Lesser known traits of a great Chief Technology Officer – By Arif Harbott

By rotide
Created 18/12/2020 - 13:33
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A Chief Technology Officer (CTO) [1] is the executive responsible for leading and managing technology within an organisation. 

The CTO role differs a lot depending on the type of business (high-tech versus industrial) and the size of the business (start-up versus multinational). 

But if you are looking for a new CTO there are some lesser known traits you should be looking for.

We are not going to cover the obvious traits that you would always expect a good CTO to have such as: 

Instead, we will focus on less well known, but perhaps more important skills and attributes that the best CTOs have in common.

Outward focus on customers and the market

The CTO role has been heavily impacted by the digital age. Technology advancement means that CTO have to be much more outward facing, on customers, trends and competitors.

They need to be aware of emerging technology trends, customer intelligence, competitor intel and macro market dynamics. All of this needs to be carefully, and thoughtfully developed into strategy that can give the company a competitive edge in the market.

The CTO is the most senior public face of technology for the company. This outward focus can be leveraged to attract talent, get the best from suppliers and drive confidence with investors and analysts.

Partnership builder

Technology in isolation does not drive business value, it is only through partnerships that the true value of technology is realised. These internal partnerships with the business are key to the joint success of the company.

While the CTO needs to be the champion for change, they cannot do this without bringing the business with them. Building a strong and trusted partnership with key business leaders is one of the most important factors for success.

External partnerships are important too. A lot of innovation will come through partnerships and joint ventures with start-ups, vendors and software companies. Building a strong network of partnerships is fundamental to de-risking and accelerating innovation.

Pragmatic transformation delivery

Every CTO will have a large portfolio of products, projects and programmes to deliver. This should be approached in a pragmatic way. It can be tempting to rip out old technology and replace it with the latest shiny new version but this rarely generates a strong return on investment.

Instead CTOs need to be pragmatic, investing in areas that will drive the most value, and sweating other assets that are less critical to the strategy.

Expert transformation delivery is very often an area that companies struggle with so building this capability is key to delivery success. 

Value focused 

Technology for technology's sake is a road to disaster. Every CTO must have a ruthless focus on business value generation. The ultimate test of CTO success is how technology has driven the enterprise value of the company.

All of the governance, processes, and decisions must be optimised for maximum value delivery (ideally at pace).  Delivering value at pace gives you credibility and will enable you to secure continued investment and resources. 

Diverse culture creator

Building a strong culture is essential to creating a high performance culture and to deliver on the ambitious technology strategy that has been set.

But high-performance is not enough, the best CTOs understand that creating a diverse, inclusive and open culture can have an exponential impact on results.

If diversity, inclusion and openness is truly embraced and lived every day then you will have access to a much wider range of talent and a much higher retention rate.

Master storyteller

Technology is by its very name technical! This is great when you are talking to other technologists but most of your influence needs to be done with non-technical people.

The best CTOs are expert storytellers, painting a compelling technology future to non-technical people. They are very good at reading their audience, understanding what matters to them and then weaving in how technology can help them solve their problems.

While you do not want to over promise you do need to get the organisation excited about the possibilities technology can offer them to be more efficient and effective.  

An openness to experiment

Because technology is fast paced nature and always changing you need an openness to place some bets, knowing that many will not pay off.

Controlled experimentation is the cornerstone of a good technologist.  Because your organisational context is unique, no one can tell you what will work and what will not.

Therefore you need to have a lot of hypotheses about how to create value and find controlled ways to test whether they actually bring you closer to your business objectives or not.

High personal reliance

Due to the fast pace of change and the nature of high levels of experimentation there will be many initiatives that do not pay off.

These "failures" can be hard to understand for other senior executives who do not work in functions with as much change. Therefore, you need a high level of mental resilience to keep innovating and to keep experimenting when things do not go your way.

Mental resilience and having the conviction to follow your strategy when others are doubting your direction is one hallmark of some of the greatest leaders.

Arif Harbott [2] is a Chief Technology Officer and digital business leader who specialises in working with organizations undergoing large-scale transformation or disruption. He is the co-author of The HERO Transformation Playbook [3] with Cuan Mulligan



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