It's commonplace for company C-level executives to assume positions as board members for other companies, especially if these organizations are largely-owned subsidiaries of the parent companies they are officers in. The reason behind this is simple. You get board members who see both the parent company and the subsidiary sides of the business. They can bring deep knowledge of both sides into the equation-and this often creates such synergy that some of the parent company know-how transfers to the smaller company and provides advantage.
But there are also incumbent struggles that many board members face-and for CIOs, these challenges can be doubly difficult.
First, it's no secret that IT, like engineering and finance, is a control-oriented discipline. It's often difficult for a CIO to "let go" of this control orientation when he enters a boardroom as a member of the board and not as a company officer. If the company he is a board member for is in technology, it's even harder for him to maintain respectful silence when IT and technology operations are discussed. The reason is, he has his own opinion of what should be done-and this opinion doesn't always agree with the direction that the company President chooses.
But a quick look at Robert's Rules of Order (or other board and meeting behavior guides that boards often use) quickly distinguishes that the role of the board is to review and recommend strategy-not to try to run the company's business operations. This is a line that board members (and especially CIOs) have to be reminded not to step over.
The next question a CIO-board member should be asking himself, then, is that if he shouldn't be dictating how the company's operations should be run---just what value can he bring into the organization? Valued input from the board for technology organizations usually manifests itself in several different ways:
- R&D (research and development) and other technology contacts that the CIO/board member has that might profit the company in its projects or pursuits;
- Offers in some cases of IT resources, talents and skills from the parent company that can be leveraged to help the subsidiary attain its goals while it manages its own operations;
- Technology consulting (if the CIO is asked);
- A combination of business and technology savvy that can assist the company in its strategy-setting.
Most CIOs do not come with formal training for board participation, so it takes a little time to learn the ropes. However, more enterprises are now recognizing that the CIOs (and other officers from the parent company) who make the strongest board members come with a combination of both business savvy and technical know-how from their own fields. They also have the ability of being able to put the duties of the board they are sitting on first, and to look at reality from the organization's point of view---and not from the point of view of the parent company which in many cases, might be the subsidiary's biggest customer.
Assuming board responsibilities for a technology organization, even if it is a subsidiary of your parent company, is not a trivial undertaking for most CIOs. But for many, the role forces them out of familiar "control-oriented" behaviors and away from IT and into the business world at large. This experience can ultimately benefit both CIOs and their staffs-which also desire some autonomy to creatively approach daily workloads and to craft the best solutions.
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.