, intent of the strategy committee). Multiple director perspectives will help the board provide technology strategy oversight with much greater assurance.

Remember your role. Among the greatest challenges for technology executives serving as independent directors is remembering that, as a board member, your role is not to make decisions (even regarding technology). Rather, the board ensures that the calls being made by company management are well informed and properly vetted. And while you may be the best informed person in the room, yours is but one voice in the discussion. Expect even your expert opinions to be challenged. Every viewpoint expressed in board deliberations is subject to discussion and debate. Frank exchange of views grounded in interpersonal trust and mutual respect is the hallmark of a highly effective board.

Check your biases at the door. As a technology executive, you may be a fervent believer in certain cloud based-solutions and have outsourced technology operations to great effect. No matter. As a director on another company’s board, you must approach each question with an open mind, and allow for the possibility that this company’s best course might be to implement solutions with which you have no personal experience, while keeping all technology operations in house. Accept that the company you serve as a director may choose different paths from those you choose as a top technology officer.

Seek feedback. At regular intervals, ask your board’s chair, your fellow directors, and the company’s executives what they most value in your contributions and how you might take your performance to the next level. Consider approaching one of the more esteemed members of your board to serve as your mentor. With your mentor’s help, set goals for your growth as a director, consistent with the goals of the board overall and closely monitor your progress.

If you follow these simple guidelines, you can be sure no one will ever play you as a one-note piano.

George L. Davis, Jr. is the Co-Leader of the Global Board Practice; and Chris Patrick is the Global CIO Practice Group Lead at the executive search and talent management firm Egon Zehnder.

This article was first published in The Wall Street Journal (19 September 2013) and republished on this website with kind permission of the magazine.

George L. Davis, Jr.

George L. Davis, Jr. Egon Zehnder, Global CEO Practice Leader

Chris Patrick

Chris Patrick Egon Zehnder, Dallas

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