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 Signaling digital talent: how tech officers can score board seats

 Signaling digital talent: how tech officers can score board seats 1

By Katrien Demeester, Managing Director at Russell Reynolds Associates 

As financial institutions increasingly grapple with unprecedented business disruptions and the bar is raised for innovation, the needs of corporate boards are evolving fast. In today’s shifting business landscape, boards of global financial services firms are navigating emerging challenges in data management, cybersecurity and digitization – areas where functional technology officers have in-depth, hands-on knowledge.

In the face of growing competition thrusted by neobanks and challenger banks, like N26 and Monzo, there appears to be a widespread digital divide that’s putting global banks and financial services firms at a distinct disadvantage. In Arizent’s Digital Banking Report 2020, 75% of banking respondents identified digital transformation as a top priority while innovation, operational excellence and culture development ranked as the three lowest priorities. This reveals a trouble paradox in banking, considering the lowest ranked priorities are influential and foundational in making digital transformation happen.

To bridge the digital gap, more corporate boards are filling seats with tech-savvy talent. For example, there has been a recent influx of tech and digital director additions to 300 S&P Global boards, of which more than a third joined within the last two years according to recent research reported by Russell Reynolds Associates. In Europe, 65% of corporate boards have at least one ‘tech’ non-executive director in 2020, compared to 76% of corporate boards in the Americas.

Despite boards needing more functional tech expertise, executives from the technology industry are earning the lion’s share of the new ‘tech seats,’ not functional technology leaders such as chief information officers (CIOs), chief digital officers (CDOs) or chief technology officers (CTOs) who have hands-on technology skills as well as direct corporate governance experience. And, going back to the research report from Russell Reynolds Associates, globally, financial services is among the sectors where technology and digital-focused directors are the least represented on boards, trailing behind healthcare, consumer and technology sectors.

Tech officers can bridge the digital gap in financial services

Tech-savvy board directors play a key role in enriching the overall digital fluency of boards and raising fellow directors’ awareness of technology risks, challenges and opportunities. But functional technology officers, in particular, advance digital fluency a step further and help boards evaluate an organization’s readiness and specific needs for any given technology. Given their previous experience in implementing new technology to overhaul business processes, technology officers are skilled at educating fellow board members and management teams, while also providing organizational oversight on technology transformation.

Additionally, technology officers are well versed in syncing up technology adoption with overall business strategy, knowing that in today’s landscape the two are one in the same. They are also adapted to the creative sparring that happens in board rooms about technology adoption and have experience bringing everyone together onto the same page, turning potentially contentious debates into productive resolutions.

Traditionally, the technology officer, particularly the CIO role, has been viewed as a supporting positioning rather than a strategic function. But now that digital transformation initiatives are core to organizational success, this outdated perception must be adjusted. Strategic initiatives are not only being implemented by technology officers, they’re also being initiated and led by them. Moreover, corporate governance, risk and compliance (GRC) processes, especially in critical areas like cybersecurity and GDPR compliance, are now largely being led by functional technology officers.

Tips for tech officers to build corporate board readiness

Despite espousing the expertise and skills needed to help boards thrive, joining a board can be difficult for technology officers, even for seasoned chief information officers, chief technology officers, chief information digital officers, chief data/analytics officers, etc. That is because board selection committees unfortunately often have an oft-held misconception that technology officers lack the broader business and strategic acumen compared to fellow C-suite players, like the CEO, Business Unit Leader, CFO or COO.

Furthermore, particularly in financial services, some boards’ selection committees prefer to go with a candidate from a recognizable fintech company because they believe that’s where the best technology talent is coming from.

