Why You Want a CIO on Your Board

by Coco Brown, Athena Alliance founder & CEO

Last month’s Harvard Business Review featured a great article on Why CIOs Make Great Board Directors. They made some really good points but missed some of the best ones. I’d like to share them with you AND leverage a few of the amazing Athena Alliance Members who are CIOs themselves to illustrate my points!


First of all, you can’t think “board of directors” these days without thinking “cybersecurity”. It’s on absolutely every board’s worry list. We all know cyber threats are real, pervasive and extremely damaging, not just to your assets and revenue streams, but to your brand as well. A great CIO makes cybersecurity one of their key areas of focus and expertise, which makes them a great asset to you.

Take, for example, Jessica Denecour, SVP and CIO of Varian Medical and recent addition to Mobile Iron’s board of directors. She is a CIO who takes cybersecurity so seriously, she’s completing her masters degree in the subject. When I see Jessica at Athena events, she’s worked a full day, come to an event and is headed back to the office to work on her MBA programs or study for an exam. She is a CIO who understands the complex and ever-changing landscape of cyber threat and what that means in terms of company preparedness, policy and threat mitigation.

Julie Cullivan, EVP of Business Operations and CIO for FireEye, a leading security company, is another outstanding CIO and Athena Alliance member. She is a recognized leader in the cybersecurity field and a sought-after speaker on topics including “Security as a Boardroom Imperative”. She also serves on the Advisory Board for Cobalt.io, an on-demand penetration testing and bug bounty cloud service provider, where she uses her experience in information security to advise the company on go-to-market strategies.

Where there is technology, there are those who will seek to leverage it against you. Not only do you need to know how to build an incredible company enabled by the best technology has to offer, you must know how to protect it. Boards must know what questions to ask, where to look and what actions to take in support of the internal IT function in order to do their best fiduciary duty for the shareholders. Cybersecurity competence is not a nice-to-have on the board; it’s a must-have.

Voice of the Customer:

To be successful, you must accurately understand the demographics you sell to. If you are a SaaS company selling B2B services, regardless of which part of the organization you sell to, you will eventually hit the radar of the CIO if your product or service becomes an enterprise-wide solution or if you sell expensive solutions to large enterprises. If you really want to understand how your SaaS solution can or could fit and expand into the technology ecosystem within your customer base, bring a CIO on board.

Alvina Antar, CIO of Zuora is a perfect example. She built the M&A integration playbook for Dell, which is all about technology ecosystem functioning, alignment and effectiveness with an emphasis on fast tracking time to value. She also now runs IT for Zuora, the leading subscription relationship management hub powering the new Quote to Cash architecture for subscription businesses. In her role, she advises other companies on how to launch and monetize recurring revenue products and services. In addition, she has established Zuora as their own best reference account, ‘Zuora on Zuora’, with credibility as product experts and highlighting the power of investing in your own technology.

Diana McKenzie, SVP and CIO of Workday, a leader in enterprise cloud applications for finance and human resources, is another great example of this. She has responsibility for the internal deployment of Workday products as well as other innovative technologies and programs that create a competitive advantage for the company and serve as best practices to IT organizations globally. She, like Alvina, engages with customers, partners and peers across all industries to advance thought leadership in strategic areas such as those their businesses cover (e.g. the future of work).

Having this type of C-Level capability on your board provides incredible value to the thought leadership around the table as you look to evolve your GTM model and innovative solutions for the future.

Digital Transformation:

As Sheila Jordan, CIO at Symantec and director at FactSet, says in the HBR article “All companies are technology companies today.” This is true and many, many of them are going through huge digital transformations. Whether this be from on-prem to cloud-enabled operations, or brick & mortar to ecommerce, the changes in this regard are massive. They aren’t just massive from a technology perspective; they are massive from a business operating perspective, and CIOs understand this very, very well.

Debra Jensen, CIO of Charlotte Russe and Board Director of Self Esteem Brands / Anytime Fitness is one of those CIOs. In her roles, Debra is focused on digital transformation and innovation for companies in the Retail, Fitness, and Hospitality/Franchise space. Moving from what used to work to entirely new ways of operating internally takes big shifts in business process and worker capabilities, as well as technology. CIOs are at the forefront of this change, not just plugging in technical solutions, but designing the new ways in which businesses will work as they make the shifts to cloud and ecommerce.

At Athena, we have many women in all C-Level functions, not just CIOs. I could tell a story about any one of them and the differences they make for their businesses every day. There is a trend toward broader skill sets in general on boards, largely led by those serving technology roles, and in the case of the CIO, it’s quite understandable that, as the HRB article points out, “there has been a 74% increase in the number of CIOs serving on Fortune 100 boards in the past two years.” Clearly CIOs bring an unprecedented value to any board hoping to be successful in growth and profit.

Learn more about the skills and experiences these women (and other talented CIOs) can bring to a board.

Activating the connections, knowledge, & opportunities women executives need to lead at their highest level of impact. Learn more: athenaalliance.com

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