Tom Schwieters
Tom Schwieters (Vice President)
Marc Dowd
Marc Dowd (Principal, European Client Advisory)

IDC’s Digital Leadership Community met on September 30 to discuss “communicating with the board of directors — tips for getting to the top table in your organisation”. We had a lively discussion with contributions from many of the participating CIOs. There was a range of ideas and examples shared on how to best manage the few precious moments that we have in front of our boards. The overwhelming goal of optimising the messaging and its delivery was to position IT as a strategic part of the business and to avoid the board perception of the CIO as the laptop, iPad or (God help us) BlackBerry fix-it person.

What to Communicate

The content presented to the board should be focused on the possibilities of new technologies to improve the outcomes of the business, major technology risks to the business or the performance of the IT function. In many cases the board expects the CIO and IT to be visionaries and to provide inspiration for what technology can do to improve business outcomes. No one in the organisation understands the technical aspects of technology better than IT, and in many ways no other function has such a broad view of the processes in the business. Highlighting major cyber risks, IT security threats or post-incident reporting to the board are often key elements of the CIO’s job. Regarding IT security and technology risks in general, CIOs should make sure they position the non-negotiables and explain their criticality and potential impact on the business.

In terms of reporting on IT performance, the message should be focused on outcomes for users of technology and on top-level reassurance that all core systems are stable (if indeed they are stable). Are the users happy? Have they got the right tools? Does their technology support their effectiveness, productivity and well-being? Is IT helping to move the business forward or is it acting as a blocker? Simple satisfaction surveys, supplemented with face-to-face interactions, can measure these outcomes.

How to Communicate

This is where real artistry is needed, and the participating CIOs contributed some excellent ideas. The importance of pithiness, style of language, showing rather than telling and drama are all important elements in effective communication with the board. Barring a catastrophic cyberattack or other such calamity, the CIO has at most 15 minutes to shine in front of the board. For this reason, it’s critical to keep the message short and to the point. Time invested with key board members beforehand can help prime the topic and reduce the need for as much explanation at the board meeting itself. Also, if you received any questions from the board prior to the meeting, make sure you answer those ahead of time, to save time on the day. The words chosen also matter greatly. Avoid jargon or acronyms, if possible, and define them if they are necessary. Focus on business outcomes, not technical details. Be honest and open in your messaging and style of delivery.

One CIO emphasised the importance of showing rather than telling — demonstrating new functionality on an iPhone, for example, or switching off the meeting room lights unexpectedly from a smartphone to demonstrate cyber-vulnerability. Many people are more receptive when they see the phenomenon itself rather than simply hear about it. A bit of theatricality can help emphasise a point, whether it’s a dramatised (but factual!) rendering of the Colonial oil pipeline hacking and resulting societal fallout and impact on that company and board, or the successful digitisation efforts of a competitor or player in an adjacent industry and how that has impacted revenue/stock price. One extreme example of showing rather than telling: the CIO of a major European car manufacturer brought his entire board to Silicon Valley for a series of meetings with large and emerging tech vendors and venture capital investors to develop a sense of the creativity, urgency and importance of technological change.

Of course, our meetings with the board will be that much more effective if we have developed strong relationships with board members outside of the meetings. To that end, the CIO should make efforts to meet with each board member to get to know their personality, priorities and areas of expertise and influence. During these meetings, the CIO can share their views on the role of technology in the business and the opportunities to grow and optimise the business with the use of technology. These meetings will also enable the CIO to determine the digital maturity of the board member, and can serve as a form of personalised digital training for the board member.

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