How to land your first board seat: 7 steps for CIOs

How to land your first board seat: 7 steps for CIOs

For CIOs, a board of directors position represents a much-desired, little-understood career milestone. Let’s demystify how you can prepare to win one, with this checklist of expert advice

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When CIOs think strategically about their career paths, landing a seat on a board of directors often grabs the top spot on their wish list for the future. Yet few IT leaders know where to even start the process.

Board seat pursuit is unlike anything else in the orderly, understandable career framework of the CIO's known universe.

Board seat pursuit is unlike anything else in the orderly, understandable career framework of the CIO’s known universe. It requires a beginner’s mindset, a more assertive approach to networking, and a prodigious amount of patience to end up on that other side of the boardroom table.

How to win a board of directors job: 7 tips 

Clearing away some of that swirling, mysterious fog around this topic led to the launch of my CIO.com “Boardroom Bound” series last year. The candid checklist you see below is distilled from the guidance and advice of a long list of expert sources, including board directors, recruiters, researchers, CEOs of board advocacy groups, former and fulltime CIOs.

So let’s get started.

1. Look inward to examine your motives

Why do you really want a board seat? If your motive is monetary – “Big paycheck, easy part-time gig!” – you can check that fantasy at the door. Go become a consultant instead. The average salary for a U.S. board director is around $70,000 today, according to Salary.com, and the time devoted to board business is 300+ hours annually. Unless a crisis (like a global pandemic) comes along to double or triple those board meeting times.

Money aside, are you as fascinated with business strategy as you are with technology? Do you consider yourself a lifelong learner? Are you longing to expand your real-world executive education? Do you want to share your expertise with a group of accomplished business executives? If the answer is ‘yes’ to any of the above, board service still belongs on that wish list.

[ What’s next for the CIO role? Read CIO role: Everything you need to know about today’s Chief Information Officers. ]

2. Start your search on home ground

Assuming you’re still on the job full time, your first move should be a conversation with your CEO or boss. Does your company policy permit its top executives to hold outside board positions? Can you convince your boss of the benefits of you deep-diving into another company’s strategic needs? Once you have the CEO’s green light, check in with any friendly faces on your own company board. If you have a few supportive relationships there already, or are close with one of the board committees, take advantage and chat them up for advice, recommendations, or guidance.

3. Go public with your interest in board service 

Unlike the quiet, confidential search you would launch to find another executive role, pursuing a board seat is practically a public announcement.

Unlike the quiet, confidential search you would launch to find another executive role, pursuing a board seat is practically a public announcement. That’s bound to feel oddly vulnerable and downright uncomfortable for most senior executives, but getting the word out is a vital part of board pursuit. An astonishingly high percentage of available board seats (60-75 percent by most reckonings) are filled through current board member network connections. “Who do you know?” is often the first question the board chair will ask the other directors when a seat opens. So talk up your interest with friends, colleagues, mentors, former bosses (who still like you), the recruiter who got you your last job, etc.

[ Read also: 10 TED talks to sharpen your communication skills and Top soft skills for IT leaders and how to master them. ]

4. Mind the gaps in your current network

That wonderfully supportive CIO community you’ve worked so diligently to build up for years – let’s face it, networking is only fun for extroverts – is not going to be much benefit here. The only CIO friends likely to have helpful advice are the ones serving on boards now. So start with them, asking how they landed that seat. Every board member has an origin story – and most of them enjoy sharing it. Then fan out to all the non-IT senior executives in your LinkedIn network, especially those now serving on boards. Set a goal to reach out to a handful of contacts a week, just saying hello and asking how they’re doing during the pandemic. When they respond (and most will,) let them know of your new interest.

5. Renovate your LinkedIn profile

Most CIOs admit (a bit sheepishly) to being absolutely lousy at managing their own leadership brands. Their halfhearted attempts with their social media profiles bear unfortunate witness to that. But if you’re serious about up-leveling your leadership brand to attract board interest, know this: The very first place recruiters or nominating committee chairs go to check you out is your LinkedIn profile. It’s your professional executive presence in the world. If you don’t have time to mess around with it, hire a professional resume writer to help you. If DIY is more your style, get Brenda Bernstein’s excellent guide: How to Write a Killer LinkedIn Profile. No excuses.

[ Read also: LinkedIn tips: 10 ways to improve your profile and 6 LinkedIn etiquette mistakes IT leaders hate. ]

6. Get your board bio and resume ready now

Once you start your board pursuit, you never know when serendipity will strike. Your regular executive resume and bio do not have the right tone and emphasis to impress a board search committee. By contrast, board bios and resumes highlight different skills and accomplishments. As I have written about this (See “5 Key Ingredients for the ideal board resume”), they tell more of your personal leadership story, while showcasing your broader business acumen and breadth of industry expertise. Ask your favorite recruiter – or a friend who’s recently joined a board – to recommend a resume-writing service with experience in board documents.

7. Educate yourself about the world of boards

However you like to learn about a new topic, you’ll find a wealth of resources on boards. Some CIOs gear up by finding a board readiness program through a major university, business school, or professional networking group. Others sign up for board-focused advocacy groups like the Digital Directors Network (free to join for qualified tech execs). An especially engaging way to delve into boardroom issues and trends is to listen to Alexander Lowry’s weekly “Boardroom Bound” podcast (no relation to my own column, but a digital kindred spirit, for sure).

[ Get exercises and approaches that make disparate teams stronger. Read the digital transformation ebook: Transformation Takes Practice. ]

Maryfran Johnson is the host of IDG’s CIO Leadership Live video show and podcast, and author of the monthly “Boardroom Bound” column on CIO.com.

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