Leadership Matters

Perspectives on the key issues impacting senior leaders and their organizations
October 20, 2017

How CIOs Can Make Effective Non-Executive Directors

Companies are now required to pay close attention to rapid and continual disruption from technology, yet executives with technology backgrounds remain under-represented at the board level. Boards will invite their own company’s chief information officer (CIO) to answer specific questions as they arise, but when it comes to hiring “digital experts” to join the board, these are far more likely to come from marketing backgrounds, with CIOs invited to take up a non-executive director (NED) position only very rarely.

What are the intrinsic skills that make a good NED?

NEDs must demonstrate commercial acumen and have wide-ranging business experience. They must be financially literate and a have a full understanding and appreciation of risk. As a CIO wishing to become a non-executive, you will need to overcome a general perception that the skillset of a CIO is confined to technology management. You must put yourself forward as a commercially minded business person able to read and interpret financials. Technology needs to be seen as a means of improving the business, as well as a source of innovation, so you need to communicate that you are a strategic thinker and not just a technologist with a narrow operational focus.

The very best CIOs are as capable as anyone of meeting the requirements of a non-executive director. As technology is central to the whole of business today, you would not be able to do your job properly if you didn’t possess a broad business sense and an understanding of strategy and financials. While there may be a perception that technology experts struggle with ambiguity and navigating through ‘grey areas’, in fact you spend your working lives dealing with complexity and change, often running cross-functional teams and participating on the executive committee.

How can I bring value to a board?

Many of the topics on a board agenda today cover areas in which a CIO’s experience offers specific advantages. For example, someone with technological expertise can more readily discern digital hype from reality. As a CIO you are uniquely qualified to address important board agenda items such as cybersecurity; you are also well-positioned to provide help when the business model is facing digital disruption — and to advise on how the company might itself act as the disruptor.

The main challenge as a CIO is to think differently — and more broadly — about how to present yourself as a potential NED. When seeking a non-executive directorship, it helps to put yourself in the chairman’s shoes and consider what he or she might value or seek in a NED. Rewrite your CV, focusing on the breadth of your experience working with all aspects of business; describe how your work has contributed to the success of the business as a whole.

Since the CIO title means different things in different companies, it is important to put your role into context and quantify all your achievements. This will help the chairman understand the value you might bring to the board. Give examples of the impact your work has had on the business and, once again, make sure to demonstrate your knowledge of business, financial literacy and strategic thinking.

What kind of board should I aim for?

A sitting executive can only choose one board, so it must be the right one. If you are joining a UK PLC board, ask yourself “Will it be interesting for six years?” While large companies have their own allure, smaller companies can be equally if not more interesting and rewarding. There tends to be less infrastructure in place and the NED has an opportunity to play a greater role, enabling you to gain the experience necessary to step into a bigger role in future. Just be sure that the business is large and active enough that you can learn from the experience and have something of value to bring back to the day job.

Of course, if you wish to take on a NED role you must be sure to secure the approval of your own company. If possible, get a corporate sponsor, ideally your chairman, to support your effort. Make yourself known to executive search companies, investigate opportunities, and do as much networking as possible. Stay patient and don’t commit yourself until the right position comes along.

Once the opportunity arises, you need to present yourself as an all-rounder, someone who is able to contribute across the agenda, albeit with specialty experience. As a CIO, it is vital that you are capable of translating technological/digital challenges facing the company into strategic terms and help guide the board to make the best business decisions.

Finally, whatever the opportunity, always ask yourself three questions: Can I contribute? Can I learn? Will it be fun?

Tessa Bamford is a member of the firm’s Board Practice. She specialises in board director recruitment and advisory services for clients in the UK and internationally. You can reach her via email.