CIO role: How to prepare for your first board-facing CIO job

The first time you present to your board of directors can be nerve-wracking. A CIO who's been there shares tips on the CIO's role with the board
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Your first board-facing CIO role is monumental in your career. And while presenting to your board of directors can be a little nerve-rattling at first, over time hopefully you’ll come to look forward to your interactions and input from the board. After all, your board members have incredible business experience. Looking back on my first board-facing CIO role, I’m heartened by how much I learned from my board interactions. 

What is the CIO's role with the board? 7 tips

When I joined U.S. Silica five years ago, I was brought in to help mature the IT organization in preparation for a rapid growth phase. They needed a leader to bring in some new talent, modernize our technologies, and automate processes so we could prepare for the impending growth phase. The new prominence IT was going to play in growing the business meant that I would be getting to know the board pretty well. 

[ How do the CIO role and chief transformation officer role differ? Read also Meet the Chief Transformation Officer: 8 key tasks for this new role]

I collected several key lessons and tips that may help other CIOs who are preparing for their first board interactions. 

1. Do your homework

To set your self up for success, make sure you do your research on who the board members are. This goes beyond Googling their bios. You need to understand their backgrounds, what’s important to them, and their interests. Ideally, you’ll have a trusted peer in your organization who can share this with you.

You need to understand their backgrounds, what’s important to them, and their interests.

For me, it was our CFO and my boss at the time. Together, they previewed my slide decks and shared pointers on what would resonate with the board and helped me prioritize the information that would be top of mind for the board. 

2. Don't play the blame game

Building confidence and credibility with your board begins the first time you meet them. As a new person coming into the organization, you’re going to identify challenges and perhaps even serious risks that must be tackled immediately. Don’t default to laying blame on the previous leadership. Certainly discuss gaps openly, but instead of criticizing those who came before you, focus the discussion on the opportunities.

3. Build credibility by getting your house in order 

Depending on the organization you’re leading, you may be taking on exciting revenue-generating, customer-facing projects from the get-go. More likely though, you’re going to have to clean up some legacy technology. For me, it was upgrading our outdated and unsupported ERP system. This project had the Audit Committee’s attention, and the only way I was going to be able to build credibility and confidence in their eyes was to successfully deliver that project.

Once that happened, our IT organization scored a lot of points with the board, enabling us to focus on the exciting technology projects that contributed to company growth and improved the customer experience. Regardless of what kind of IT organization you’re inheriting, your relationship with the board will be shaped by what you achieve in your early days in the role. 

While it may be tempting to woo the board with shiny objects, don’t overlook the importance of getting your IT house in order.

While it may be tempting to woo the board with shiny objects, don’t overlook the importance of getting your IT house in order. If you have any security gaps or big risks in your ERP system and you’re not addressing those fundamentals, the board’s not going to want to talk to you about the exciting initiatives where IT can really be a game-changer.

4. Tap the power of benchmarking

 Of course, you’re going to be sharing your vision for how IT can help move the needle for the business. Benchmarking is a great tool for winning board support for initiatives in your IT strategy. If your message to the board is around funding, headcount and organizational size, or strategic initiatives, be sure to do some benchmarking showing what organizations in a similar industry are doing. It’s very powerful when you can show where you rank relative to other benchmarks. Independent and credible data can definitely help strengthen any case you’re trying to build. 

5. Be prepared to address industry trends

Hopefully as a CIO, you’re keeping up with news from an IT perspective. Certainly before your board meetings you want to be aware of any headline-making cybersecurity breaches and technology trends. Make sure you go into board discussions prepared to address how those headlines may or may not relate to your organization. You never know what news will be top of mind for board members. Impress them by showing you’re on top of it. 

6. Plan to discuss risk and cybersecurity

Given the growing risk and threat landscape facing IT organizations, it’s important that you can explain at the drop of a hat what you’re doing to ensure your company’s assets are secure. If there are risks, avoid “the sky is falling” messaging. If there is bad news, make sure the bad news is delivered in a way that focuses on what you’re doing to address it. You want to relay confidence that you’re on top of it. If you don’t, you may find yourself in a position where the board is micromanaging what you do. 

7. Avoid surprises

Hopefully this is obvious, but it merits emphasizing. Don’t share anything with the board that your executive team hasn’t already heard. The last thing you want to do is surprise your CEO or CFO in front of the board. 

In the five years since my first board presentation, I’ve developed terrific relationships with a great group of leaders. The board has been consistently supportive and regularly gave positive feedback on the IT progress achieved under my leadership. Hopefully these tips, along with the right mindset and attitude, will help you have a similar experience in your first board-facing role. 

[ Are you leading digital transformation using an outdated playbook? Learn the new rules of CIO leadership in this Harvard Business Review Analytic Services research. ]

Judith Apshago is an accomplished IT executive with extensive experience leading IT organizations through major change and partnering with business leaders to drive process improvement and digital transformation.