Your next tech career stepping stone? Why CIOs should consider non-executive roles

Taking on a new project outside of the day job could have some surprising consequences.
Written by Mark Samuels, Contributor

If you're a CIO and you want to try something different, why not become a non-executive director? Rather than being a full-time employee and member of the executive committee, non-execs are independent directors who sit on the board.

Non-execs provide objective criticism and strategic advice on key decisions, including digital transformation initiatives. CIOs who use their time in this way can provide significant value to a business. Being a non-exec also generates benefits for CIOs who fill these roles.

So, what are the plus-points of working in a non-exec position? We speak to two CIOs about their experiences and best-practice tips for other business leaders who might be thinking of taking on a non-exec role.

Challenge yourself as a business leader

Addison Lee group CIO Ian Cohen says every digital leader should try and do some non-exec work. "Something happens in your brain, particularly if you're an execution-focused executive, when you have to move from owning the outcome to helping people understand how to deliver their own outcomes. It's an emotional state," he says.

Such is Cohen's belief in the positives of the non-exec role that he spent two years in a portfolio role, fulfilling both non-exec and consultancy positions. Cohen returned to a full-time CIO role at Addison Lee in July 2017. But he retains his interest in non-exec positions and continues to contribute to a range of start-up, scale-up and established organisations.

"You should do it because it's a wonderful experience," says Cohen, referring to the benefits of being a non-exec. "It's great for personal development and to challenge yourself as a leader in new environments."

Be warned, however, that being a non-exec is far from easy. 

"It's not a cushy number," says Cohen, looking back on his own experiences, particularly during his two-year stint as a portfolio executive. "At one point, I had six advisory roles, which was way too many."

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But Cohen learnt quickly -- and he says other CIOs should be selective: "Although I could physically cope with six roles, it wasn't possible to give enough to each of those businesses emotionally. So, pick a few and do them incredibly well. Recognise what you leave behind and what you acquire when you get that non-exec role."

Being a non-exec is not just about your own personal development. Cohen says asking the reverse question is also important -- why would a start-up want to appoint a seasoned executive? The answer, he says, is to think about how you can bring a different perspective.

"You're often using your experience to help your client build a sustainable business, and how to create process, rigour and structure. The people running the company have all the energy and enthusiasm that got them to their first milestone but now they need to adopt new processes and disciplines to sustain and maintain that growth -- that's what you can bring to the table," he says.

"Don't be a non-exec, turn up for the boardroom meeting and disappear. Make time, sit in your clients' offices and understand why they need to operate in a different way emotionally. You can learn a lot as a non-exec -- and you can bring a lot to the table, too."

Apply your experiences and grow as an individual

Experienced business leader Sarah Flannigan says working as a non-exec alongside a permanent CIO role, which is what she did while working for the National Trust and EDF Energy, gives you a totally different perspective.

"When you're knee-deep in a crisis in your day job, you can step out at some point in your week or month as a non-exec, and you can take a strategic viewpoint," she says. "It just gives you some perspective on your day-to-day worries and breathing space to think differently. I found that a surprising, unintended benefit."

Flannigan left her position as CIO at utility firm EDF Energy last October and is now starting a portfolio career. She was already fulfilling non-exec positions at high-profile organisations, including Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, and the Heritage Lottery Fund. She recently became chair of travel specialist Sawday's and is aiming to fulfil a range of advisory positions, including further non-exec roles.

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"The thing that I love most about it -- and the reason why I wanted to build a portfolio career -- is just the sheer mental stimulation that comes from variety. You move at a rapid pace from one organisation to another and it requires real mental agility. You can apply in real time the learnings from one organisation immediately to the next," says Flannigan.

Like Cohen, Flannigan says CIOs looking to take on advisory positions need to ensure they don't spread themselves too thinly. You might have a certain number of days available in the month, but board meetings don't always fall conveniently. Flannigan says CIOs must think about how they can make best-use of their advisory skills.

"I guess the important thing is you probably do your best work for the organisation when you're a non-executive outside of board meetings -- don't assume that board meetings are the main event. Where you can really add value is in, for example, an hour's chat with the CIO or CMO who's really struggling with something," she says.

"I've had so many situations where I find myself saying in a board meeting, 'right, well this is very interesting -- I'm actually involved in another organisation in a completely different field that's had a similar challenge, here's how they approached it, here's what worked for them, and here's what didn't'. That's just brilliant."

Flannigan is now thinking carefully about how to develop her portfolio career and wants to work across a broad mix of sectors, including not-for-profit and local businesses. "If you're doing the work pro bono or for a good cause, you get the lovely feeling -- if you're otherwise involved in the commercial world – of putting something back," she says.


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