Naked CIO: Why IT must excel at board games

Boards seem cordial and strategic, but politics and infighting prevail...

A seat on the board may appear the pinnacle of any IT leader's career - but be careful what you wish for, says the Naked CIO.

Are board meetings occasions where corporate strategy unfolds or merely the setting for political and strategic moves by cunning and insecure leaders? Certainly in my experience, board meetings can be volatile, threatening, and politically charged, providing an opportunity for people to highlight their successes and downplay their failures, often by blaming others.

But I have long advocated that a seat at the board table should be reserved for the individual in charge of IT strategy. One reason I think this measure essential is because strategic business decisions and IT capabilities are intrinsically linked in business environments.

The other reason is because - and I can assure you of this - technology is one of the main, if not the main, reasons that other board members use to explain any failure to deliver on their commitments. True or false, these accusations and deflections of responsibility often go unchallenged and sour the reputation of the IT department.

Covering your back
Consequently, preparing for a board meeting is like being a minister who expects a grilling from a parliamentary select committee. Instead of bringing new ideas to the table, you prepare by anticipating what others are going to say about your department and ready your response to cover your back. Remember: boards are not focused on what is going right but rather what is going wrong.

CIOs must learn to hold their own in the boardroom

CIOs must learn to hold their own in the boardroom
(Photo credit: Shutterstock)

While the idea of IT being at the table is a good one, it is also potentially dangerous. If the board only wants IT at the table to answer for all the problems blamed on it by other business units, any involvement at this level can be dispiriting.

The overriding problem is that in many cases board meetings do not develop strategy, but merely question results and metrics that inspire or demand action. This call to action is directed towards specific departments but rarely directly at IT. The formation of strategy belongs to the business unit that owns the challenge.

Here is the real crunch: there is a reluctance for these areas to align IT with the business if the board is adversarial and competitive. Doing so prevents the IT department being used as the scapegoat for any failure to produce the necessary results.

Some IT leaders think that securing board representation will allow them to align their activities and become more strategic, but this view may turn out to be myopic. Other things need to happen beyond sitting in the hot seat for a protracted, five-hour board meeting.

Covering your back
Whether on the board or not, to drive strategy IT has to bring solutions to the business, talk in the language the business understands, have the tenacity to argue the value of the initiative, achieve buy-in and consensus, and develop a track record of successful delivery.

All these things can happen with or without board representation. If you can do these things, your board position will be better served because you will have earned the credibility that comes with success. It will be harder for business units and other board members to take pot shots at your expense. It will also allow you to take ownership of key challenges the company has and steer initiatives to resolve issues.

But be careful - while boards may appear proper and cordial, they are anything but. Politics, infighting and profiting from the demise of others are embedded in the fabric of board culture.

The best thing to remember is that neither your status nor how the board operates matters. Success is determined on the shop floor, not in the boardroom.

If you want to be a successful executive in any company, you need to worry less about being on the board and more about success at shop-level. Success there will above all else dictate your influence in the organisation.