Technology is helping to drive a wave of change in the business, providing the ability to deliver new experiences to customers and to help foster the creation of new go-to-market business models. CIOs, CTOs, CISOs, CDOs and other technology executives are well-positioned to provide unique insight and leadership to guide this process and to communicate the opportunities and risks that are involved.
Yet despite their technology/business savvy, many technology executives continue to find themselves on the outside looking in when it comes to landing a board position.
For instance, a Deloitte study found that 79 percent of high-performing companies have at least one board member with tech experience, compared with just 52 percent of baseline companies.
At a recent HMG Strategy CIO & CISO Executive Leadership Alliance (CELA) meeting which brings together the industry’s top CIOs, CISOs and technology executives who brainstorm together on the key challenges and opportunities they face in their roles, a panel of board-level experts shared their insights on what it takes to become boardroom-ready, along with the skills, techniques and mindsets that are most valuable for being effective in these roles.
For business technology executives who aspire to land a coveted board role, this starts with the need for tech leaders to do their homework and due diligence.
“Before I interviewed for my first board position, I out-researched other board candidates to make sure I was fully up to speed on what the board was thinking about and the challenges facing the company,” says Carol Zierhoffer, Independent Director, Advisory Board Member, Former Global CIO and mentor.
Every board is looking for specific areas of expertise and often utilizes a matrix of current vs missing capabilities when conducting searches for new board members, notes Daphne E. Jones, Independent Board Member, Executive Coach, Keynote Speaker, Former Executive and CIO. “If a board is concerned about supply chain resilience, cyber security, war for talent, or other issues, know what superpower you can bring to the table and be clear about it,” says Jones.
Some of the ‘superpowers’ that Jones brings to the table in each of her board roles is her ability “to help companies get out of their own way and think about how they can reimagine their business purpose and process – to become more relevant, contemporary and digital,” she says. “Being on the board of several companies, you’re able to scale and make a strategic difference across industries and their stakeholders.”
Each board position search differs in the criteria being evaluated. “The company might be looking to augment their use of technology or perhaps to spin out a business,” says Mark Polansky, Senior Partner, Technology Officers Executive Search Practice at Korn Ferry. “There are different specs with each board search.”
As companies have made the digital pivot since March 2020, many boards are looking for executives who understand how technology can be used to differentiate the company through the products, services and experiences it delivers to its customers.
“People who understand how digital technologies can be used to shift business models are in high demand,” says Tony Leng, Managing Director, Practice Lead and OMP at Diversified Search.
Moreover, because companies in nearly every industry can now be classified as ‘technology companies’ due to the importance that technology plays in running the business, boards are hungry for executives who understand the intersection between the business and IT strategy and the value they can bring to these discussions at the board level.
“Business strategy and IT strategy are really one in the same today, so successful board candidates need to be prepared to contribute meaningfully at that intersection,” says Zierhoffer.
Do Your Due Diligence
Before interviewing for a public company board position, experts recommend conducting extensive research on the financial wellness of the company, how well (or poorly) they are performing against competitors in their respective industries, and other related factors. “Find out which investment brokerage firms follow the company you’re interested in to learn what they believe is wrong and what’s right with the company,” advises Polansky.
Also, as companies across industries have become more focused on Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) in hiring across all levels of the organization, CIOs and other aspiring board members should expect to see boards increase their efforts to recruit women and people of color to board positions.
“Clearly, the best candidate will be chosen to fill the needs of the competency matrix, but we expect to see a year of two of re-balancing as board members are appointed,” says Zierhoffer.
It’s also critical to know who you’re going to be interviewing with to understand and be prepared for the types of questions that are likely going to be posed. “For the interview, am I talking to the Chair of the Board? The Chair of the Audit committee? What would the Audit Chair want to talk to me about versus the CEO? I need to reflect on that so I can be prepared for any ‘persona’ ” says Jones.
For instance, if a board candidate is interviewing with a member of the company’s audit committee, it’s vital to read the company’s proxy statements, analyst reports, 10-K, 10-Q statements and understand the company’s risk profile, controls, or related materials to be prepared going into that interview, advises Jones. “That information helped me to assess the company I was interested in and helped me be prepared to land the board seat,” Jones adds.
Business technology leaders also need to broaden their personal and professional networks. “The first place a Board goes to build a slate of potential directors is the recommendations of current Board members, so it’s helpful to cultivate your network of CEOs, CFOs and other board members. Be proactive and ask to hear their stories and how they got onto boards,” says Zierhoffer “It’s also important for business technology executives to have strong connections into the executive search community to help them with their searches and to be on their radar screens when board positions open up”, says Zierhoffer.
“Valuable training to help land a board position includes a one-week course offered by the National Association of Corporate Directors (NACD). The course costs roughly $10,000 to attend and the certification that’s offered is viewed as the ‘gold standard’ in the industry”, says Polansky.
Plus, CEOs are often willing to fund the course for CIOs based on Polansky’s experiences.
It can be difficult for executives to land a board position with a publicly held company if they lack prior board experience. That’s why many experts advocate taking on a board role with a non-profit to get some experience under their belts – particularly for a cause that executives have a passion for.
But in doing so, don’t expect to leapfrog to a public board without paying your dues with the non-profit. “If you’re aspiring to a non-profit board, don’t do it and do it badly,” says Zierhoffer. “The world is a stage, and all aspects of your leadership is noticed.”
Most public company boards will pay about $200K-to-$300K with equity, notes Leng. For non-profit boards, “you pay with your time and commitment.”