Can You Spot the CIO in the Boardroom?

CIOs have a responsibility to look and act as though they belong in the C-suite, but they often fall way short of achieving this.

I have the good fortune to deliver keynote presentations at many major industry conferences each year. As part of my presentation I often play a game with the audience that I call “Can you spot the CIO in the boardroom?”

The game goes like this: Imagine a scenario where there’s a pane of one-way glass outside your boardroom (think of an episode of Law & Order) which allows me to see in but doesn’t permit the board members to see out. What would I see regarding the CIO in the typical boardroom?

The first thing I might spy is someone who literally doesn’t look like he or she belongs. While the majority of the players look like they fell off the cover of GQ or Cosmo, many CIOs look like they’ve just rolled out of the bargain basement at off-price retailer Filene’s. Step one is looking the part in order to be taken seriously.

The second reason the CIO may stand out is that while the rest of the board members have taken the opportunity to develop relationships with each other and are chatting prior to a meeting, the CIO is likely sitting by herself in the corner checking her email on her iPhone!

But by far the most obvious reason I could probably pick out the CIO in the boardroom is the language he is speaking. While all other board members are speaking the language of business and finance, the CIO is often speaking what I lovingly call “geek speak.” They deliver their thoughts in three letter acronyms. Instead of discussing ROI and EDITA, they’re talking about VPNs and clouds (and not cumulous or cirrus either). Then they get frustrated when the rest of the group “doesn’t get it.”

I often tell my clients that being in the boardroom is like being in a foreign country. Here’s my analogy. If you were given an international assignment in France, would your expectation be that the population of France has learned to speak English so they can chat with you? No, more likely it would probably be a good idea to learn some French so you can get by in their country. Well, when the CIO enters the boardroom, we are now in “their country.” Therefore it is incumbent upon us to learn to speak their language, the language of business. I’ve seen countless CIOs get frustrated that their boards don’t understand technology. I see my role as CIO as being responsible for educating my board on technology and doing so in terms that lay people can understand.

Some people say communication is a 50-50 proposition. I vehemently disagree! If I am trying to deliver a message and am unsuccessful, the onus is 100 percent on me to find a way to get my message understood and accepted.

What would I see if I peeked into your boardroom? What language are you speaking? What have you done to develop relationships with the members of your board? Do they see you as part of their team or as some outsider who doesn’t speak their language? What do you think about all of this?

Larry Bonfante is a practicing CIO and founder of CIO Bench Coach, LLC, an executive coaching practice for IT executives. He is also the author of Lessons in IT Transformation, published by John Wiley & Sons. He can be reached at Larry@CIOBenchCoach.com.

This article was originally published on 01-22-2015
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