Legal

The personal side of board relations: Three things CIOs should know

Mary Shacklett talks about the "behind the scenes" side to relations with the board of directors that can catch many CIOs off guard.

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.

About

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 o...

4 comments
pgit
pgit

That extra #3 might be a remnant of using automatic numbering in word or similar. Weirdness ensues when breaking out a new paragraph, inserting an earlier point etc. etc. I always apply formats like that last, after all writing is complete, spell checked, proof read and ready to go. As for the article, I sympathize, but admit I have been spoiled like a little Lord Fauntleroy when it comes to getting what I asked for from the higher-ups.

marc
marc

Tony, your approach sounds more appropriate for most board members depending on their level of engagement. Unless you are working for a high tech company they probably don't care as much about the underlying technology as the results and risk mitigation. If you can explain the benefits, why your proposal is better than the alternative, and how you will mitigate risk in an executive summary they will probably never ask you why private cloud vs. big iron mainframe.

maj37
maj37

New counting process, 1, 2, 3, 3. What comes next??????? Sorry couldn't resist jumping on your typo. Then almost left a couple of typos in my comment, that would not be good.

tsnow
tsnow

All good points. As for point one, I attempted that solution and had only one board member take the offer. If you can get them into the room for the education sessions, I'm sure you'd have some success. I had the opposite problem. Board members who didn't understand the technology saying "no" to solutions because they didn't understand the technology (age on this board was a big factor) and constantly asserting that they didn't have time to come to the technology sessions. I resorted to finding whitepapers and producing executive summaries to make my points and wore them down over the course of a year to get approvals for system upgrades but I never did completely crack that egg.