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For CIOs, joining corporate boards introduces new challenges

Companies are becoming more reliant on technology, and that’s opening up new doors for chief information officers. Not only are CIOs sometimes touted as being next in line for CEO, but corporate boards are turning to CIOs to help them stay ahead of the technology curve.

For CIOs interested in stretching their careers in the board room direction, it’s not a bad idea to gather advice from those in the know. Media maven Larry Kramer is one such expert. Kramer, a board member at TheStreet, Gannett Co. Inc., Harvard Business Publishing and Syracuse University, recently provided a room full of chief digital officers (another C-level executive interested in the board room) with tips on how to make the leap . Although directed at CDOs, Kramer’s advice applies just as easily to CIOs.

Know what you bring to the table

“The best thing you can do if you want to be on a board is to have as broad of an experience as you can,” Kramer said at the recent CDO Summit in New York City. “Have specialty areas you’re good at, but prove that you’re somebody who solves across a series of problems even though you have an expertise.”

Kramer brings a range of media skills to the table that he’s gathered from print, television and the Web. He’s also well versed in building a digital business, having served as the president of digital media at CBS, which means he knows first-hand what the successes and failures of making such a transition look like.

But it’s not just the broad range of experience that serves corporate boards well, it’s also his depth of knowledge. Kramer started his career in 1974 as a reporter for the San Francisco Examiner and went on to work at variety of name-brand establishments like The Washington Post, USA Today and CBS MarketWatch (which he co-founded and served as CEO). “It’s one of the few jobs left where being older is, in fact, a help to the job,” he said. “It’s the experience that matters. You’re selling your experience.”

Know your place with the CEO

Board members are bosses to the CEO, and part of the job is to offer guidance. “If you ever go in and get interviewed for a board seat and you’re talking to the CEO, let him or her know that you understand your job is to support him or her,” Kramer said. Support doesn’t equate to loyalty; instead, aspiring board members should strive to become a CEO’s sounding board, an advisor willing to listen to ideas and ask insightful questions or provide insightful comments.

If they’re strategic, CEOs will lean on board members as sounding boards. “If he’s got a big idea or she’s got a big idea and if he or she is smart, he or she will work through it with a bunch of board members, engage them. … Then, when it’s presented formally, it’s presented with support from other people on the board,” Kramer said.

Know who you answer to

CIOs will need to make the transition from the management table to the board table. As a manager, CIOs generate and then execute on their ideas. As a board member, they can still generate good ideas, but how — and when — those ideas are executed is out of their control. “Your temptation is to say, ‘Just give me that conference room, and I’ll get it done,'” Kramer said. “But you can’t. And they don’t want that.”

By “they,” Kramer is referring, in part, to the shareholders, bosses to corporate boards. The shareholders bring a unique set of challenges to the job that new board members may not have experienced before. “You’re going to have people who want to cash out in five years, others who want to make money in the next two quarters, and others who want that stock to steadily grow for 20 years,” Kramer said. “You have to deal with those realities, and your ability to measure those things is critical.”

It’s a different dynamic than working with — or for — the executive management team, Kramer said. He advises new board members get to know who the shareholders are and what they’re trying to get out of the company. Doing so can create a useful line of communication between the CEO and the shareholders. Said Kramer: “That will help the CEO if you can go and say, ‘If you did this, these shareholders will be happy.'”