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The Team at Laudale

Alec Laurie
Alec Laurie
Managing Director

What a CEO wants from a Technology Leader

Some time ago I wrote a post on what technology leaders want to understand about an opportunity, so it made sense to (eventually) examine something resembling the ‘reverse’ of this subject.

What do CEO’s want from technology leaders? 

It’s a question we ask frequently in ‘search’, but it was a conversation this month that jump-started my desire to share the answers.

During dinner with a client – the CEO of a Private-Equity backed lending platform – who had appointed a CTO about 15 months prior, ‘CEO’ described ‘CTO’ as “one of the best hires I’ve ever made”. Naturally, I was curious to understand why.

Now, this is anecdotal; a more robust piece would consider that there are a ton of variables, from the size and strategy of the organisation, to the personalities involved. However, having now spent a considerable proportion of my life in similar conversations, I believe several of the below points are representative. At the same time, some are very subjective, which I personally find intriguing as they come from left-of-field – they’re not the rote answers we hear every day.

Here are some of the main points of our chat:

The CTO is a ‘techie’.

Obvious, right? Well, not entirely. If I had a pound for every time I heard a tech leader say “I’m very much a business person these days”, or words to that effect, I’d… well, I’d have a very nice pile of pounds. I even encourage this, and so does most of the mainstream ‘tech leader’ reading, in my opinion. But, have you ever thought that the CEO might love the fact that you’re a technology professional? The CEO above certainly does. He loves how much his CTO loves tech! Because great CEOs (great leaders generally) know how to build effective teams with ownership and accountability of specialist areas. CEOs don’t know it all, that’s why they hired you. Maybe not dissimilar to the reason you hired your Head of Engineering or your Head of IT Ops…

At the same time… the CTO is effective with ‘non-techies’. 

(I promise it gets less cliche). We used an example of this done badly, to bring the point to life. That CTO who gets a bit hot under the collar – maybe lacks a bit of patience – with the exec member that can’t grasp the tech discussion (think, Mark Zuckerberg’s Senate hearing). Working effectively with non-techie people – whether peers, investors, NEDs, or end-users – goes beyond communication skills, emotional intelligence and patience. Those are all absolutely fundamental, of course, but a broader perspective and a genuine understanding of how organisations work is the key piece, in my opinion. That appreciation that everyone has a role, that everyone has a profession or strength, and that acceptance that you might know it all technologically, but you don’t know it all.

The CTO improvises to solve problems.

Yes, we all like to live in a world where any role title that begins with ‘C’ is all about the strategic agenda. Well, apparently, sometimes the proverbial hits the fan for everyone and this is when the very best can stand out. There was a brilliant story at this point in our conversation about a particular piece of technology failing and the CTO’s very practical, hands-on, response (you’ll appreciate I can’t share the details). An ability to lead by example throughout major incidents and, importantly, deliver outside-the-box solutions are highly valued qualities.

The CTO delivers tangible outcomes, quickly.

This isn’t just about ‘low hanging fruit’ to impress the Chief and win over skeptical stakeholders. This is about producing real business results with what you have at your disposal and is especially important in the early days. Why the early days, if it’s isn’t just to win people over? Because business moves very quickly. And, like the point above about ‘strategic’ vs ‘responsive’, there’s a reason the CTO has been brought in at this point in time – 9 times out of 10 there’s a window of opportunity during which you can either solve a problem or realise an opportunity. Granted there are a lot of organisations who plan things beautifully and are strategically flawless… but then there’s the rest of us.

The CTO can see the CEO’s ‘big picture’.

This isn’t necessarily about being a ‘business person’ (business is tech; tech is business, etc…), but more about genuinely ‘getting it’ with this particular CEO in this particular business. Knowing that – yes, there’s a strategy and, yes, you have a role to play in that – but there’s an overarching vision and very specific outcomes that will always be highest on the CEO’s agenda. What does this business want to be? Who does this business serve? How will you know when you’re there? And then, crucially, how do you enable this? The great CTO doesn’t get this spot on every day but, more often than not, they are able to remind themselves and their teams of the bigger picture. In practice, this could mean simply accepting when something doesn’t go your way, trusting it’s for a good reason. Equally, it could mean you’re truly at the centre of driving transformational growth.

As I said above, this is an anecdote, but I hope you’ve read something here that resonates. I’m always up for learning about this topic, so please feel free to comment and share your experiences (apologies in advance that I can’t reply to all).