Board Membership Do's And Don'ts For IT Leaders

You don't need to look further than RIM's board of directors to recognize the risk of joining a corporate board. But there are plenty of upsides, too.
These days, IT touches every department in a company, from human resources to product development. No wonder then that more and more corporate boards of directors are considering the value a CIO can deliver as a card-holding member. After all, a seasoned IT professional can provide crucial insights into technology projects and how they might impact a company's revenue and workforce.

So, too, can IT professionals benefit from serving on a board of directors. A carefully chosen membership can add instant credibility to a curriculum vitae, as well as grant veteran IT leaders the chance to give back to the corporate community.

There are, however, risks to joining a board. Research in Motion's board members, for example, have come under heat in recent months as the Canadian technology giant struggles to appease disappointed shareholders. "[RIM's board of directors is] getting dragged through the mud pretty seriously," said Barry Jinks, CEO of Colligo Networks, a Vancouver, British Columbia-based records management specialist focused on SharePoint solutions. "There's a reputational risk and a real financial risk [to joining a board]."

Fortunately, Jinks said, there are steps IT professionals can take to ensure their participation on a board of directors is a positive experience. Jinks would know. In addition to participating on the boards of directors of several successful technology companies, he is also a member on the board of directors of the British Columbia Technology Industries Associations and the board of advisors of the University of British Columbia electrical engineering department.

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As boards abandon yesteryear's "country-club mentality" for an environment that's both risky and rewarding, Jinks offers these tips for aspiring members.

1. Find the right fit. "Everybody brings their own unique perspective to a board," said Jinks. IT professionals are no exception. "IT professionals vary in terms of their technical capabilities and what they bring to the table," he added. That's all the more reason for an IT leader to carefully consider what a board hopes to reap from his or her input. Are members looking for a CIO with "broad technology knowledge," asked Jinks, or someone with niche skills in programming or ERP, for example. Always answer these questions first.

2. Don't wait for an invitation. Rather than wait around to be asked, Jinks said that membership on a board of directors is something a CIO "can actively pursue." How? For starters, Jinks said, "More and more boards are using IT recruiters to bring board members on." "Personal relationships with CEOs" are another route to consider, said Jinks. "And networking is also a good thing. Get out there--attend local events, join technology associations, and get to know people who are interested in the skills you can bring," said Jinks.

3. Reap what you sow. Being on a board isn't just about contributing ideas and technology insights. Membership also grants a unique "outside perspective" that lets IT professionals "reflect on how they're operating and how to recognize ways that they can improve." For example, helping a company perform a post mortem on a failed ERP project can also enable a board member to flag potential problem areas in his or own company's technology undertakings.

4. Look for conflicts. While there's something to be said for lending a professional hand, IT professionals need to be careful that their generosity doesn't come at a cost to their own careers. For instance, "I wouldn't serve on a board that's in the same industry that I'm in," said Jinks. "That's very dangerous. IT professionals should avoid that kind of conflict."