Forget the tech: the new rule of CTO success

A successful CTO needs to influence, negotiate and collaborate. Time to focus on leadership skills – and let your team get on with the day to day

Full table shot of a collaborative business meeting

‘Resident tech expert’ no longer accurately describes the chief technology officer’s role. 

Since ongoing digital transformation spans the enterprise, the CTO must forge the right relationships to get the right results. This includes strategic conversations with C-suite colleagues to understand how technology can be used to deliver business value.

Jaco Vermeulen is a portfolio CTO for consultancy BML Digital. He believes that rather than fitting technology into a strategy, tech leaders should “translate business strategy into technology and understand how to implement it in the right way, at the right time, and at the right cost.” 

Of course, the role of a CTO does require an understanding of technology and how to implement it. But ultimately it is not the CTO but their team who are busy with the technical, day-to-day operational activities. 

What is expected of the CTO is the ability to demystify technology, manage expectations and communicate realistic outcomes, says Vermeulen.

According to James Absalom, chief commercial officer at talent advisory firm ZRG, 90% of a CTO’s time is spent influencing strategy and driving change across the organisation. “While CTOs do need to have a tech and digital background, their most important skills are to do with people, relationships and change management,” he says.

Who are the CTO’s most important allies?

As a result, the three most significant relationships a CTO needs to develop within the executive committee are with the chief executive, chief HR officer (CHRO) and chief financial officer (CFO). 

In Absalom’s view, the relationship with HR is a valuable jumping-off point – particularly for newly appointed CTOs – to understand how the organisation works. “Modern CHROs are change agents, people-focused and enablers for everyone to be successful,” says Absalom. They are also arbiters of company culture; aware of whether the company is open to change and digitally savvy – and that’s vitally useful insight when communicating with other C-level colleagues.

Another key relationship to nurture is with the CFO, believes Vermeulen. “Working closely with the CFO helps you translate technical value into financial benefits and payback, which most people understand,” he says. “You can use that data as a vehicle to create trust because people see that it isn’t about buying new software, it’s about investing in the future of the business.”

The third and most important relationship to build is with the CEO. As Vermeulen points out: “The CEO sets the broader strategic direction, and the CTO acts as a mirror for that, working out how to deliver the strategy through technology.” How should CTOs build influence with these and other key figures in the C-suite and across the organisation?

How to build trust and influence in the C-suite

Absalom says that tech leaders often fail by trying to push their agenda too hard. “The focus shouldn’t be on what they can do for me, but what I can do for them,” he says. Building lasting influence is a careful balancing act. Leaders must know when to push and when to give. The secret, says Absalom, is to “look, listen and learn”.

With the CEO, he recommends setting up monthly catch-up meetings to review the state of technology across the business and discuss business cases for potential change and its possible impact. The use of sound data to back up such arguments is crucial, he adds.

You change things by stealth. It’s about creating connections on the ground that grow organically

With other C-level colleagues, Absalom recommends making time and space for informal bonding sessions, such as breakfast meetings, to discuss their priorities and concerns. This is important because different function leaders can easily feel threatened by the potential impact of technology on their team and how they operate. Tech chiefs must work hard to build trust with colleagues in the leadership team. “The CTO should be an enabler, not a blocker,” says Absalom. They must be interested in how technology can help each function achieve its goals; how IT can help serve the wider business. 

Vermeulen warns that IT must not become absorbed in the agendas of other business leaders. “You have to translate everything into technology that works best for the entire organisation, not just individual functions,” he explains. Tech leaders need to set realistic expectations and ensure that all functions are aligned on fundamental business goals.

Turn the C-suite into a team function

The secret to success is recognising that the C-suite is a team and must function as such. If there is siloed thinking in the C-suite, it’s the responsibility of each member to be intentional about finding ways to improve the dynamics. 

While tech leaders may be concerned with ways to increase IT’s influence in the C-suite, Philippe Guenet, digital business performance coach and director of thought leadership at the International Coaching Federation, points out that “everyone is working together for the good of the company; to drive the business forward.”

The best way to build lasting influence is to lead by example and set a standard of excellence, says Guenet. CTOs should seek out ways to improve quality within their immediate sphere of influence. This means encouraging open and frequent communication both within the IT team and with those areas of the business that the team interacts with directly. 

It is influencing by way of extreme collaboration. “You change things by stealth,” Guenet says. “It’s not a big, top-down change management programme – it’s about creating connections on the ground that grow organically.”