Career path: joining the board

IT staff are often promoted because they are the most technically-competent people available, but when they reach board level, they can struggle.

IT staff are often promoted because they are the most technically-competent people available, but when they reach board level, they can struggle.

Ben Booth, global CTO at opinion pollsters and market researchers Ipsos, says that success at board level is about stepping outside your IT specialism. "You have to put yourself in the mindset that, while you have a responsibility to deliver on IT and if you fall down on that basic task you will be in trouble, you do have to make a broader contribution and not feel inhibited just because you wear an IT hat".

Roger Scholes, IT and finance manager at automotive supplier ZF Trading, who sits on the company's UK board, says, "You are a general manager first, and you have to take responsibility for every area and make sure the business is moving forward'.

Moreover, even if you have spent your entire career in IT, you can still be as well placed as those from other business disciplines to bring a broad understanding of the business to the board. For example, Scholes joined one of the two companies that merged in 2004 to form ZF Trading as an IT graduate, and then worked his way up on the IT side to his current board level position. Along the way, he spent several years "looking at processes in all areas, from the back office to the sales side, and implementing systems that allow staff to spend more time on activities that add value to the business".

Booth's background, by contrast, included spells with responsibility not only for managing IT services but also overseeing delivery of services to customers and data gathering. If you have not got this kind of operational experience, Jonathan Perks, managing director of leadership development at HR consultancy Penna, suggests going on secondment to get your hands dirty on the front line.

Of course, CIOs do need to pick up some general management skills along the way. Scholes took some short management courses at Ashridge and Cranfield - but has also benefited from coaching and mentoring. "The acting MD who came into lead the merger that created ZF Trading mentored many of the managers in the company, including myself," he says.

Booth confirms the boost that coaching and mentoring can provide to those aiming for the board. "At a couple of points in my career, I have found coaching to be very useful, and I have had opportunities to be mentored by those around me. I think it is important to take those opportunities when they come along, or to actively seek them out if they are not being offered," he says.

However, earning the respect of others on the board so they will listen to you on matters outside your specialism - and even actively seek out your opinion - is about more than picking up management techniques, or even the value of your interventions during board meetings.

"People get promoted for high IT skills but get fired for having low EQ - emotional intelligence. High EQ means they know themselves well, know others well, are able to manage stress, are adaptable enough to handle change, and have a good general mood: no one wants to work with a mood hoover or have Dementors drifting round the building," says Perks.

The good news, Perks says, is that all of these are learned skills and you can develop and increase your EQ.

Booth agrees. "It is about how you relate to people on a daily basis. You need to get out of your comfort zone and spend time with other board members, so you are really seen as part of the top team and not just the IT person who turns up once a month to meetings and then goes back to being buried in technology. You need to nurture that informal aspect of having regular discussions about specific issues," he says.

Scholes says that it is also vital to not become too remote a figure when you join the board. "Many good ideas come from casual conversation. If you are not approachable, you will miss out on those nuggets and lose touch with understanding what is really going on at the coal face," he says.

Perks says that this can be a particular danger for IT people who are used to "coming up with the answer" themselves when presented with a problem. Once you reach board level, he says, having all the answers yourself is less important than being able to draw the answers out of the people around you.

And those conversations need to take place in English, not technobabble, says Ian Cohen, CIO at Associated Newspapers, which publishes the Daily Mail, Mail on Sunday and Metro series, as well as many local and regional papers. "You need to understand the language people use to describe their operations and use that to talk to them. You also need to talk about how you can advance their agenda through the opportunities and capabilities IT can deliver, not about what the technology is," he says.

Selling pure infrastructure projects where there is no immediately obvious payback can be a little more difficult, but Cohen says you still need to explain the reasons in clear English. However, Booth says, "You have to recognise that there will be some periods when the business does not want to invest unless it is imperative, and use your judgement as to when to put those kinds of projects forward."

Both Scholes and Cohen also stress the importance of running a tight IT ship with robust, stable services. "You are only as good as your last major incident. If services are poor, you will get dragged into conversations about technical details," Cohen says.

He says that CIOs also need to put in place management tools - Associated Newspapers uses CA's Clarity - that provide data that allows the CIO to move beyond debating anecdotal and superficial views of system performance to having more meaningful conversations about the impact of IT on business operations, allowing them to hold discussions about how to make changes to IT operations that will deliver tangible improvements to the performance of the business.

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