Most of us in technology leadership positions already understand that any technology discussions directed to the board of directors should be in plain English and should relate directly back to the business and how technology will provide benefit. We also know that the dollars and cents side of each technology investment should be carefully spelled out-and that it is important to develop trust and open communications.
But there is also the "behind the scenes" side to board relations that occurs outside of meeting rooms. This is an area where many executives-including CIOs-can be caught off guard.
What makes the CIO particularly vulnerable is that many board members have questions about technology -both for the company and even about the technology they use in their own households.
Here is what can happen:#1-You propose a new technology solution for the company in the boardroom (let's say it is a private cloud). Everyone nods their heads in agreement, with little discussion. This can mean total agreement with the proposal-but it can also mean that board members who may not fully understand what you are presenting are afraid to ask a question in an open forum. Solution: This happens most often in not-for-profit organization operating with "volunteer" boards that might also lack business expertise. As CIO, I addressed this situation with offerings of outside board education in the form of technology strategy seminars that were company-paid, or even in-house presentations and demos of IT products. The settings are relaxed, and no one is afraid to ask questions. Most importantly, real learning occurs. #2-You issue company-paid-for mobile devices and PCs to board members so they can do board-related work, but members proceed to let their children do homework on their devices and even freely share their security codes. Solution: This is a tough one-especially when you have already spent time in board meetings talking about the importance of corporate security! A good approach is to get the board (and your auditors) to define and police a usage policy. This can be done by forming a board subcommittee. Of course, it's sometimes easier said than done! It took me over a year with the subcommittee to get the usage guidelines defined! This was because many "personal" issues came up-such as, if a board member wanted to add more RAM to his device, could he be reimbursed? Could he have the device serviced wherever he wanted to? These meetings were difficult. But in the end, the board had a set of guidelines for usage that they had defined and that auditors approved. #3-Theboard tries to "take over" management. You often find erudite technology pros and consultants on the board who are itching to get back into IT operations. Solution: The job of the board is to define strategy, not to micro-manage company operations. The best person to remind the board of this fact is the CEO— and a very useful vehicle for effecting gentle reminders is to review at least annually the company by-laws-which will surely differentiate the roles of board and management. It is much more difficult road for the CIO if the CEO doesn't do his or her job in this area. In this case, if you have a board technology subcommittee, this subcommittee can review the by-laws and make its own recommendations to the board. #4-The job market is tight, so it's natural for board members to try to secure part-time or full-time employment for their children. IT is a natural area that they gravitate to. Solution: A good approach is to proactively define job and internship requirements and processes, and also to let managers on your staff who hire for these positions proceed as they would normally do-and select the best candidate. The more transparent this process is, the better. If the CEO overrules you, there is not much you can do.-but whatever the result, tranparency of the hiring process is extremely important. So, too, is the CIO's continued support of staff managers. If a manager makes a hiring section and it is not the board member's son or daughter, it is the CIO's (and possibly the CEO's) job to personally get back to the board member.
Mary E. Shacklett is president of Transworld Data, a technology research and market development firm. Prior to founding the company, Mary was Senior Vice President of Marketing and Technology at TCCU, Inc., a financial services firm; Vice President of Product Research and Software Development for Summit Information Systems, a computer software company; and Vice President of Strategic Planning and Technology at FSI International, a multinational manufacturing company in the semiconductor industry. Mary is a keynote speaker and has more than 1,000 articles, research studies, and technology publications in print.