CW500: The boardroom view of IT

Jim Norton, former BCS president, Nick Beighton CFO of Asos and Robin Young COO of Mitchells & Butlers offer advice to IT leaders

CIOs are winners – the Mo Farahs, Jessica Ennises and Usain Bolts of the business world. Right?

Sadly, for many company boards, CIOs are indeed successful, but hardly well-recognised in their own organisations.

At best, IT leaders are seen as people who like to say no – people who will find reasons why things cannot be done.

At worst, they are the technology equivalent of London Mayor Boris Johnson – controversial, a maverick and a bit scary.

But it need not be this way, senior IT professionals heard at Computer Weekly’s 500 Club meeting in September.

Learn the language of business

Robin Young, chief operating officer (COO) of the pub and restaurant group Mitchells & Butlers, and a former CIO, offered some tips from his own experience.


  • Jim Norton, former BCS president and chartered director (click here to download his presentation)
  • Nick Beighton, finance director, Asos (click here to download his presentation)
  • Robin Young, COO and former CIO, Mitchells & Butlers (click here to download his presentation)

He was joined by Jim Norton, former BCS president and chartered director, and Nick Beighton, finance director of online fashion retailer Asos.

Young recounted one of his most important lessons – he was working for a pharmaceuticals company in the run-up to the year 2000 and the CIO was presenting his plans for the Millennium bug to the board.

“We watched the CEO nod and smile and – it appeared through the IT lens – it was all going swimmingly,” he said.

Image goes hereWatch a video interview 
with Robin Young

"But when the poor chap came in to take his accolades for the great work he had done, he received the biggest kicking I had ever seen," said Young.

“The chief executive believed his presentation was ‘emperor's trousers’, rubbish, and that he had been conned. The gap was very simple. It was just communication.”

The incident brought home to Young just how important it is for the CIO to learn to speak the same language as the board.

Even the most simple IT architecture diagram can be too much for the boardroom, he told the meeting.

“You might as well be talking Greek. They don’t have any idea what you are talking about. Use very plain English – no tins, no plug and play, no servers, no clouds – and speak in business language," he said.

But whatever you do, don’t be patronising, said Jim Norton.

“It's crucial to find a way to make your colleagues IT literate, without having to make them admit that they are not and embarrassing them,” he said.

The five faces of the CIO

Translator – CIOs should not expect boards to be IT literate or interested in becoming IT literate. The CIO's role is to translate technology into business language.

Transformer – The CIO needs a grassroots understanding of the business and an ability to use IT to transform the business, rather than simply doing what the business already does more efficiently.

Gatekeeper – The CIO needs to say no to IT projects when the business is not ready to make the necessary changes required to benefit from them.

Sheriff – The CIO needs to take a lead in explaining to employers why IT is important, ie, taking the business and customers with them.

Accountant – The CIO needs to consider costs and act as a brake on the latest technology hype.

The CIO as a gatekeeper

Board directors that don't understand IT are one thing, but board members who think they understand IT better than the CIO are another.

Norton said he was once confronted by a finance director with an idea for a new IT project.

“The finance officer came to me and said 'this company needs one version of the truth'. People in the industry will recognise which particular company’s advertising slogan that was,” said Norton. “He said 'I would like this amount of money please', and as finance director he expected to get it.”

Norton asked him a series of questions: Where is your budget for training the people? Where is your budget for how we are going to build this into the way the company operates? How are we going to change behaviours?

“He looked at me and said 'let me come back when I have thought about this a bit more',”

Immerse yourself in the business

The argument over the IT/business divide is an old one. But Norton said that it really is important for CIOs to become immersed in the business.

The CIO needs to understand the business if he is to help transform it, and he needs to understand it as well, if not better, than his fellow board directors, he said. 

“That needs a real link to the business at a grass roots level – an understanding of the processes that are critical to the business and an understanding of what we can do to make them significantly better."

It is also important for CIOs to take the time to explain to business staff why IT projects matter, Norton said. “I have seen so many organisations where the technology was absolutely fine, but no-one had taken the time to explain to the staff why it was necessary.

“They have not taken the customers and the company with them. They haven’t bothered to explain why IT matters.”

Should a CIO be on the board?

The answer, according to Jim Norton, former BCS president and chartered director, is that it depends on the board.

“If it is a really good board, where the board understands what is required and is prepared to work with the CIO. Then that is absolutely great, and the CIO should be on the board,” he told Computer Weekly’s 500 Club.

