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Making the Most of the Digital Director

August 2014

Excerpted from Digital Expertise in the Boardroom.

Organizations of every size and in every sector are discovering the advantages that come with appointing a board member with a significant digital background. These experts can bring deep knowledge and unique perspectives to bear on important strategic decisions, and demand has risen accordingly. However, the “digital director” is still a director and must be prepared to contribute to the board beyond advising on digital issues. In addition to carefully vetting director candidates to ensure they have the broad-based business experience to be an effective director, boards can take other steps to ensure that the digital experts they recruit represent a strong fit with the board and are positioned to be successful. We offer the following advice for board considering recruiting a digital director.

Know what motivates the director. Some digital directors relish the opportunity to serve on the audit or remuneration committee and gain new experience. For a digital expert coming from a smaller company or one that is not yet public, serving on a public company board can provide valuable exposure to the language of a public company, board dynamics, in-depth financial reporting, and risk and liability issues. Other digital experts, however, believe serving on the audit or compensation committee is a waste of their time — and less valuable for the board, which already has more relevant experts on those committees.

Define the role. Misaligned expectations on committee assignments, the overall time commitment, the degree of transformation that is needed and supported, and a whole range of other issues can be major sources of tension between the board or management and the digitally savvy director. When recruiting a digital director, carefully define the role the new director is expected to play. This includes logistical concerns for the director, such as service on committees or special assignments with the executive team, as well as the gaps in experience that may need to be addressed through the onboarding process. For example, because many digital directors are serving on their first corporate board, they often benefit from governance education or from having an assigned mentor during the early months of the directorship. During the recruiting process, boards should be very direct with a candidate upfront about the board culture and expectations for director involvement and behavior.

Go beyond the boardroom. Directors with digital expertise want to be impactful and tend to be eager to engage with the business at a deeper level. When they have opportunities to dig deeper — through special projects for the CEO or regular meetings with digital leaders in the business, for example — digital directors are more likely to feel they are making a difference for the business and find the opportunity more rewarding. For a business undergoing a transformation, leveraging a director’s expertise and connections can produce real benefits when interactions are well-planned and meaningful. The CEO can manage interactions between the digital director and members of the broader management team to ensure that they are worthwhile for the company and the director.

Boards that successfully recruit a digitally savvy director will get the most from their contributions by carefully defining what digital means for the business and the specific capabilities the board needs. A true digital transformation, however, requires more than a single director with digital expertise on the board. Instead, digital transformation is the result of a sustained commitment by the board and executive team to address the talent, process and system changes needed for change.

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