Presenting to the board of directors is no longer a novel experience for CIOs. Given the importance of technology to business strategy - as both enabler and growth driver - IT leaders now make regular appearances before their boards, who themselves better understand the critical role technology plays. But that doesn't make the prospect of speaking to the board any less daunting. In fact, keeping the board informed and educated about the state of technology in the organization has become more difficult, given the quickening pace of technical change and the increasing tech-related risk companies must manage.
These days, technology, cybersecurity and digital disruption are among the most important topics to corporate boards, just behind corporate strategy, leadership success, and CEO evaluation, according to JWC Partners' 2017 survey of board directors. What's more, the majority of directors surveyed (52%) say their companies address technology as a full board topic today.
"The board wants to be assured that management team is on top of or ahead of consumer and technology trends," says executive coach and communications consultant Suzanne Bates. "They depend on the IT leaders to provide them with insight and intelligence. This enables them to better evaluate management's decisions and to provide good guidance when management wants to implement new strategies."
Cyber security has quickly risen to a top agenda item for boards, given their responsibility to guide their management team's enterprise risk mitigation strategies.
"It's become even more challenging for IT leaders to inform the board without drowning them in too much data," says Bates. "They have to be even more discerning about what topics are important - and clear, concise, and compelling in the way they share information."
In the 15 minutes a CIO is allotted to address his or her board of directors, a lot can go right and a lot can go wrong. Very wrong. Wrong enough to kill a valuable project. Wrong enough to cut short a promising career. But there are a number of steps CIOs can take to not only meet their board's need for clarity and understanding but win their lasting support and respect.
1. Know your audience
It's critical that IT leaders do their due diligence on board members before presenting to them. "If this is your first time presenting and you don't know them at all, spend some time with colleagues that do know them and have presented to them in the past so you can avoid landmines," advises Jay Ferro, vice president and CIO/CTO at ExamWorks.
It's important not only to understand their backgrounds and personalities but their stance on the IT topics you plan to discuss. "Do they view [IT] as an opportunity? A threat? What is their mindset likely to be when you join them in the room?" says Arthur Hu, CIO of Lenovo Group. "This helps you [determine] how to approach and frame the discussion with them and get off to a good start."
2. Play to the room
CIOs who understand what most interests and motivates the board will fare best. Figure out if they have a particular focus on growth, operational improvements and opportunities or compliance and cybersecurity, for example, says Ferro, who has held CIO positions at AIG, the American Cancer Society and Earthlink.
French Caldwell, who ran popular board presentation workshops for CIOs when he was at Gartner, says most boards are looking for help with their risk intelligence. "Corporate directors are very concerned with what risks could emerge that will derail corporate growth," says Caldwell, who now presents to the board every quarter as the senior marketing executive at MetricStream. "The board will appreciate investments the CIO makes to give them a better handle on emerging and strategic risks."
3. Stay on top of the news
For every lead technology or business story in The Wall Street Journal or The New York Times, you'd better know about it and have an answer for what it means for your business. "Be on top of consumer and customer trends in your industry so when asked by the board you are prepared to discuss options for making the company more competitive," says Bates. "Attend outside conferences, network with your peers, and strive to be one of the best informed CIOs in any industry."
4. Lose the lingo
Always speak to the board in the language of the business. "Often CIOs speak in terms of improvements in IT operational performance, improvements in security, and system reliability and availability," says Caldwell. "If you really want to the board to appreciate fully the investments you are making, it's important to identify the real business benefits."
The universal winning approach is linking IT investment to the company's growth strategy. "Now is not the time to 'wow' them with your command of hyperconverged infrastructure, packet loss on your network, or intricacies of agile," warns Ferro. " Your competency will come out when you're able to weave technical items into a discussion of business outcomes. Show that you know your organization's value chain as much as any other executive."
5. Get aligned
"Get as much input from various stakeholders before the presentation - and preview intended discussion and decision points," says Hu. Depending on the context, that might include the CEO, a business unit leader, or a board secretary.
"Make sure you're aligned with other senior executives - and especially with the CFO," adds Caldwell. "If the CIO and CFO are speaking about the same strategic objectives but using different ways to describe them and how the IT investments benefit them, it just creates confusion."
Working closely with the CEO and the rest of the executive team on the presentation will deliver the message that IT and the business are in sync, says Bates.