Here’s a conundrum: I have never met a CIO on the board of any company who believes they are there because they are the functional head of IT. But I have met many who are not on the board and believe they should be because they are the functional head of IT.
Ask yourself, what do you believe and is it helping your function?
Even well informed opinion is split on the way a company board should be constituted, and the consequent role of the CIO at board level is not as clear as you might think.
Stature and credibility
One view has the CIO and other board members leaving their functional specialisms at the door and being invited into the board discussion because of their personal stature, credibility, experience and wisdom vis-à-vis the strategic operation of the business.
On such a board, functional parochialism may therefore be considered infra dig, and board members are expected to be fully briefed and engaging on many or all aspects of the business.
In contrast, the more functionally oriented view has the CIO taking their place in a board of other functional heads, all present because of the critical importance of their function to overall business organisation.
The implications of this view are that the IT-centric views of a CIO are an essential contribution to the board discussion and need to be included in the board’s world view. Overall, functional parochialism is part of the give and take of the board’s business and members are educated on the value and potential of other functions through these energetic discussions.
This carries with it the risk of the board becoming a squabbling birds nest of competing voices, with harried parents (CEO, CFO) trying to keep them all fed.
The composition of most operating boards is an inconsistent compromise between these alternative models. Being a robust and powerful individual is important but some functions simply have to be represented (finance, operations, etc) regardless of who is in the role.
Some potentially powerful and critical strategic contributors (eg CIO) may be excluded because of the prejudice or discomfort of others (notably the CEO) who want a buffer between themselves and the functional specialists.
The implications of this are that board members are invited in principally for reasons of cultural legacy (always done it this way), community (one of us), regulation (has to be present), and occasionally talent (a good egg despite being CIO).
Getting a CIO into this board is a matter of careful campaigning around the personal strengths of the individual CIO, taking full account of corporate culture and the perceived strategic contribution of IT in the sector.
The CIO must improve this board’s capacity to survive and thrive, and figuring out how to enrol others in this belief is the most useful, perhaps the only, route to goal.
Brinley Platts is managing director of CIO Development
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This was first published in August 2006