CIOs who serve on boards sharpen their business skills

Kim S. Nash

Push Your Company Ahead
Nothing impresses a CEO more than seeing one of his leaders improve the company's competitive position. With board experience, a CIO can find many savvy ways to do that, says Chris Hjelm, CIO of the $98.4 billion Kroger grocery chain. Hjelm was a director at RehabCare, a rehabilitation services company, from 2007 until 2011, when Kindred Healthcare bought it. He then joined Kindred's board.

Hjelm learned "an enormous amount" about how the healthcare industry works through his two board stints, he says, which helps Kroger in various ways. For example, he shares information about healthcare and regulatory trends when Kroger's senior executives discuss what insurance and wellness programs to offer the supermarket's 375,000 employees. Also, Kroger, which runs more than 2,000 pharmacies inside its 2,640 supermarkets, as well as some walk-in clinics, may come up with ways to piggyback on the trend toward treating chronic-but-controllable conditions at the patient's home, Hjelm says.

The conversations get him thinking about new lines of revenue, he says. He won't say exactly what, and nothing is imminent. But as a board member, "I sit in a different world and experience that world and it turns a lightbulb on," he says. "There may be a connection to a strategy in a business that could grow, a service we don't provide today."

Sitting on boards in industries serving your customer base provides insight into your customers' needs, says Virginia Gambale, managing partner at Azimuth Partners, which advises companies on tech-enabled innovation and growth strategies. She's also a board leadership fellow at the National Association for Corporate Directors (NACD), teaching master classes to directors.

Getting close to customers through a board can also reveal how they handle market pressures, which might, in turn, give you ideas for products or services that your competitors don't provide, Gambale says. "You can learn how to disintermediate."

During Repko's 2011-2013 stint on the board of BioClinica, a clinical trials services company, he gained market intelligence about the drug business that helped him as then-CIO of Covance, which is also in the clinical trials business.

Although they didn't compete head-on all the time, both Covance and BioClinica kept tabs on the activities of pharmaceutical companies. He was able to bring some information discussed at BioClinica board meetings back to Covance, such as general talk about what a drugmaker like AstraZeneca was looking for in upcoming clinical trials, he says. "To the extent it was not material and it was public information, I could use that as CIO of Covance. It was very helpful."

Directors can carefully take ideas from a board to their employers or to another board, Gambale says, so long as the concepts are public information. The key is to uphold confidentiality agreements signed as a director.

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