“If it’s a poorly performing board, the putting the CIO on the board gives the other board members an excuse to disavow all sorts of difficult things, like business change on the grounds that that is the CIO’s job.”

That is probably not a good board to want to be on, he said.

Gain business expertise

Beighton advised CIOs to invest not just themselves, but their IT teams, closely inside the business.

“Get yourselves and your teams from the back of the bus into the co-driver's seat. If one side is finance and the other is IT, by completing that triangle, you empower your CEO,” he said.

That ensures that IT is seen as critical to the business and wins the confidence of the CEO. “Actually the job is more fun, more interesting,” Beighton said.

Norton agreed. “A CIO really needs to understand the business because the board isn’t going to reach out to you; you have to reach out to the board and show them you understand the nuts and the bolts of the business as well as they do, preferably better.”

CIO versus CFO

Beighton, who has experience both of running IT and acting as a chief financial officer (CFO), said there will always be conflict between the two roles.

“The CIO says, 'oh no, the CFO is going to ask me how much it is going to cost'. The CFO says, 'I have no idea what this guy is telling me, but I know it's going to be expensive',” he said.

“Somewhere in the middle, I feel that the analytical discipline of the CIO and the CFO are really close. If you can bridge that gap with the CFO, you can find Nirvana.”

Video interviews

Use your data-driven advantage

CIOs may not realise it but they have a secret weapon in their armoury – they are the gatekeepers of the company’s data and they can make that work for them on the board.

“Getting to that data and then fuelling the boardroom decisions with information transforms the value that your team is delivering,” said Beighton.

“It transforms the way they see you, and suddenly, you are straight into the heart of the organisation. If you use that well you have a big arsenal stuck under your seat.”

Norton advises CIOs to carry out post-implementation reviews of successful projects – something that CIOs rarely do.

“It is absolutely crucial to demonstrate to the board why it was a great success and what the numbers were,” he said.

Talk business, not technology

Your CFO will really love you if you starting using the language of business change, and business benefit, rather than technology, said Beighton, 

“It really works. If that becomes part of your language, people understand what you are talking about and see that you are trying to solve their problems,” he said.

Be device agnostic, because your customers are device agnostic, he said.

“They don’t care what platform you are deploying and they don’t care what device you are favouring – they just want what your business is offering and they will get it any way that they can,” he said.

Daring to fail

He urged CIOs to have the courage to take some risks with the business. Give projects a go – it doesn’t have to be perfect, as long as it's good enough for now, he said.

“That will fill some of your board with worry, but some of them might say 'fantastic, let's give it a go'. Control how much you are going to risk, control how much it will cost, but be brave enough to give it a go.”

Focus on the business benefits

If a CIO is going to work well with a CFO, controlling costs is obviously important. But more important, says Beighton, is delivering the business benefits.

“This will absolutely get you into bed with the CFO and he will carry you down the street cheering,” he told the meeting.

“Normally the benefits realisation is made up of many factors, bigger than the cost. By getting the benefits realisation anchored to what you are doing and why you are doing it – and talking confidently about it in the boardroom – you get back into the [heart of] the business again.”

CIOs should have the confidence to say “if you are not ready for the change that I am ready to deliver, then I will get on with another project where they are ready to do it”, he said.

Take an honest approach to IT projects

For a CIO, honesty about timescales and budgets is essential, the CW500 Club meeting heard.

“If you try to complete a project without the budget and to a ludicrous timescale, you have no credibility,” Norton told the group.

Openness is particularly important if a project is running into difficulties. Covering something up, invariably makes things worse. “You might be pleasantly surprised that someone on the board can help you out,” said Beighton.

Communicate clearly with the board 

“There has to be really good communication. By that, I mean not just broadcasting, but actually two-way communication.”

The IT element accounts for only 20% of the budget. Changing business processes and training staff takes up the other 80%, but boards often don’t appreciate that.

Jim Norton  Download Jim Norton’s presentation The boardroom view of ITDownload Jim Norton's 
presentation, The 
boardroom view of IT

“The crucial thing is to start with a realistic view of what you can achieve, and the resources you need to do it,” Norton said.

And don’t be shy about taking credit when projects are successful.

“We are our own worst enemies in not actually showing what we can do and – when it's done properly – not taking credit for it,” said Norton.

Boardroom image: Jupiterimages/Pixland/Thinkstock


Read more on IT management skills