This article originally appeared on our sister site, TechRepublic.
CIOs and aspiring CIOs who aim to sit alongside the CEO, CFO, and COO at the board table need to prepare and hone specific skills to avoid professional landmines that are prevalent on the executive level.
In addition to being alert to the typical political hurdles, you must understand vital information about working with the executive team before walking into the boardroom, and possess strong communication and relationship-building skills before settling down in a seat.
To gain insight on how a CIO can become a strong force on the team, I asked IT executives for their perspective and advice.
The required team skills
Three skills—leadership, communication, and relationship-building—can prove critical in the pursuit of an aspiring CIO to become an active and valued executive team member, according to one CEO, who added that there’s little time or opportunity to start honing those skills once on the team.
You must be a demonstrated leader, said Callidus Software president and CEO Reed Taussig, and it’s an expected skill—learning leadership on the job is not an option. Just as critical is the ability to follow through on initiatives and goals.
"This will drive the same level of accountability through their own organization, right down to the staff level," explained Taussig.
You also need to be confident and competent. Those skills are expected of each team member, added Mike Hugos, CIO for Network Services Company, a co-op of 86 member-owners operating more than 400 paper product distribution sites nationwide.
While the need for confidence and competence may seem obvious, they’re critical to building teamwork, mutual admiration, and confidence among team members.
"They should respect each other such that the COO isn't interfering with the CIO's business and the CIO isn't interfering with the CFO's business," explained Hugos. "Mix that with mutual respect, and you have a group of peers who can work in a spirited give and take without easily being threatened."
Work to secure relationships
From the moment CIOs step into the executive boardroom, a top goal should be to bond with other members and to solidify their role on the team. As tech executives quickly pointed out, this effort requires much more time and attention than many CIOs realize.
"If you're a new CIO, the barriers are building trust and finding conduits of information," said CIO Colin MacKinnon, a partner with the consulting firm Tatum CIO Partners.
While company leaders connect during weekly meetings, hashing out ideas and issues, those workday meetings don't provide enough time for effective relationship building. Relationships are most effectively built during face-to-face interactions, and CIOs need to know that this will require off-work hours—taking place within casual get-togethers, such as a weekend golf game. These opportunities are critical for new executives to cement peer bonds and to hurdle the barriers MacKinnon noted.
Another relationship element is how a CIO communicates with his peers. For example, this can be tough for those who do a lot of traveling and aren’t meeting with team leaders on a daily basis in the hallways or over lunch.
While many executives are tempted to rely on e-mail, most executives recommend that you focus on communicating via telephone or through in-person interaction.
"E-mail can make trouble much faster," explained MacKinnon, making it easy for people to miscommunicate and inadvertently undermine their or another's position. "If there's been any one thing that's made a difference [in my bonding with fellow executives], it's been the cell phone," said MacKinnon. "By making myself available, it has been an incredibly powerful method to win trust and confidence."
Executive survival skills
While more CIOs are now members of the executive team, there is still a large segment of the executive level that hasn’t embraced the CIO and that doesn't understand the business value of IT.
Often, a CIO is viewed as a cost center and ranked third, behind the CFO and CEO, explained MacKinnon. That means a CIO can be an easy target when conflicts or politics come into play.
"When people are looking for scapegoats to advance their own agenda, who better than the propeller head over there in the corner," said Hugos. The scenario often takes people by surprise, he added. "Where does the tech guy in his career learn to deal with political intrigue?" asked Hugos, rhetorically.
There are steps that you can take to protect yourself. One approach is to initiate a paper trail from the moment you take the job. Hugos recommends documenting all executive meetings and decisions and then following up with a memo outlining things that were agreed on.
"I get it in writing. I create a paper trail. I get formal agreement on delivery due dates. No one can say they didn't know or that I was acting inappropriately," he explained.
Know the hierarchy ahead of time
Many times CIOs don’t realize—until they’ve taken the job—how important it is to know a company’s political structure before even taking the job.
For example, discovering that you, as CIO, aren’t considered a major executive team player by a CEO, or don’t have a seat at the executive table, a few weeks into the job is certainly going to impact your role and success at the company. It’s a cultural, and political, element you should understand at the start so you can determine how best to approach the role.
In some cases, a CIO is not officially a member of the executive body and access to the executive committee largely depends on the personality of the CEO—some of whom can be distant or unapproachable, explained MacKinnon. In many situations, a CEO's reluctance to open the executive committee to a CIO may come down to something as fundamental as a power play, a lack of trust, or a belief that the CIO represents a cost center and plays a tactical, not strategic, role.
But not having a formal seat isn’t always a negative, if you have a strong IT-centric CEO. At salesforce.com, a provider of CRM services, the CIO doesn't have a seat at the three-person president's council, which includes the president of worldwide distribution and the CFO. His viewpoint is expressed through the chairman and CEO Marc Benioff.
"Marc represents production and development technology, the CIO, and the chief of communications," explained salesforce.com CFO Steve Cakebread. Benioff sets the company's technology vision. A strong working relationship between the CEO and CIO is key to salesforce.com’s approach, according to the company.
In his CIO role, MacKinnon serves as a de facto CIO for client companies, so it’s the CEO at the client company that typically defines MacKinnon's focus and responsibilities. MacKinnon said that knowing, at the start, how a CEO views a CIO certainly helps him more quickly meet expectations.
Performance, not title, is the defining factor
Moving up the corporate ladder and taking the CIO role is obviously the initial step toward becoming a member of the executive team. But you will only foster your professional impact and career success as the top IT leader if you understand the specific role and political hierarchy from the start and have achieved strong team-related skills during your management career. All those elements can, and will, make a CIO a valued and integral player in the corporate boardroom.