Marc Dowd
Marc Dowd (Principal, European Client Advisory)

For a CIO there are many ways to influence the senior leadership and the regular board report is an important one. However, it’s not always used effectively, so in this article, I’d like to explore what you can do to ensure you’re getting the right messages across. As an advisor at IDC I have worked with IT leaders in many different types of organisation, and one size doesn’t fit all, but here are some key principles to bear in mind.

Context is key – dump the padding

Sometimes you’re a member of the board you are presenting to, sometimes you are not, in which case it’s just a part of their information pack, and you’ll be invited to talk when there’s something specific they want to know about. In either case, you want to keep the information relevant and concise. What is important to you isn’t necessarily important to the board. I’ve seen far too many board reports that have the number of support calls taken in the previous month or the amount of storage used by the organisation. This information is very rarely of interest unless it’s being used to make a bigger point. Think about who your audience is on the board, what they are concerned about in the running of their departments, and what they want to achieve or be seen to address in the wider business. Your board report should draw attention to things that need decisions and remove the temptation to leave these things to IT to decide, which can be easy but rarely leads to the best outcomes.

A trend is your friend

If you are asked for metrics, or you feel that there are specific numbers that tell an important story about your effectiveness as an IT team, then put them in a nice, clear, easy to read visualisation and include trends. Your audience won’t remember what the numbers were last time and a trend (towards an investment decision for example) can be called out so that the decisions needed in future are less of a surprise. Your reputation for managing long-term issues will benefit, which is often an area that IT leaders forget to manage – too often we are the heroes of the hour when solving short term problems.

It’s also a good idea to restate your purpose and goals at the start of any board report, with the key strategic objectives of the business linked to the items you mention in the body of the document. It isn’t entirely unusual for the board to drift from a strategy during the year and a gentle reminder of the course you have set for the technology function as a result of that strategy is never a bad idea. If the direction has changed, you want to know sooner rather than later.

Celebrate the wins, however small

Board meetings can be hard going, they come around very quickly and depending on the type and size of business not much has necessarily changed from one month to the next. So take the opportunity to celebrate successes (even small ones) and call out the names of people who have contributed to those wins. This helps your audience understand that your team isn’t just a department but a collection of talented, committed people – don’t forget your external suppliers too. This might seem a small point, but it can make all the difference when you’re hoping to influence the board in future. They are more likely to trust a team that they have been introduced to through their achievements.

Following on from successes, we also need to talk about the things the board has to look forward to. This is about managing expectations about your programmes of change, the enablers you are delivering and the value your team provides. Of course, we also need to be honest about the setbacks that have been encountered and any blockers that the board might be able to remove, be they financial or political. If this is highlighted in a board meeting, it’s surprising how often the collective will can be found to clear the path for an important change.

Tackle the bad news too

Don’t run away from bad news. Rare is the CIO who can honestly say that everything has worked perfectly in the previous month. You might have downtime on a system, failure by a supplier, sickness on the helpdesk leading to increased call times, or a Windows update that took everyone by surprise. Address the things that people might be complaining about, get onto the front foot and provide reassurance that you know what is going on in your domain and that you have a plan to improve in those areas.

Finally, we shouldn’t forget risk. It is often the job of a CIO to articulate the many risks regarding information security, and this isn’t a bad thing as long as you do this in the right way. The threats to our businesses from dangers such as ransomware, reputational and financial impact through data loss, or impacts to trading from unscheduled downtime caused by malice or negligence seem to grow every day. We have an important role in educating the board in these matters, without becoming self-appointed arbiters of what is acceptable. The board takes decisions with input from all sides, and the CIO is just one of those voices. Calling out risk has to be done in a measured way, so it is really important to get feedback on this aspect from your audience by scheduling conversations with board members for reflections on your report and then adjust your approach accordingly.

Of course, depending on the type of business, the regulation around your industry, your competitive landscape and the extent to which technology drives your growth, the importance of these things will be different. The mark of a successful IT leader is that they adjust to their surroundings and take these variables into account, and that is your challenge.

In summary

  1. Be realistic about what people are going to take the time to read. Cut out anything that might lead to the response “… so what?”
  2. Put any metrics in a clear, easy to read dashboard with trend lines
  3. Take the opportunity to celebrate successes and call out individuals by name who have contributed.
  4. Look forward as well as back, talk about what the board has to look forward to, and what they can do to ensure this comes to pass.
  5. Address bad news – if your audience is hearing complaints from their own teams you won’t be taken seriously if you don’t acknowledge them. Get on the front foot and show you’re on top of your brief.
  6. Make risk a regular component of your communication, but don’t allow it to become noise. Take care to get feedback on the board’s understanding of risk in your area.
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