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Securing a board appointment: CIO requirements and benefits

A corporate board appointment can give a CIO invaluable perspective on running a business, but to get one, deep expertise and a certain degree of unselfishness are required.

Mike Thyken's resume lists a high-level position that most other CIOs don't have: board director.

Thyken, CIO at the natural and organic food company SunOpta Inc., serves on the board of directors at two private companies -- Summit Brewing Co., a craft brewer, and engineering firm Braun Intertec.

The board positions do indeed require additional work -- sometimes as much as 20 hours a week, he said. Yet, Thyken said the rewards of a board appointment are well worth the extra responsibilities and time commitment.

"So much of the CIO's day-to-day work is tactical, detail-oriented. Board work forces you to think longer term, more strategically about business," he said.

The number of CIO board appointments has increased in recent years, as corporate boards become more focused on the technology-related topics that drive and impact business today, according to recruiters and researchers [see sidebar] who track trends among corporate boards.

Mike ThykenMike Thyken

Although hard statistics on the trend are hard to come by -- and the available data suggest the number of CIOs on boards remains small -- experts agreed that more companies are seeking CIOs for their prowess in technology and the IT budget as well as their experience in governance and change management.

"All the indicators suggest that the topic of technology has increased as a board topic because of the additional scrutiny and accountability expected on the topic by boards. And sometimes the skill set they want is right in that sweet spot of CIO," said Holly Morris, a former CIO and current board member at NIIT Technologies Ltd., an Indian IT outsourcing company.

Holly MorrisHolly Morris

CIOs, in turn, enjoy several benefits from securing a board appointment, Morris said.

They can learn about emerging technologies (particularly if they're on the board of a tech company) and new use cases for existing technologies (particularly if they're on a board at a company known for innovative strategy). They also gain more insight into running and growing a business (not just an IT department).

"It does give you a perspective that's difficult to get any other way, and that can be valuable in your current career, no doubt about that," she added.

Making a difference

But Morris and others also said that board work has a broader, overarching appeal that speaks to the board's very mission. "It's the ability to have an impact," Morris said.

That's part of what drew former IT executive Virginia Gambale.

Virginia GambaleVirginia Gambale

"For me, it was the ultimate ability to drive change and help companies succeed," Gambale said. "It all starts and stops with the board. The direction and success of a company is directly dependent on the quality and performance of the board of directors and the management team."

Gambale first sat on product advisory boards for emerging companies and advisory boards at established companies while working as a CIO. She got her first corporate board appointment after moving from CIO at a financial institution to partner at a venture capital and private equity firm in 1999.

Now managing partner at Azimuth Partners, a strategic advisor firm she founded in 2003, Gambale currently serves on the boards of three public companies -- JetBlue Airways, First Derivatives and Dundee Corp.

Having the right stuff

Morris, who moderated a "CIOs as Digital Directors" symposium in fall 2016, said she believes more boards of directors will seek out IT executives to serve. But she and other experts also said that the CIO title is hardly enough to qualify an individual for a corporate board appointment. Leadership, collaboration and high-level perspective are in higher demand, not tactical day-to-day managerial acumen.

"A CIO should come to the table with not only the technical expertise to be able to explain what their profession is all about but also be able to help the company be successful," said Kathy Misunas, a former CIO at American Airlines who is now a director at Boingo Wireless and TechData Corp.

Kathy MisunasKathy Misunas

Misunas said she was drawn to board work because the opportunity to help a company succeed was rewarding and fulfilling. She said she also wanted to help boards understand the full value of "technology as a [business] tool."

She said she believes many boards still lack that perspective, and while many CIOs can offer that expertise, Misunas agreed that they also need broader business knowledge, executive leadership qualities and strategic vision. They have to understand their responsibility to a number of stakeholders, from the investors to the employees.

How involved are board directors with IT issues?

"Directors continue to be engaged in understanding how IT issues impact their companies' long-term strategies. Eighty-four percent say they are at least moderately engaged in understanding the status of major IT implementations, and 81% of directors describe themselves as at least moderately engaged with overseeing the risk of cyberattacks. The company's annual IT budget and level of spend on cybersecurity are two other topics that generally receive robust director engagement; more than six in 10 now describe themselves as at least moderately engaged in these areas." -- PwC's 2016 Annual Corporate Directors Survey

"Boards are about strategy, selfless consideration about how the business should proceed," Misunas added. "Someone who wants to just drive their points or is too focused on technology isn't a good fit."

To be strong contenders for board positions, Misunas and others said CIOs must demonstrate that they're top performers and able to interact well with boards -- something that can be difficult for some CIOs to show as many still don't present to their own company's directors.

CIOs can become more attractive board candidates by developing a deep expertise in a particular area, such as digital transformation, experts said.

"The best thing that people can do is to make a name for themselves and the work they're doing. To just have CIOs go out and try to market themselves to get on a board isn't how it happens. The best people are tapped on the shoulder for the work that they're doing," Gambale said.

She noted that CIOs also might secure a board appointment by working with executive recruiters, as the firms they work in often also handle board of director searches.

Meanwhile, Morris said serving on a nonprofit board first eventually could lead to serving on a company board of directors.

Thyken said he started that way. He worked in various volunteer positions with the University of St. Thomas. And he served as a member and eventually chairperson of the board of directors with STARBASE Minnesota, a nonprofit centered around science, technology, engineering and math education.

So much of the CIO's day-to-day work is tactical, detail-oriented. Board work forces you to think longer term, more strategically about business.
Mike ThykenCIO, SunOpta Inc.

"That gives you a bit of the background for how you handle a company board," he said.

Experienced board members said anyone interested in board work must also understand the scope of the commitment they make when agreeing to become a director for a particular company.

"Boards service, if you do it right, is a huge time commitment, and it's as equally large with small companies as it is with large companies," Gambale said, noting that most boards meet in full five to six times a year with additional committee meetings, reading requirements and consultations happening between those full-board sessions.

Gambale and others noted that boards share the same general responsibilities and requirements, but the amount and type of work vary based on numerous factors -- from the company's size and whether it's private or public to its maturity and its industry. That's why CIOs considering a director slot need to find the right board at the right company, where skills and interests and needs align.

Next Steps

More on SearchCIO from Mary K. Pratt:

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This was last published in January 2017

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Are you looking to add board director to your CIO resume? What are you doing to make that happen?
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Serving on the BoD of a non-profit and making certain Exec Recruiters aware of my desire to serve on a public Board. Also re-orienting my resume to focus on things that public Boards are interested in including cyber risk management, digital transformation, M&A integration, and overall governance.
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