So what does it take for technology officers to overcome these limiting preconceived notions and become corporate board directors? Below are key considerations for technology officers looking to move onto the next step in their career, exhibit leadership capabilities and enhance their chances of securing a seat on a reputable corporate board in the financial services sector:

  1. Broaden your scope: Actively seek opportunities within your organization to take on additional responsibilities that heavily rely on your strong affinity with technology and digitalization. For instance, taking on the company-wide sponsorship for agile roll-out, evolving into a COO role, or leading an innovation and incubation initiative.
  2. Emphasize strategic achievements: Simply being a dutiful order taker or a proven executioner does not strengthen one’s candidacy for a board seat. After all, boards are ultimately charged with leading the long-term success of their organizations. Therefore, board members must serve as strategic assets and consultants for the organizations they serve. It is crucial to underscore your strategic achievements and outline how they align to specific corporate goals.
    Katrien Demeester

    Katrien Demeester

  3. Acquire alternative board experience: Unlike other functional leaders, such as CFOs and CHROs, many organizations do not yet have their technology officers sit on the executive committee. However, this arrangement is changing across organizations so it is possible that more technology officers will find themselves participating on executive committees, thus gaining more comprehensive board interface. But when this is not possible, technology officers can proactively refine their board experience by applying for a board position in a subsidiary of the company they work for or gaining alternative board experience in an association or nonprofit organization.
  4. Diversify your expertise: Technology officers who have worked across different sectors or across different functions will increase their chances for being selected for a board seat, as it makes them better lateral thinkers and more malleable in the eyes of nominating committees. Broaden your professional horizon by gaining experience within various areas of financial services, such as financial institutions, investment banking, commercial banking, wealth management, corporate finance, real estate, payments and fintech or within other sectors.
  5. Be vocal about your ambition and expand your network: Most board openings are communicated through the networks of board directors, meaning their contacts will likely be the first to find out about the opportunities. Developing your network strategically with those who serve on corporate boards and informing them about your desire will greatly increase your chances of learning about open board positions and eventually securing the seat.

What type of financial services tech leader are you?

All financial institutions and firms are at different phases of the digital transformation journey and, therefore, the requirements for tech-savvy talent on each corporate board will vary. As corporate board selection committees further diversify their boards, they will increasingly consider candidates that possess specific experiences that not only align to the company’s strategy, but perhaps most importantly, fill existing gaps within their current board composition.

Within this more holistic framework, it is important to think about what type of financial services tech leader you are so you can better establish your candidacy. What are your strengths and where does your focus lie? There may be an inclination to try and paint yourself as a Jack or Jane of all trades on your CV, but you may be able to better personalize your search and brand yourself as a problem-solver by considering the following four profiles of tech leaders:

  1. The Visionary Technology Leader syncs up technology transformation efforts with the organization’s commercial and strategic goals. Board directors with this profile do not just focus on innovating for the sake of disruption. They consider how any and all of the tools will empower employees and customers, and advance the long-term vision of the financial institution or firm.
  2. The Transformer, has strong experience with legacy technology and a proven track record shifting to a future proof agile technology framework. In a world where technology transformation can be a definitive make or break, this board member helps boards and the management teams make the functional shift not only from a technology perspective but also in terms of people and process impact. When approaching a challenge, the Transformer identifies where the obstacles are and outlines how an organization can accelerate its efforts to get over them.
  3. The Operator is inspired by efficiency and security. Apart from traditional organic revenue growth, business growth is also triggered by optimizing processes, improving productivity and mitigating any underlying security risks that could be costly in the short- and long-term. The Operator is able to target each of those areas, directing organizations on how they can implement technology to operate more efficiently. Within this category, you often find the Chief Information Security Officers.
  4. The Data Evangelist, who is focused on leveraging data to drive success and improve customer experiences (CXs), deeply understands external marketplace conditions and where an organization rates in delivering on customer expectations and brand promises. When serving on a Board, they are constantly exploring how data can be employed to understand their customers better, communicate with customers and improve CXs.

Board opportunities look bright for tech officers

The rapid digitization and subsequent technology gaps ensued by COVID-19 are changing the criterion for filling board seats. Not only are more “tech seats” expected to open on corporate boards, it is likely that financial institutions and firms will seek out candidates that have first-hand, practical technology skills. This means that selection committees will have to fish beyond the usual pools of C-suite candidates and fintechs that they are currently recruiting candidates from.

As the need for functional tech experience increases, there is no justifiable reason why a seasoned technology officer should be overlooked for a corporate board seat in the financial services sector.

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