Nick's Notes

Networking at 50,000 feet or at C-Level

I once sat in the Board of a Financial Services company with a person whose Executive role was Finance Director. She couldn’t understand why CIOs she worked with only came to see her about once a year, would have a brief chat about what they were doing and would ask her about the company. She was concerned about the implication that nothing much would change for another year. She was incredibly busy, yet would much rather have a weekly coffee with the CIO so he understood how quickly things changed, and then would be able to flex IT to the current circumstances even when they were fluid.

Networking is important. My first executive coach said very early in our relationship that the point of networking was to be at home everywhere, to never feel like an outsider. This applies to many situations, from networks like CIO Connect and Winmark where peer interaction across organisations is important, to inside organisations where you feel part of the executive team and are as welcome in the Sales Director’s office as you are in the CFO’s office, and welcome in each of the territories and business units too.

Hearing about multiple perspectives is so important at Board level. Decisions are sometimes difficult – if they weren’t, they wouldn’t be reserved to the Board – and there is rarely a clear cut “answer”. The opinions, the different perspectives and experiences, and yes, the biases, around the board table all contribute to coming to a conclusion that all can support. For the most intractable matters, this is not a one meeting process, but emerges over time, as a situation develops.

The most important thing I have learned at board level is that there really shouldn’t be any surprises. Surprises mean that there isn’t sufficient day to day discussion, and a lack of day to day discussion can lead to poor decision making. As James White of Hanson plc said, “80% of business decisions are made on gut feel. To get them right you have to be immersed in your business.”

There are two important points there. Firstly, the recognition that there is no right answer, and secondly, that immersion in the business brings insight. IT is logical, there may well be a right answer, and problem solving is a highly developed art, given the complexity of interactions between hardware and software, networking technologies and processes. CIOs can contribute to a process of identifying an emerging direction from that skill base but they can’t expect it to be a logical process or to impose their logic on the process.

This is a big learning curve for many when reaching board level. The skills that got you there are not the ones that make you successful when you are there. You need to understand the overview and the detail, you need to understand the different perspectives and the different approaches to problem solving, and you need to recognise the interpersonal relationships which mean that some people seem to carry more weight than others in a discussion of equals.

To prepare for that you need to spend time with your colleagues at c-level. You need to learn from them about their world whilst also teaching them about your world; why things can take a long time, why complexity seems to get worse each time you want to make a simple change, why A doesn’t necessarily work with B. In short you need to be comfortable with all the different talents, you need to be at home with all the different people.

This is why I’m so excited about our partnership with Winmark. Their c-level networks are open to you and vice-versa. It has never been easier to get those different perspectives in a safe environment. I hope you will take full advantage of it, and you quickly feel you are an insider in our enlarged networks, and as a result you become an insider in the very top echelons of your organisation.

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