Becoming a tech-savvy director; Moving to the boardroom

According to Deloitte, tech-knowledgeable director representation on corporate boards went from 10 per cent in 2012 to 17 per cent five years later. High performing companies (those that outperform the S&P 500 index) have a whopping 32 per cent coverage. MIT takes this research further, finding that digitally adept boards oversee companies that are as much as 26 per cent more profitable. PwC research suggests that 85 per cent of corporate directors are dissatisfied with their ability to use technology to competitive advantage and 79 per cent say they do not have an understanding of technology.

Now’s our time as former CIOs to seize the boardroom opportunities before us.

Boards don’t need us for our knowledge of technology. They don’t care if we like Linux or know the latest research on cloud technology. They need us for our ability to apply technology to business challenges. Corporate Directors are not managers, they are advisors. They ask questions as a device to help management identify opportunities for improvement.

Key success factors for a digital director include:

  • Well-developed straight talk acuity
  • Solid perspectives on the external factors for the business
  • Active curiosity to stay ahead of trends and be fact-based
  • Proven coaching skills to support the C-suite’s journey of discovery
  • Adeptness at oversight, specifically putting your nose in but keeping your fingers out, to help the C-suite navigate around big risks and predictable folly

Digital directors are not an armchair CIO.  They are not put on the team to educate the rest of the board about technology. They are part of the team to ask the smart questions and help unpack the answers so the board can meet its duty of care.

To be a viable board candidate, you need to understand and be able to talk about how initiatives (tech and otherwise) contribute to the enterprise focus and outcomes. If your resume is going to resonate, you need to demonstrate insight into the industry adjacencies and opportunities the board may not be talking about. To have value, you need to show that you can actively contribute to the board’s strategic vision and risk avoidance. Best case, you can demonstrate some ability to turn the black swans white (or at least light grey).

Specific ways to build your Director profile:

  1. Get broadly based business expertise – Take on roles that include P&L, strategy and go-to-market responsibilities, so you can demonstrate the experience and vocabulary to contribute to the business discussions
  2. Develop the right personal brand – Your personal values will be important, so be deliberate in your associations and profile development
  3. Stay on top of the business considerations in digital trends – Demonstrate robust, industry-aligned  knowledge and curiosity
  4. Understand the role of a Director – It may not be what you think it is.  Consider specific Director-level training
  5. Build new relationships – Seek out a broader network to find mentorship and sponsorship; move from associations that advise how many servers you need to more business-oriented associations that help you think differently about the digital opportunity
  6. Get experience – Actively seek an accountable board role outside of your immediate network; NFP and private sector roles at a Director level will prepare you to step outside of your normal operational role and into a more genuine governance role

I know many senior and experienced CIOs who have a plan to ‘do board work’ when they retire.  If you don’t get the right foundations in place during your active working years, that transition will be very difficult to make.

Start early – ideally as soon as you reach a senior leadership level in your career – to build on the kind of expertise and profile credentials you need. Get an actual board position as early in your career as you can, and then go back to the Middle Years blog earlier in this series and re-set your plan. Understand that you are now stepping into a very different stream, and the current is fast, so get one foot solidly planted on a nice dry rock – then reach out with the other foot and work your way across.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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Alizabeth Calder
Alizabeth Calder
Alizabeth Calder is a senior technology strategist and a certified corporate director (ICD.D) Alizabeth is also a successful author. Her most recent project – Duty of Care; An Executive Guide for Corporate Boards in the Digital Era – is a much-needed guide for business leaders who need to close their digital knowledge gap in order to make the right decisions about digital technology investment and deployments. Alizabeth has been an active CIO since 1997. Her strategic accomplishments cross many industry sectors and demonstrate the practical value she brings to the digital conversation. As a CIO on demand and consultant, Alizabeth has delivered more than $1B in transformational investments.

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