CIOs who serve on boards sharpen their business skills

Kim S. Nash

Once a project, product, service or plan is public, of course, anyone can discuss it. "You can't give away the secret sauce about how it gets done, but you can talk about it," she says. But even when information is private, she says, you can make use of it by asking astute questions of your own team "in a way that opens up their thought processes."

For example, she might ask, "If we were to leapfrog so-and-so, what would leapfrogging look like?" That style of brainstorming is especially effective for IT groups, says Gambale, former CIO at Bankers Trust and Merrill Lynch.

Gambale recalls that a few years ago JetBlue, where she is a director, was considering how to provide connectivity to employees and customers. Because she had previously served on a board in the telecom industry, she had heard of a new technology: broadband connectivity via satellite. Without naming names, she brought that idea (which was public information) back to JetBlue. "You can handle it professionally, in keeping with corporate governance guidelines, and it's bilaterally beneficial," she says.

JetBlue last year launched its own satellite for in-flight Wi-Fi, claiming its system is eight times faster than those of other commercial airlines. "Had I not had that experience in the telecom space, I would not have been able to help guide my [JetBlue] team," she says. "This changed everything."

Steal Good Ideas
Directors — as purveyors of wisdom who have promised to act in the best interests of shareholders—are expected to talk honestly about what they've seen and done in their business lives.

Say management is contemplating investing heavily in services from one IT vendor or another. Or maybe the company is figuring out how to respond to a crisis, such as a major data breach. The 10 or 12 executives in the boardroom may have their own war stories and will discuss strategy and tactics, says Peter Gleason, CFO and managing director of NACD. And that's warts and all, he says. "You won't see sharing like that at a conference or in social circles. But in a boardroom, you will."

Part of what Steve Phillips, CIO of $25.5 billion technology distributor Avnet, finds useful about board discussions is the 50,000-foot view of topics such as mobility and risk management.

Phillips is chairman of the board of Wick Communications, a $50 million community news company that is managing the shift from print to online products. Seeing how vital mobile systems are to Wick spurred Phillips to step up Avnet's efforts to provide mobile systems and mobile-enabled content to its business customers. "It'd been on my mind for some time, but what I learned at Wick helped sharpen it," he says.

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