Five key steps for digital leaders to influence the Board on technology

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Posting date: 21 April 2023

Nash Squared CEO, Bev White, and Interim CIO, Sam Wilson discuss how digital leaders can get their influence across to the board when it comes to an organisation's technology. This article first appeared on ComputerWeekly.com.

How can digital leaders influence the board of directors to ensure the right investments are made in technology?

As the world becomes increasingly digital, technology is at the heart of how businesses operate. How often have you heard the adage, “All companies are technology companies now?”

Nevertheless, there are numerous functions, issues and priorities in any business competing for a slice of the investment budget. Every board meeting agenda is packed with pitches and asks. At the same time all investment is under the microscope and budget is at a premium.

Digital leaders need to use all their skills to keep investment in technology high, as well as ensuring that the right investments are made – not just the most superficially attractive ones or those that tap into what may be a passing trend.

How can digital leaders – CIOs, CTOs, CDOs and anyone with a leadership position within tech – influence the board? Here are five key steps, based on our own experience of representing tech through our careers.

1. You need a voice in the boardroom: It goes without saying that ideally you will sit on the board yourself. According to the latest Nash Squared Digital Leadership Report, around 65% of CIOs do.

This brings an immediate advantage – you are right there to present your case and directly input into, and influence, the conversation. Because you’re privy to proceedings, you get a live insight into the wider context and strategic agenda, giving you a better understanding of how technology can support, facilitate and enhance.

If you don’t sit on the board, however, there are still things you can do. Make sure you have a regular slot at board meetings. Keep close to those with most influence on the board through meetings and conversations, so that they understand your thinking and can advocate for what you’re trying to do. But also, recognise the informal networks and influencing patterns in the business.

There are likely to be a number of people who don’t sit on the board but who nevertheless are very influential – someone the CEO, for example, regularly turns to for their opinion. So keep close to those individuals too.

2. It’s all about how you communicate: As in so many other areas, communication is critical. Technology can be simple or complex – it depends on who’s delivering the message. Make sure you communicate clearly and coherently in a way that brings out the business benefits, rather than details all the technical jargon.

Make a compelling business case that demystifies tech and shows the real-world benefits (e.g. staff productivity, the customer experience, increased sales), expressing it in terms everyone can understand.

When people don’t understand something, it’s more likely to seem risky and this will be a blocker to gaining their support.

3. Articulate the ROI: Any investment must have a clear return on investment (ROI) attached to it, especially in the uncertain times we’re in right now. Make sure you can show what the return will be and put it in business terms that resonate.

This is often a challenge, as many organisations don’t have the measurements or data that’s needed. But make the best case you can, using external research or benchmark data where that’s helpful. Critically also, back it up by explaining how you intend to measure the ROI so that you’ll be able to show the results.

4. Drive tech adoption and usage: One way to build a convincing case about ROI for future investments is to be able to show it for investments already made. For this, it’s key that the tech solutions and systems implemented are being properly and fully used.

Often for example businesses put in a new CRM system but fail to generate the new actionable insights they thought they’d get – because managers aren’t making sure their teams are using the system properly to capture and record all the data and feedback.

So, focus on driving adoption – recognise and reward people and teams who are doing a great job with or via the tech solution. Gamification can be a powerful mechanism here too, establishing healthy competition between teams and encouraging the right behaviours.

5. Stress the positives: Generally speaking, people are persuaded more by positive visions than they are by negatives or ‘fear’. Boards are no different. What excites the boardroom is ambition, strategies for growth, new innovations, levers to drive higher performance.

So, stress the positive enhancements that an investment will bring because you’re much more likely to win engagement. How can this tech investment or strategy enhance the customer experience, improve customer-centricity, raise productivity, increase margin, make the business more efficient?

There’s a place for talking about how tech will help with downside risks too – how it will mitigate risk, enhance regulatory compliance, protect against cyber threats, etc, but it’s usually most effective if these are sandwiched between the positives rather than being the lead.

Another key component, of course, is the individual relationship between you as a digital leader and the CEO. A lot comes down to personality, chemistry and fit.

But even where there isn’t a natural affinity, if you make it your job to understand the strategy and vision that the CEO is leading on, and translate that into your own domain to support it, then you will be fulfilling your function and should gain the respect and trust of the CEO.

Technology is omnipresent and has become an unstoppable train. This makes it a question of filtering down to the true strategic priorities and making tech a force for good, generating the desired business outcomes and benefits. If you can do that, then you should truly find that the board is listening and onside.

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