Feature Story

Bringing Digital into the Boardroom

What’s the most underrepresented skill in the modern boardroom? The ability to understand technology.

Organizations of all sizes are looking to add technical acumen—particularly that of a chief information officer (CIO)—to their boards of directors.

But do CIOs really want the responsibilities that come with a board position? If so, how should they pursue board seats?

Those were some of the questions raised at CIOs as Digital Directors, a half-day symposium held in St. Paul, Minnesota, on October 4, 2016.

Speakers at the event, hosted by Aeritae Consulting Group, included analysts, recruiters, and executives who already serve on boards.

The Appetite for Digital Expertise

Event moderator Holly Morris, former CIO of Thrivent Financial and SVP of Technologies at American Express, has served on three organizational boards. She pointed to a number of studies confirming an increasing demand for “digital directors,” a term Morris attributed to the recruiting firm Spencer Stuart.

A digital director uses technical and business knowledge to guide a company through transformations. Especially in today’s highly competitive and customer-focused digital world.

According to a survey by the National Association of Corporate Directors, 45 percent of directors think that being tech savvy is the most underrepresented skill in the modern boardroom.

Morris cited an estimate from Korn Ferry. The executive search firm states that leading companies in the United Kingdom currently have about 100 seats available for digital directors.

Using an online polling tool, Morris asked symposium attendees, “Where would you like your board to spend more time?” A vast majority of respondents selected “technology and cybersecurity.”

She then revealed results of a KPMG survey calling out “strategy and strategic risk” as more important to respondents than technology and cybersecurity.

Morris said the KPMG results indicate that CIOs sitting on boards must be comfortable with and competent in discussing strategy-level topics. They shouldn’t focus only on topics pertaining to technology.

Passion for the Mission

Serving on a board of directors takes work. Some boards meet in person on a quarterly basis. Others meet as often as every month. Each meeting generally requires a minimum of five hours of preparation.

“What boards really want is someone who leans in, who is active, respectful, and ready to engage,” said Michael Connly, a CIO with extensive board experience.

Nate Haines, senior recruiter at executive search firm Russell Reynolds Associates, echoed Connly. “The number one thing I’d emphasize is passion,” he said. Board directors should feel “connected to the mission of the organization.”

They should also feel comfortable with the company’s culture. “You’re going to be putting in a lot of work,” Haines said. “It is important for you to be excited about the people and feel that the meetings will be fun for you.”

And although board positions typically offer a stipend, there’s little point to being “in it for the money,” Haines said. Another panelist cracked that on a dollars-per-hour basis, the pay is better for fast-food workers.

Beyond regular hours, speakers also noted that crises of varying degrees inevitably arise, and that can create huge amounts of additional work for directors (panelists cited Wells Fargo as a painful current example).

John Pike, a senior consultant at talent acquisition advisory firm Korn Ferry Hay Group, also emphasized the description of board work as challenging but rewarding, as long as the organizational mission matches the individual’s real interests.

“The experiences that aren’t comfortable—those are the ones that are stretching you,” he said. “But you need the passion for the work to make those tough experiences worthwhile.”