The IT leaders who make up the CIO Executive Council are finding themselves more often called upon to address the boards of directors at their companies. For many this is an alien environment, full of high-powered, short-attention-span executives with little affinity for technology. CIOs want to learn how to be more effective in their communications with the board and improve their success in conveying the challenges, opportunities and successes in helping achieve business goals that their department offers. We turned to some of our more board-seasoned members for insights in wowing the board.
Know the players
Jeff O’Hare, is senior vice president of enterprise information technology at business process outsourcing provider West Corporation; in previous roles he has researches the background of each board member and then uses this information to frame his board presentations and follow-up conversations. O’Hare focuses his information gathering on areas like functional experience (e.g. marketing, finance, technology, and venture capital); industry (primary industry affiliation and other industry influences); company size (experience in a start-up, mid-market, Fortune 500 , non-profit and/or educational institution); and comfort with risk (risk taker or more conservative, especially regarding growth strategy).
“For example, when I was making a presentation to a board with heavy finance and operations experience, I made sure to include an appendix of highly detailed financials and a snapshot of rolled-out milestones directly from the actual project plan,” says O’Hare.
It's also wise to learn the director's particular hot buttons—what particularly gets them riled up and what are their sweet spots, adds Marc West, former CIO at tax specialists H&R Block. West recommends the CEO as a good source for backgrounds on the board members.
Develop ongoing personal relationships
Pamela Rucker, vice president of IT at PSC, LLC, a privately held environmental services company, holds pre-meetings with individuals from the PSC executive board and representatives of the PSC ownership to learn about their points of view. She also uses the pre-meetings as an opportunity for them to ask questions and air any concerns in a private setting. Rucker estimates spending 20 per cent of her board interaction time in these one-on-one meetings. Due to their regularity, she can then treat the formal board presentation as more of a status check. “The actual board meeting can’t be the first time that you’re telling the board about changes or plans, or they’re going to feel blindsided,” she says. The same holds true for any other senior management group--you should sell your ideas prior to presenting them formally. It also helps to tell your story not only multiple times but multiple ways. “Sometimes, I may have to present information three different ways in three different meetings in order for everyone to get it,” Rucker notes.
How does a CIO get the attention and time of individual board members? For directors who are executives from her own company, the face time happens in monthly IT Steering Committee meetings they attend. For board members from outside the company, Rucker first watched for their particular interests during board meetings, then followed up with them to establish a rapport around those topics. She also leveraged third-parties. "I was able to hook in to another member of the executive team that I had an existing friendship with and use them as a super-connector for the other board member," she says.
David Webb, formerly CIO, now chief operations officer at financial services company SVB Financial Group, also feels strongly that engaging the board isn’t just a quarterly, formal interaction. “You need to want more interaction and find ways to do so. If you don’t, you won’t build that relationship,” he says. Webb finds that as long as he has a reason to meet and use their time wisely, access to board members becomes easier over time. “The first call is always the hardest. If you have difficulty making a cold call, have the CEO clear the path for you,” he recommends.
Get feedback from your board buddy
Twila Day, CIO at food manufacturer SYSCO, has developed a sounding board within the board. She pings a couple of select board members prior to her presentations (which occur two-to-three times per year) to give them a preview of what she is going to share. This engagement method started when Day went to meet one-on-one with a new board member that had a strong technology background. When a second member was appointed with similar technology experience, Day asked if she could send both of them her presentations ahead of time for their input. This peer review helps Day make sure her message is getting across in the right way, gives her some fresh ideas from technology-experienced board members, and helps to avoid last-minute surprises during the actual presentation.
O’Hare’s primary objective in a board presentation is to get across the right message to each board member. “I typically provide them with enough information to guide them to the conclusion that I want, but I don’t tell them my opinion right away,” says O’Hare. He has found that buy-in is usually stronger when members feel that they have actively contributed to developing the solution. O’Hare organises his slides using the SOAE model (Situation – Opportunity – Action – Expected Results) and never arrives at the board meeting without having multiple solutions to a stated issue or problem in his back pocket. “This way I can demonstrate that an objective and thoughtful approach was used in resolving the problem," he explains. "I’ve also found that having different ways to solve a problem is a good way to prepare for the eventual questions that will come from the board.”
Get to the point
When Webb begins to construct his board presentation, he thinks to himself “How do I get my point across so board members understand in the first thirty seconds?” Day is not big on PowerPoint presentations and strives to keep her presentations concise. She uses bullet points and makes sure not to get into the weeds on any one topic.
"I approach my presentations as building blocks – first I lay the foundation and then in future meetings, I move forward with more of an ‘update’ format," says Day. O’Hare also abides by the ‘less is more’ sentiment. He uses an executive summary at the beginning to grab the board’s attention and then shares supporting information, depending on the questions asked and details needed.
Marc West advises that presenters focus on only the top five things that matter and articulate the metrics for each of the five. Keep it to a 10 minute discussion, he suggests, and be aware of when you've successfully made your point. "Understand when you've closed the sale—and then shut up!" says West.
Profitability is the end-goal
The most important thing in any board communication is to tie it to profitability and business value. “CIOs really have to think like a CEO and investors when presenting to the board," says O’Hare. "For example, it’s not IT cutting costs; it’s about how this cost savings idea fits into the overall cost model and positively contributes to competitive margin.” This is what board members want to hear about. At past employers, O'Hare has sent customised versions of his companywide IT quarterly reports to the board. The document profiles technology objectives and successes and ties them back to business value.
Extend board-level thinking to your team
As a career development tool, O'Hare regularly involves senior members of his team (director-level and up) in prepping for board meetings and providing input on the presentation. One of O’Hare’s senior vice presidents commented that he has learned more in one year of such high-level involvement than he has in 5-10 year spans of his career.
“My philosophy is that if they need to come off the bench, they need exposure so they are ready,” O’Hare says. "Focusing on the thought behind the message and how to position it in the right way to the board is a skill that will give my team a head start on future strategic positions."
Related articles: What CEOs want from their next IT leaders