Leveraging CIO experience into corporate board work

You’ve had a great CIO career filled with transformational triumphs and award-winning projects and teams. What’s next for your career before you retire? Board service, of course!  

With cybersecurity keeping CEOs up at night and digital transformation all the rage, the number of CIOs on corporate boards is increasing. For experienced IT leaders looking to get out of operations and into the Socratic world of private or corporate boards, this means serious opportunity, as corporate boards are keen on putting CIOs’ transformational experience to work at the next level.

Wayne Shurts can tell the tale of leveraging CIO experience into board work. Shurts was CIO for Cadbury, Supervalu, and then for food distribution giant Sysco when he was appointed to his first board, for Con-Way Freight and Trucking, then a $5 billion public company, in 2015. Unlike many CEOs, Supervalu’s CEO allowed Shurts to accept the board appointment, provided Shurts assure him that that board work would not distract from his CIO role. 

How board service is different

The chair of the Con-Way board gave Shurts sound advice about the difference between executive management and board service. “He said that the board is all about helping management craft a strategy, but letting management execute on it,” says Shurts. “Despite a long career of executing on strategies, I had to let that part go.” 

Soon after Shurts joined the Con-Way board, the company was sold to XPO, which gave Shurts early experience in weighing in on the terms of a public company sale. 

Shurts retired from Sysco in 2019, and then joined the board of Armstrong World Industries, another public company. He was approached on the recommendation of the former Con-Way chair, which underscores the fact that a large percentage of board appointments come from a board’s networks rather than through search firms. 

That same month, Shurts joined his first private board, for a third-generation family import and distribution business. “Unlike the public company boards, this is not a fiduciary board because the family decides what to do with the money,” he says. “But other than that, the board has the same role as public company boards.” 

Since then, Shurts has added two more private boards to his plate, which he enjoys because, “private boards can be more fun than public boards; there is less bureaucracy,” he says. 

Advice for finding a board seat

With all of this board experience, Shurts can offer some advice to CIOs seeking board work. First, given that most board appointments come through your network, “let the people in your networks, and especially people who are on boards, know of your intent,” he says. “And that includes the board of your current company.” 

But before you start calling people, decide what kind of board you want to join, whether public or private, and in what industry. “I’ve spent almost my entire career in food, and my boards are either food distribution, grocery, or logistics,” he says. “I don’t know if I could have joined a board in an unrelated industry.” 

Also, put together your board bio, which is very different from a resume. Rather than a chronological list of your experiences, your board bio is a one-page document that, in a just a few paragraphs, presents a strategic view of your experience.

Shurts suggests that when writing your board bio you read the board section of a few corporate annual reports. These typically have a board matrix with dots next to the expertise areas that each board member checks off. “You will never get a board position if the only box you can check is technology or cyber,” says Shurts, “Make sure your board bio demonstrates expertise in multiple boxes, like finance, supply chain, international experience, or M&A. The broader set of experiences you can represent in your bio, the better.”

Interviewing for a board position

Shurts advises that you bring the same strategy to the board interview. “The board interview is at higher level than an executive management interview,” he says. “You should be prepared to cover your operational experience, but that’s not the point of the interview. The board wants to know that you understand the role of the board and that you can think strategically.” 

With roughly 80% of boards made up of CEOs and CFOs, boards are pushing for diversity of background for sure, but also for diversity of thought, which CIOs certainly bring to the table.

“The boards will not test your technology expertise during an interview,” says Shurts, “because they don’t know exactly what technology expertise they need. Rather than talk about ERP programs or technology spend, you are better off talking about how technology disrupts business models. The board does not want a technologist; they want a full-fledged board member who can service on audit, finance, and nominating committees.”

Once you are on a board, you will find that board discussions are very different from executive committee meetings. “Your job on the board is not just to ask questions,” Shurts says, because most of the time the EC will have good answers. Your job is to question those answers and to encourage senior management to think differently. “We are always asking, ‘Have you thought about it from this angle?’” he says. “The board dynamic is to dig into the issues, look at them from all angles, and talk about them in an intellectual, collaborative way.”

Shurts suggests that aspiring board members check out BoardProspects.com and Private Directors Association, inexpensive resources that provide education on board service and opportunities to submit your board bio, so that nominating committees can find you. 

Now is the time for CIOs to consider board service. Just as Sarbanes-Oxley mandated the need for certified financial experts, new cyber regulations will create demand for technology leaders on boards. 

“I see CIOs joining board all the time now,” says Shurts. “We are still underrepresented, but our opportunities are growing.” 

IT Leadership