When I joined my first board of directors, someone helped me undersand the new role by pointing out that boards didn't do things; they just made sure the right things were being done.
The board's job was not to develop the strategy, this line of logic went, but to be sure a good one existed, and not to come up with ideas for growth, but to be sure that the right people and a climate supportive of change were firmly in place to do so.
Over the years, while I've learned that good boards do many things, from offering ideas to judging performance at critical points, the importance of the original distinction remains. Boards, and their activities, are fundamentally about making sure that the right things are getting done.
In the realm of technology, this role is easily overlooked. Many boards are preoccupied with issues of ethics and governance, short- term performance and leadership succession. Under the pressure of these overwhelming here-and-now priorities, it's easy to overlook technology. But technology, of course, represents an important future view that must be seen in boardrooms today.
Making sure the right things are being done in technology requires some investment on the part of the board, in the people it invites as members, the way it uses its time together, and, most important, in the questions it continually uses to shape and frame the corporate conversation.
Get the right people
The ability to sense whether or not the right things are going on is largely a function of one's own background and capabilities. Boards today need people who live regularly in the world of technology, and who are in strong positions to identify intuitively whether or not the corporation's technology makes sense and is sufficient. Boards of traditionally technology-intense companies tend to gravitate toward members with strong technology backgrounds. PerkinElmer, where I'm currently a director, is focused on global technology leadership in three business areas-life sciences, optoelectronics and analytical instruments. Of the nine-member board, three of us have strong backgrounds in life science technology and three in information technology. Our knowledge and skills in these areas give the board a collective perspective for listening and gauging technology progress.