Latest post: Why Boards Need a Digital Director

I’m a director. Not of movies, but around the board table – a non-executive director, to be precise.  I’ve been one for over a decade for not-for-profits, family owned businesses, listed companies and even a co-operative. The life of a board director is full of questions — mostly of the business itself,  but also of the market, leadership quality, competitors, strategy in the long and short term, and a myriad of other issues. We are professional askers of, “why, when, how, who and for what reason?” Similar to a journalist, but with the added ability to make decisions that directly affect shareholders, staff, competitors, product development, customers — an entire ecosystem is under our control. No god complex should exist — rather, a sense of responsibility to do the right thing and successfully navigate through a wilderness of unknowns should prevail.

So what is the best kept secret of the organisations I’ve governed or led?  Technology – more precisely – its use internally, and how it is sold to customers and used by partners. The best companies in all industries leverage technology (actually data) to generate strong business results.

The risk of technology failure has never been more serious than it is today.  From having a website go down, to customer data being sucked out of the cloud by data pirates, through to having an internal breach of security resulting in theft of intellectual property – tragedies we often read about, and hope never happens to us.

In recent years, companies have had recruiters on speed dial to find and appoint a Chief Digital Officer to their executive management team.  In recent months, specialist firms have been tasked with hunting down a person worthy of the title of digital director and inviting them to the board room for an interview, largely due to the recognition that technology risk (and reward) has increasingly found its way onto board agendas, like it or not, and somebody at the table better understand what’s going on.

What are the characteristics to look for in a suitable digital director candidate, you ask?

I get this question more often than you would think – which is good. I’ll start with the observation that pocket protectors aren’t the first attribute to shortlist.  A digitally savvy director needs to fill gaps that the rest of the board cannot, and overlap in areas that enhance decision making capability and leadership quality.

They need to challenge the board dynamic, bring fresh thinking (as would any new director, ideally) and maintain a sense of scope and balance when it comes to a technology conversation. In other words, a digital director can add deep insight into technology use and potential, but they must also have general management and governance capability to contribute to the board’s overall performance.

Put another way, functional expertise is not enough. Sleeping through the board meeting and only piping up for the technology discussion does little good for anyone. Observantly contributing to all areas of discussion, with the added insight of how technology can help or hinder in a particular way, is a highly valuable asset as the table.

To assist in getting the conversation around the table started, here is a short checklist that may be assist in the quest for your digital director:

  • Experience in technology leadership, preferably with a ‘C’ in the title and responsible for strategic/mission critical decisions in the role
  • A solid track record of speaking their mind and getting technology investment decisions right, at least most of the time
  • Some exposure to a board – whether presenting to, or having been a member of one, is vital
  • Involvement in technology since before the introduction of the iPhone (2007)
  • Having responsibility for more than just technology decisions in prior roles and ideally familiar with P&L/cashflow, marketing & sales, HR laws and other aspects of business management
  • Active in thought leadership and exposure to relevant technology, TODAY.

Bringing on a suitably qualified, digitally capable director is a great start. But you can do more, much more.

Some additional considerations include:

  1. Create a technology advisory board or committee: This is a great way to get insight from a wide range of people with special skill sets in various aspects of technology like telco, social media marketing, cloud computing, cybersecurity and so forth. These can be trusted people from outside of the business who are tasked with meeting regularly to review the senior tech strategy before it is presented to the board via the digital director.  This is a useful way of exploring ideas and vetting decisions prior to them becoming a core part of the board endorsed business strategy.
  2. Supplement the Financial/Audit/Risk Committee with the digital director: Technology is expensive, and getting it wrong is very expensive. As technology risk increases, it is important to have informed discussions within the audit committee. Continuous investment in technology is necessary but even more important is the right investment in the right products/services across the business. Ensuring this is scrutinised by the digital director is an excellent idea.
  3. CIO/CDO and the company’s Chief Architect to present to the board at each meeting: This should be a requirement anyway – whether you have a digital director or not. However, with the added addition of vetting by a technology advisory board/committee, you will likely find that the messaging and reporting topics are more clearly defined and digestible once they reach the board.  Exposing the head of technology for the business to the board is important – they are a large cost centre and should be an area of economic return as well. If not directly, then through the information and services they can provide to the business and customers/partners. Hold them accountable but be sure they have the tools and support to perform.

A well-functioning board should consist of directors with expertise not just in law, accounting or as a former CEO.  Technology is a complex – and often expensive – aspect of business performance.  Finding a director with capability across the spectrum of technology from infrastructure, CRM, social media, software development, and so forth serves to enhance and strengthen any company’s performance.

 

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