Communicating with the board

Based on recent Gartner research with CIOs that have board-level business acumen, communicating with the board requires careful preparation. CIOs who successfully interact with the board demonstrate that they are either technology leaders with board-relevant business savvy or true business leaders who just happen to be in charge of IT. They interact well with the board by focusing on four key activities:

Getting better at communicating IT issues in a compelling way to the board means developing a better understanding of their mindset. Although it’s hard to generalize, directors as a rule seem to have a number of characteristics that affect how CIOs should interact with them. They are capable of, and prone to, making decisions quickly, based on a focused set of information. Better to understand their information and deliver it in a targeted fashion. Don’t make them guess whether you are delivering good news or bad news. Be explicit, and don’t take the chance they will guess incorrectly. Directors may not know your industry all that well. Don’t assume that they understand your industry terminology, especially industry-specific technology terms. Use lay terms and seek great clarity in your communication.

Know your audience. Directors vary greatly in their experience and motivations. Getting to know directors as individuals increases your chances of interacting appropriately with them. The CIOs that contributed to this research recommend a variety of strategies to get to know directors: Study their biographies as posted on your or their enterprise’s Web site. Do an Internet search of their name to find interviews and media reports. Ask other executive team members about them. When appropriate, attend board meetings to observe them in action. Express outcomes in business speak that they will understand: environment, safety terms, financial impact, and strategic implications. Build business risk management into every project and program proposal, and actively track business risk as each initiative evolves.

Board meetings are command performances – infrequent, high profile with big impact. Performing well at each one requires being an effective individual contributor, as well as working seamlessly with the rest of the executive team. Rule one: no surprises. To propel your agenda, “socialize” your messages in advance. Socializing includes a thorough review of the content with appropriate executives to align it with common enterprise terminology and culture. Get your context right. Extensive preparation results in providing the right content for the board. At the board meeting, deliver the content effectively; be brief, open, accurate, relevant and diplomatic. And avoid saying too much. Each statement you make is a potential rabbit hole for the discussion to disappear down. Be careful what you say. Be honest afterwards. Ask yourself two questions: When you left the boardroom, did you get what you wanted? And did the board get what it wanted? If the answer to either is no to either, figure out want went wrong so that you can start to build your influence for the next time.

As your role in the enterprise evolves, so should your relationship and influence with the board grow. Over time, experienced CIOs change board perceptions by engaging in activities that develop their business skills and increase their contribution to the enterprise. CIOs that excel in the eyes of the board transition from credible technology leaders to enterprise business leaders. CIOs with the highest levels of interaction and credibility have changed their role from technology leader to business leader. These CIOs often participate in non-IT enterprise leadership roles. In some cases, their non-IT leadership roles preceded their CIO role, thereby enhancing their credibility as a business leader. In other cases, their non-IT leadership roles followed their CIO role and were a direct result of their demonstrating business credibility.

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