CIOs who serve on boards sharpen their business skills

Kim S. Nash

Relatively few CIOs sit on external corporate boards.

But those who do come back to their day jobs with personal and professional insights that boost their careers—and give their home companies a competitive edge.

Elite CIOs who serve on boards witness situations they might not otherwise see, never mind shape, which makes those execs more valuable. They assess acquisition targets, evaluate successors to the CEO or help take a company private. Discussions at board meetings can spark ideas for new products and services or provide market intelligence about competitors. Because directors sit above the management team, CIOs who serve on boards may participate in private conversations with external auditors that even the CEO is barred from. Every meeting, they're privy to candid accounts of successes and failures from fellow directors, learning what works and what doesn't in business situations as diverse as massive cost-cutting projects and crisis management.

"Being on a board is like experiencing best practices every day," says Linda Goodspeed, who sits on multiple boards and did so when she was CIO at ServiceMaster, Nissan and Lennox International.

Time on a board naturally makes a CIO more well-rounded. But it also builds skills in influencing and guiding, because directors should be wise advisers. They have to tamp down a habit of hands-on management and instead ask sharp questions and relay experiences. Tyco, Avnet and other companies use board involvement as a professional development tool. "I want to develop and give back," says Tyco CIO John Repko. "And gain."

Some companies, however, ban top execs from joining boards, concerned they will be distracted from their main job. After all, a board may meet 12 or 15 times per year, and each meeting requires preparation. It's a serious commitment.

But this type of prohibition is shortsighted, Goodspeed says. Companies with such rules limit your growth, as well as their own, she says. "I would ask myself, Do I really want to be there?" Goodspeed typically made it a condition in her CIO employment terms that she could do board work.

Still, a CIO interested in serving must make a straight-up business case to her CEO and her own board, which must approve the move, says Mahvash Yazdi, president of Feasible Management Consulting. They want to know what the company will get out of your extracurricular activity, Yazdi says. She went through the exercise when, during her long tenure as CIO of Edison International (which ended in 2012), she served as a director at Apria Healthcare Group from 2006 to 2008. "CEOs usually don't want their CIOs to serve on outside boards," she says. "You have to build a lot of credibility for a CEO to agree."

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