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How to move from tech leader to boardroom member

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Lily Haake, Associate Director – Search and Interim, Harvey Nash and Bev White, CEO, Nash Squared, explore five ways in which tech leaders can secure a seat on the board. This article first appeared on ComputerWeekly.com.

Many professionals have an ambition to make it to the boardroom in their career. Becoming a board member is an achievement in its own right. It opens up all the excitement and fascination of being right at the heart of business strategy and performance. It brings huge responsibility, challenge and, hopefully, reward.

But for tech professionals, getting into the boardroom is not a given even as you reach senior levels. Our Digital Leadership Report, for example, shows that only around two thirds of CIOs have a seat at the boardroom table.

So, whether you’re a CIO, the holder of another tech leadership position (CTO, CDO etc), or whether you’re earlier in your tech career and are thinking about the future, how can you maximise your chances of making it?

1. Be prepared to move. In a minority of cases, it may be that you’re appointed to CIO or other senior tech position that isn’t currently a board role – and impress so much that you’re moved onto the board. More often, though, it’s a case of looking to join a different company where the CIO role is already on the board. This may well be with a smaller or less established business.

It may be a start-up or digital native business. You may be taking a chance on the business – and they may be taking a chance on you. You’ll have to prove your worth and show that you can deal with the complexities of strategic decision-making. It could be a fantastic opportunity on both sides.

2. Prove you’re a strategist, not just a technologist. Boardroom members need to be leaders and strategists, not just heads of individual departments. You need to show that you can think strategically and understand how technology plays into the business plan and ambition. Prove, through delivery, that you are more than a narrow ‘technologist’. You understand the big picture, can bring people with you on the journey, and achieve outcomes that drive a competitive advantage.

3. Be your own person. Some people seem to think the route to success is through keeping on the right side of senior stakeholders at all times, with appropriate levels of compliment-paying and flattery. But while keeping good relationships and having chemistry is obviously important, we believe it’s much more impressive to be your own person with your own views and insights.

Don’t be a sycophant. Be prepared to challenge. Back up your views with evidence and data. Focus on delivery. For discerning leaders, this is much more powerful than simply towing the line.

4. Consider outside appointments and qualifications. It is important to develop yourself through your career, to keep learning and look for experiences and opportunities that will add value. Many people do an MBA. This is not a pre-requisite, but it can really help. It develops your business thinking and awareness and you’re also likely to develop a network through it that you can draw on for years to come.

Another thing to think about is taking up a non-executive (NED) role, whether paid or pro-bono. This will give you great exposure to the boardroom environment. It may also give you the opportunity to scrutinise CIO performance from the other side of the table. The time commitment is usually quite small and the insights it can bring are really powerful. It boosts your boardroom credibility.

Also, make sure that you’re building up a bank of credible people who can provide you with a reference.

5. Think about your personal branding. How are you seen externally? What will people come across if they do a search against your name? Whilst your main focus should always be on carrying out your day job, it can be a great investment to give a little regular time to building your external profile. Being seen as a thought leader or subject matter expert carries a lot of weight.

Writing articles, blogs or papers, commenting in the media, speaking at seminars and events, presenting at internal town halls, maintaining a presence on social media – all of these can help you build a profile and act as positive factors in your career development.

Many different factors

There are many ingredients to making it to the boardroom. One of these is luck – sometimes you’re in the right place at the right time and the opportunity presents itself. Another of these is simply hard work and commitment – the surest way to success is by achieving outstanding results, and that takes effort and work.

Another is patience – it may take some time. Many boardrooms (particularly in traditional, non-tech businesses) are still dominated by the over-50s. They also remain fairly heavily male – a fact that Nash Squared, and many other organisations, are working to change.

However, if making it to the boardroom is amongst your ambitions, there are ways of maximising your chances of success. This could also include finding a mentor, whether formal or informal. Someone who has been on a similar journey already will have invaluable insights they can pass your way, and also help you reflect on what it is that you really want yourself.

Ultimately, perhaps that is the most important thing of all: be clear what you want from your career and enjoy it on your own terms.

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