CXO

Reporting to a board = walking the plank?

I was watching We Are Marshall last night, the movie about the loss of the Marshall University Football Team in a 1970 plane crash, and the ending left me a little flat. Not because of the tremendous courage it took to get a team back on the field the following year, but the fact that the president of Marshall was let go by the university's governing board following the team's first loss.

Reporting to a governing board is very different from reporting to one person, and my guess is that more and more IT Directors/CIOs are finding themselves reporting to boards these days than ever before. This is particularly true in government and education.

With shrinking dollars, there are increasing pressures for consolidation, particularly data center consolidation, and data center directors are now finding themselves reporting to boards that not only govern them but are also their customers.

Consolidation is not the only reason for reporting to a board. Both in public and private organizations, senior management are adopting IT governance models that have the Director of IT/CIO reporting to a group made up of their internal customers and have given up direct control over the senior IT official.

Business ventures and cooperative efforts can also lead to a CIO/Director reporting to a governing board as well. Given that the likelihood of reporting to a group rather than one individual is on the rise, what are the benefits and pitfalls of doing so and how should your behavior differ from the traditional model of reporting to one person?

First the benefits:

  • Because you do not report to one person, you are less likely to have to deal with the personality/management style of that single person.
  • The boards that IT professionals tend to report to generally are made up of people who are their peers or people who "get" IT.
  • If the board determines your salary, it is probably higher than if your salary was set by your boss or organization.
  • It can be easier to effect change because you only have a board to convince rather than an entire organization.
  • The board can help you manage through a situation because you have the collective brains of a group of individuals at your disposal.
  • Your board can be a very strong ally.

Those are some of the benefits, but what are the possible pitfalls?

  • You don't have to deal with one personality; you have to deal with many personalities plus the personality of the board as a whole. This can be very schizophrenic.
  • Because the board can be made up of your peers or IT savvy customers, it is less likely for you to be able to "pull a fast one" on the board as you might in a single direct report relationship. Additionally, if the board is made up of peers, you probably are held to a higher standard than that of the board members themselves.
  • Because a board is a group, you have all the pitfalls related to group dynamics; group think, inability to agree, open conflict among members, etc.
  • Your board can be your worst enemy, a harsh critic that can tie your hands and guarantee your failure.

So having listed these pros and cons, what do you need to do differently when you report to a board?

For starters, you need to be far more astute in your people skills than you do if you are reporting to an individual. Negotiation, the ability to read people and handle personalities, etc. are extremely important skills if you are reporting to a board.

Additionally, your abilities to manage a group of peers/superiors as opposed to subordinates will come into play, as well as your grasp of how to run a formal meeting.

As mentioned above, you generally will be held more accountable; you will be viewed as someone who must come to the board with solutions rather than someone who needs direction, and you generally are expected to execute as planned.

Again, these skills are also required if reporting to a single person; they are just magnified when reporting to a board.

Lastly, if you do not like organizational politics, reporting to a board is not where you want to be. Trust me when I tell you that your board members don't have peace, love, and harmony on their minds when coming to board meetings. Each member has their particular agenda (especially if they are a customer too) and these agendas, coupled with personalities can make life very "interesting" for you.

In summary, while the job descriptions can be identical, a director or a CIO who reports to a board will have a very different experience than one who reports to an individual. The experience is neither necessarily better or worse, just different. The quality of the experience will depend on the director/CIO and the person/people he or she reports to and the skills required to succeed will be different as well.

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