For many business executives, becoming a board member is a rite of passage. It is often seen as a signal of one’s gravitas to peers, colleagues, customers, partners—and yes, potential employers.
But how about executives traditionally viewed as technology leaders, such as chief information officers and chief information security officers? Surely, they have many strengths and assets to bring to a board. What’s the right approach for CIOs and CISOs to take when they decide they want to make a bigger impact in their industry or in a related field as a board member?
As a leading private equity fund concentrating on the software industry, our firm is often asked for recommendations and referrals for potential board members. In part, that’s because we are closely aligned with others in the same orbit of technology companies, but it’s also because we have been trusted to look for the right kinds of board members, not just people with nicely polished resumes.
Now, you may be entertaining the idea of becoming a member of your own company’s board, because you strongly identify with your company and are heavily invested in its success. But the reality is that the trend these days is for more outside directors to be elected to board, and fewer internal executives. Of course, the company’s own CEO will be on its board, and may be joined by one other internal executive, usually the technical genius whose initial idea spawned the company in the first place.
But there are tons of opportunities for CIOs and CISOs to join boards at other companies in their market, or in industry associations.
If you’re a technology leader interested in playing a strategic role as a board member, here are some things to keep in mind:
- Align yourself with companies or organizations where you have hands-on knowledge, experience and relationships.
Organizations need board members who know the issues they are facing, from product requirements to competitive landscapes. This is where your intimate experience with technology and—more important—its deployment for improved business outcomes is a huge plus.
For instance, think of the organizations you do business with. Maybe it’s a technology company serving the financial services sector, and you’re a CIO for a multi-national bank. In your conversations with the board’s nominating committee, it should become readily apparent that you can bring to the table depth of knowledge on issues such as compliance, governance, security risks, mobile banking, or customer experience.
- Be selective: Becoming a board member is a real commitment.
Becoming a board member is a serious commitment of time, energy and creativity. It demands that board members add tangible value to discussions ranging from long-range product planning and competitive strategies to budget prioritization and deepening customer relationships.
If you are fortunate enough to be nominated and elected to a board, be ready to be the best board member possible. That means listening closely, asking probing questions, promoting collaboration and offering rational ideas. Being a board member is about making a real difference in the organization’s path to success, not collecting a director’s fee for attending a few in-person meetings or listening in on monthly conference calls.
- Stress your experience with risk management and budget prioritization—two of the most strategic issues facing all boards.
Every day of every week of every quarter, CIOs and CISOs must juggle multiple challenges and opportunities in making decisions on which fire to put out first or which funding must come before all others. Presumably, you have reached your executive position in large part because of your ability to sort through a lot of challenging issues in both the short term and over the long haul; these are precisely the kinds of skills and value all organizations look for in their board members.
- Understand the board’s political realities, but don’t feed into them.
Boards are no different from any other hierarchical organizations, from huge corporations to small, non-profit associations. Some board members are outspoken, assertive and aggressive, while others are contemplative, thoughtful and introspective. And while the days of board members routinely acceding to the CEO’s wishes are mostly behind us, there often remains a strong political environment among board members.
It’s very important to remember that you need to be seen as an independent thinker who can and will offer unique ideas based both on well-established facts and emerging trends. While it’s natural that you will develop personal affinity with other board members, remember that your allegiance is to the organization, its shareholders and its employees. Don’t let political alliances get in the way of being the best board member possible, even if it means disagreeing (professionally and respectfully, of course) with other board members or the CEO.
At the end of the day, the CIO or CISO should focus on where you feel you can add the most value to an organization. And that’s typically going to be a situation where you have specific knowledge of an organization’s most important technical, operational, business or financial challenges. If you don’t play to your strengths in seeking out the right opportunity as a board member, a few indisputable things will happen:
- You won’t add value.
- You won’t get invited to join other boards.
- You’ll damage the personal and professional brand you’ve worked so hard to cultivate.
By all means, become a board member. It can be a gratifying experience as you contribute to an organization’s success at a very strategic level, and you’ll undoubtedly make great contacts. Just do it right by finding the best chance to make a difference.
Philip Vorobeychik is a managing director at Vertica Capital Partners, a growth-focused software investment firm.