Many CIOs are still a degree or two removed from the CEO and fighting for a permanent place at the senior executive table.
But systemic deficiencies in technical leadership extend higher: Boards of directors across the world are lacking leaders with technology backgrounds, according to Mark Raskino, distinguished VP analyst at Gartner, at the Gartner Symposium/ITxpo in Orlando, Florida this week.
Digital business challenges are a board-level concern, said Raskino. "How could you be confident that the board as composed today could do these kinds of things if the board members themselves are technologically, let's say, challenged?"
Technical executives can bring cognitive diversity and digital experience to supervisory boards that are otherwise flush with legal and commercial expertise. CIOs need to increase dialogue about technical leadership on boards and set themselves up as viable candidates for nonexecutive director (NED) positions.
CIOs are an untapped board resource
Broad and deep technical knowledge serves business at the highest level. Many companies today are "parachuting in" directors from big tech companies, but these individuals often don't have an IT background, according to Raskino. Such a move is good — but not sufficient.
Experience at a technology company is different from technical experience. Marketers and commerce leaders may have learned the methods of a tech company, but they will frame and tackle a problem differently than a computer or data scientist and might not be able to bridge the culture chasm.
"The world is babbling on about technology revolution," but the leadership has yet to catch up, Raskino said. CIOs, CTOs and directors with other IT backgrounds constitute a small margin of board leadership in the U.S. and around the world.
Technical executives in board leadership positions
|Region||Total directors||CIO/CTO directors||E-commerce directors||Other IT*|
|NYSE Top 25||680||9||15||17|
|Nasdaq Top 25||615||6||39||38|
*Other IT refers to directors with visible history in IT project involvement below the C-suite level
CIOs and CTOs have a lot to offer, especially if they are "storied, successful [and] multi tenured," Raskino said. In addition to cognitive diversity, tech execs bring experience in digital value and revenue creation, technology market strategy, hype rationalization and continuous services operation.
Many of these leaders have worked through change waves such as Y2K or the dot-com bubble and handled large project failures. They also have experience with the policy and moral questions surrounding technology change, he said.
How CIOs can establish their candidacy
There are two things every CIO needs to ask the board chairperson today, according to Raskino:
Do we have sufficient technology experience on the board?
Have you ever considered taking a CIO or CTO as a nonexecutive director? (Raskino bets that most haven't thought about it.)
Asking these questions won't get a CIO on the board. But, if every CIO goes back and asks their CEO or chairperson, they can start changing market demand for CIOs and CTOs in NED positions, and this will benefit companies and economies at large, he said.
Demand for technical executives is just the first step: CIOs and CTOs also need to make themselves desirable NED candidates. There are three pillars to a strong candidacy, according to Raskino:
A track record of creating landmark contributions that generate revenue and not just cut costs.
Leadership in top technology areas such as blockchain and artificial intelligence.
A public profile built through speaking events, interviews, publication, etc.
Meeting the minimum requirements and just doing a good job as CIO isn't enough.
NED hopefuls need to be able to go beyond what is required by being well versed in areas outside of IT that the board handles, such as political shifts or climate change, Raskino said. They also need to participate in nontechnical executive discussions and demonstrate a voice and contribution to other parts of the business, such as HR or finance.
"Some of it might make you wince a little, but basically you do need to be able to talk the talk," Raskino said. This means observing and mirroring CEO language, attending investor calls and ingratiating oneself with other business leaders.
On a personal level, networking is crucial for attaining top positions. Executives need to find and friend their chairperson, fellow executives and industry peers, according to Raskino. Going out into the community and working with startups, nonprofits and industry and regulatory groups also builds experience and profile.
Bankers, private equity and lawyers are also key groups that interact with boards, especially during the hiring process.
CIOs and CTOs should register their intent with their CEO and chairman, according to Raskino. This gets them on the radar of top executives and provides opportunity to discuss areas for development and future opportunities in an organization.