Strategy Clinic: Have I failed if I am not a board member?

I keep reading about how IT directors should be seeking a place on the board. I am not unambitious and I value having influence,...

I keep reading about how IT directors should be seeking a place on the board. I am not unambitious and I value having influence, but in career terms I feel I have reached a plateau I am happy with. If I chose not to climb any higher up the corporate ladder, does this mean my only way is down?

Decide whether your firm needs IT on the board

Many people have a strongly-held view that if you do not go forwards at work, you will only go backwards.

There is no safe way of standing still in today's environment. Conversely, it is likely that there is plenty of scope for you to develop your skills, experience and contribution without being on the board.

Much depends on the board director. If their view is the same as yours, there will not be a problem. In fact, there is a risk of alienation and disappointment if you push for a position the company does not believe in.

Try to decide whether the company needs an IT director on the board. Is technology or its application critical enough to merit it?

Alternatively, there may be a board position for a role that encompasses IT and a related function such as business processes or customer services. If you are not going to go for this role, someone else may justify the position and you will have the worst of both worlds. This seems like a good time to seek a mentor for these discussions.

Sharm Manwani, Henley Management College

Is fear holding you back from joining the board?

If you are happy, you do not need to do something because you feel you should. However, you do need to understand your reasons for not climbing the career ladder.

For instance, is it through fear of failure once you have attained your position? Not wanting the pressure? Or a belief that the pressure and demands are not matched by the rewards and benefits?

Often a successful combination that creates a winning team is a flamboyant visionary board member with a strong pragmatic person working behind the scenes ensuring reliable delivery. Visionaries and strategists are often fine at charming and winning over customers and backers, but often rely on someone else. It may be that you feel you are more about the day-to-day operations than the strategic blue-sky days?

There is nothing wrong if you are genuinely happy with your role, and if you are successful at what you do, you will be OK. Just be careful to ensure you understand why you feel that you have reached this plateau and why you have chosen not to climb the corporate ladder.

Roger Rawlinson, NCC Group

Try using your position and influence to help others

You are lucky to be happy in your role and not chasing after a position only a few will reach.

Celebrate who you are and what you have and use your unique blend of talents and skills to help others around you develop and grow.
Use the influence you have to develop your organisation's competencies in relation to IT and to ensure investments in IT are successful.

Do not think you have given up or are on your way down. You could focus your energies in a different direction, such as learning or developing a new set of personal skills, but this does not mean your role is not important.

Robina Chatham, visiting fellow at Cranfield School fo Management

Maintain your role or risk being overtaken

Of course you are not on your way down, but is there a risk you may be sidelined or overtaken.

This is not so much a matter of personal ambition as one of creating and maintaining a vital two-way communication channel between the board and the IT function to understand the direction and requirements of the organisation you work for, and translating these into products and processes to attain the business' ambition.

Both you and your organisation may feel this works very well right now, but if satisfaction levels fall or a business or IT misunderstanding or even crisis occurs, you may need to reassess the requirements of your role and your own approach to it.

Ollie Ross, head of research, The Corporate IT Forum

Job satisfaction is more important than the board

There is a lot of talk about IT directors being on the board, but not many are in the full sense. Many who say they are "on the board" often mean the executive committee.

You are fortunate if you have achieved a position you find satisfying, and one that presumably your employers are also happy with, as you do not indicate you feel under threat in any way.

The reasons for limited survival, apart from simply not being up to the job include:

  • Your operation being outsourced and someone of your status/experience not being considered to be not needed. This view is proving to be short-sighted, as companies are beginning to realise what skills they need to retain in-house to manage the outsourcer properly.
  • Not being tuned to the politics of the company. Who are the decision influencers? Who are not on-side, even if they appear to be? What is the perception of IT in the company?
  • You company is acquired or acquires another company. Regrettably, loyal and good service are not enough to guarantee your position.
  • A new chief executive with a different raft of ideas or some of their old team.

Reasons for extended tenure include:

  • Simply doing a good job, meeting the needs of the business and contributing to the efficient and effective development of the company.
  • The culture of the company is not to take short-term views of the business and its employees.
  • Individual inadequacy is covered by the overall competency of the team.

I get the feeling your extended tenure will be for the first reason above and, providing none of the threats occur, long may you continue to be one of that happy band of people who find job satisfaction in what they are doing, and are not looking for something bigger and better.

Robin Laidlaw,  Computer Weekly 500 Club

Move away from IT and work in partnership

There is usually plenty of scope to grow your personal contribution to the success of the company from your position as chief information officer or IT director without necessarily being on the board.

Take a look at how well the company exploits IT to create value for its shareholders and customers.

There are often opportunities to work in closer partnership with your executive colleagues to improve the way they invest in and exploit IT as part of achieving their business plans.

Provided you are prepared to share accountability for success and failure, this will involve you more deeply in planning and executing their strategies, and increase your value and influence across the company.

By the way, if you were then offered a seat on the board, would you take it?

Chris Potts, Dominic Barrow

Work to achieve recognition for IT within the company

It would be great to see more IT representation at board level, but you should recognise that this will not happen overnight.

It will take many people, working across many organisations to achieve this change. If you have found a role in which you feel fulfilled, and in which your contribution is valued, that is a great result. Happy people doing a job they enjoy and doing it well are an asset to any organisation.

Try not to view your career as either going up or down. Careers undergo many changes and, within IT in particular, change is one of the few constants in today's business and technology world. Dealing with changes in IT will be personally stimulating and provide many learning experiences to help personal growth.

One of the reasons for IT representation is the need for boards to understand the influence IT has on the business world, whether for better, in terms of enabling technologies, or worse, eg viruses. IT is so embedded in businesses it can not be treated as a separate item.

However, board-level IT representation is not the only answer. Develop and maintain your expertise and that of your teams to provide outstanding value.

Keep abreast of issues and avoid the board being unduly influenced by hype. Seize opportunities to educate and interact with senior business executives and they will value your contribution, whether you are on the board or not.

Steven Bell, partner, Ernst & Young

E-mail your Strategy Clinic questions, or your own solution to this question, to computer.weekly@rbi.co.uk

The experts

Computer Weekly has put together a panel of experts. You can draw on their specialist knowledge to solve a problem. E-mail your questions (or your own solution to this question) to computer.weekly@rbi.co.uk

NCC Group www.nccglobal.com

Ernst & Young www.ey.com

Cranfield School of Management www.cranfield.ac.uk/som

Computer Weekly 500 Club www.cw500.co.uk

Henley Management College www.henleymc.ac.uk

British Computer Society www.bcs.org.uk/elite

Impact www.impact-sharing.com

The Corporate IT Forum www.tif.co.uk

Dominic Barrow www.dominicbarrow.com

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