CIOs use boards to advance careers

Experts agree: Signing onto a company board is pivotal to advancing your career. Finding a seat, however, is easier said than done.

Neal Guernsey is like a lot of CIOs: He separates the personal from the profession. So he never considered his volunteer job chairing a university parents association as anything but a good deed; a way to help out a worthwhile cause.

The veteran IT pro, now CIO at Feld Entertainment Inc., the Vienna, Va., company that produces Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus, said it wasn't until he read an article advising CIOs to join external company boards that he considered it a career-enhancing move.

Top 10 tactics for getting on a board

Experts agree: Sitting on an external company board is pivotal to advancing your career. Finding one, however, is easier said than done. Here are the top tried and true methods experts say will (eventually) get you that coveted seat at the table.

1. Network.

2. Make a name for yourself in a given area of expertise. Give lectures, be on conference panels, speak at association meetings.

3. Let people know you're in the market.

4. Contact a recruiter.

5. Offer your expertise to a vendor.

6. Work with your industry associations.

7. Consider advisory councils and nonprofits.

8. Be willing to make a commitment.

9. Do your research. Find out as much as you can about the company and its board.

10. Solicit advice from your own board of directors.

"I didn't equate what I was doing on the board with helping my career," he said. But during the several years Guernsey served on the board, he rubbed elbows with a lot of executives, the president and dean of the university, and participated in a lot of activities that he wouldn't have otherwise been part of.

Now Guernsey is giving thought to another kind of board, a corporation or nonprofit facing issues he knows about.

"I would like to be dealing with an organisation with either business or technical issues where I could use my years of expertise," he said. Or, he added, "with a firm that deals with the same markets as Feld Entertainment -- families with young children."

Having any kind of board experience is a plus, said career expert Martha Heller, managing director, IT Leadership Practice at Z Resource Group Inc., an executive search firm with offices in Westborough, Mass.

According to Heller, it all boils down to having the business acumen to be taken seriously at the board level. Joining a board will give you visibility, set you up with an entirely new circle of contacts, give you insight into the way other companies work and, most important, give you credibility.

However, finding a position on a board can be a long, labor-intensive proposition requiring persistence and a lot of networking.

You may aspire to be on a board the likes of PepsiCo, but experts say it's a bit of a reach for the midmarket CIO, who typically lacks the high-profile visibility these boards require.

"You can become the CIO of Cisco and someone will invite you [onto a board]," said Cliff Bell, CIO of Phoenix Technologies, a Milpitas, Calif.-based provider of core system software products. But not a lot of midmarket CIOs have the experience or the name recognition, he said. "You've got to do your work."

Start small, think big

While the ultimate goal is a position on a high-profile board, it's best to start small and work your way up, say the experts.

Technology startups are the perfect place to start, Heller said -- but on the advisory council, not on the board of directors.

"These companies are in immediate need of your technical expertise," she said. High-tech startups typically have advisory councils made up of CIOs. And while the advisory council doesn't carry the clout of a board, the benefits are the same.

"Once you get started, you can segue onto a board," she said.

That's Bell's plan. A few years ago, Bell and a group of other CIOs began an exhaustive journey to get themselves onto boards. Every step is getting them closer, but none have yet to grab that golden ring -- the for-profit board.

Bell and comrades started out going to vendors and speaking with their marketing departments as a way to get their names out there and let their expertise be known. But it wasn't all that they had hoped for.

"We found early on that if you're a CIO, they really look at you like a customer and think their marketing people know more," he said.

But the group persisted, all the while expanding contacts and "somewhere along the way," one of them got on the advisory council of an RSS startup. Then some of the others joined and other advisory council positions followed. Through his connections on the advisory boards, Bell is now on the boards of two nonprofits: The Professional Businesswomen of California (where he's the only man) and the Providence Foundation of San Francisco, an organisation that provides after-school care for inner-city children.

"We're getting smarter as we go," Bell said.

Customer clout

Use your influence as a customer to get in on the ground level. Like Heller said, many firms are looking for your expertise. But they also need you as a customer reference, said M. Eric Johnson, professor of operations management at the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H.

Can you avoid a conflict of interest?

Being a member of the board can advance your career, but it can also hurt it -- especially if you get caught in a compromising position.

"Every board membership has conflict-of-interest potential, and there are risks associated with that," said M. Eric Johnson, professor of operations management at the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H.

So tread lightly.

He said while people often view boards as plum positions, it's not what it used to be. The perils are much larger now. There is shareholder activism, and the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, for example, and corporate U.S. boards are being held to a higher standard.

"If I'm working for one company and on the board of another, there's going to be a conflict of interest. Weird conflicts can pop up, particularly in fundraising," Johnson said. "There are CIOs that just have decided they're not going to go down that road."

The key word is "disclosure." CIOs on boards must inform their CEO of their board involvement without exception. Johnson says he sees a number of problems being averted because all the cards are on the table.  

Johnson recommends CIOs seriously consider advisory councils first. Advisory boards don't have the fiduciary and legal repercussions of boards. As your career moves forward you get the same benefits of being on a board, and you also get the benefits of potential input into a vendor's products with the small fraction of the legal risk.

"I don't know of any advisory board that's been sued by anyone," he said.

Vendors want you to be an advocate of their product. If you can do that for them, "you've got yourself a seat on the board," Johnson said.

However, you can be a critic of a product and also land a seat on that company's board. Sometimes, it's just a matter of giving honest feedback, said Angelo Privetera, CIO of HDR Inc., an information technology company with offices in Omaha, Neb.

"We were working out some problems with a vendor and I just suggested how [they could] solve those problems," he said. Shortly after, Privetera was asked to be on the company's board of directors. Privetera now serves on several boards, two nonprofits and one for-profit.

Another tried and true method, Johnson said, is to use your industry association connections.

"Maybe you're a midmarket CIO, but you're big [within your industry]. If that industry is important to a vendor, you may be able to find your way on that board," Johnson.

And don't forget to check on postings of executive recruiters, a tactic both Johnson and Heller recommend. A number of organisations will hire executive recruiters to fill board positions, who will then post those openings on their Web sites. It doesn't have to be a perfect match for you, Heller said, but it's an opportunity for you to call and get on the recruiter's radar.

"You can say, 'I understand that you do searches. This may not be the most appropriate match, but I am interested and here are my credentials.'"

The bottom line: Network.

"Make a name for yourself in a given area of expertise by giving lectures, being on conference panels and speaking at association meetings," Heller said. "That's how people who are looking for board members will find you."

For now, Guernsey said he'll "temper his efforts to get on a board," admitting he just doesn't have the time. Although he will be on the lookout for board opportunities and proactively doing more networking, he won't aggressively pursue a seat on a board at this time.

"I would not be able to, or even want to, make this a life goal," he said.

Let us know what you think about the story; e-mail: Kate Evans-Correia, News Director

Read more on IT for small and medium-sized enterprises (SME)