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Three Communication Tips for CIO Management of Board Relationships

Aug 31, 2020 2:30:00 PM

by Charles Bystock

Every executive in the c-suite needs to manage up. For a chief information officer (CIO), that means managing board relationships. Winning over a board of directors is rarely easy; in fact, it’s probably grown more challenging as the COVID-19 epidemic strain is felt at all levels.

Technology remains at the forefront of corporate success, which has given CIOs a firm place at the strategic and decision-making table. But that’s also placed CIOs on the front lines of board interactions that can be fractious, political, and even hair-raising. Here are three key communication tips to manage these interactions.

Understand your audience

What matters to the individuals serving on your board? If you don’t know, you’re not prepared.

To put it another way, would you rather navigate a minefield by guessing where to place your next step — or would having a map feel a little less nerve-wracking?

The first rule of any speechmaker is to understand the audience. Knowing the needs, wants, and priorities of individual board members is critical to a successful relationship with the entire group. Researching the board members’ background and historical track record in business is the bare minimum you’ll need to be successful. But from an IT perspective, understanding where the individual board member stands on the adoption of new tools and the accompanying cash outlays, will help you predict the mood in the room. Is the board member an early adopter or reluctant to change? What is their mood in the face of overall business growth or decline?

It’s important to note that Harvard research shows that many board participants are not technology savvy. It’s an important point for CIOs who run the risk of losing the room if they stray too far down a schematic. Among S&P 500 companies, the average age of the board chair is 63, while 44% of boards have a mandatory retirement age of 75 or older. This means the likelihood of taking your board into the weeds with tech jargon is higher than it probably should be in 2020.

That said, preparing for the individual encounter is just step one. Like any group interaction, some politics are likely to rise up during the board encounter. If you’re naïve to the political undertones, you’ll be more likely to have your foot blown off. 

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Understand the politics

There are always politics at work in any group interaction, but especially at the board level. These powerful figures at the helm of an organization have the authority to make big changes. Understanding the group dynamic between these leaders along with their interactions with the chief executive officer (CEO) will help inform your efforts to work smoothly and communicate effectively with the entire group. Other c-suite executives can shed light on the current political mood of the board and how members typically vote. What factions have emerged over time and what power plays have occurred or are occurring currently?

To achieve buy-in on your presentation, and the underlying goal, it’s important to brand yourself as a knowledgeable strategic partner with the interests of the business at the forefront of your initiatives. Be prepared to share your vision for how technology can transform the business by driving revenue to the bottom line. Your audience will be less enthused with jargon about how a data warehouse can eliminate your data lake. Instead, address how that data warehouse will produce actionable analytics that will help capture more customers.

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Understand the market

Walking into a board room without a keen sense of market pressures affecting your business is risky. Staying on top of economic, technology, and consumer trends will help a CIO remain one step ahead of the board.

Be prepared to encounter questions about risk if you’re recommending a technology implementation. Stay current on the most recent emerging trends in the marketplace and be overprepared to address these issues. CIO says, “For every lead technology or business story in The Wall Street Journal or The New York Times, you’d better know about it and have an answer for what it means for your business.”

Harvard research suggests that CIOs can address even the most fractioned boards by engaging them in three ways:

  •  Link technology innovation to improved corporate financial performance.
  • Tie strategic growth and innovation to improved customer experience and stronger sales.
  • Have a plan for risk that covers regulatory compliance, competitor interference, and cybersecurity threats.

Deloitte reminds CIOs that, “Even as technology cements its status as a vital linchpin of business strategy and operations, many boards do not have the appropriate technology knowledge to oversee critical technology-driven initiatives.” This almost certainly requires that a CIO facing a board presentation must discuss their digital transformation efforts in a way that the audience will understand; through the risk and benefit to the organizational bottom line. This will ensure you don’t lose your audience and help you win both the favor and votes necessary to achieve your agenda.

The Windsor Group Sourcing Advisory has worked with countless CIOs to help them safely navigate any minefields as they share recommendations for the future of the enterprise. Set up a complimentary consultation with our team today to stay prepared for the future.

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