For a technology focused business, the relationship between CEO and CTO is the key driver for the success of the company. Yet for all its importance, this relationship is often a challenging one. The CEO leads the company, gives it purpose and vision to achieve great things. The CTO is often hired to take ownership of all things tech. In this piece I’ll share my view about how to make this collaboration work, avoiding being stuck in different worlds (business vs tech) and creating synergies that will create a productive, and most importantly, enjoyable working relationship.
Finding common ground
For some reason this isn’t as obvious as it should be - the best way to create a productive working relationship is to start by finding the common ground. It’s often thought that CEO’s personality is profit oriented, fast moving and adaptable to anything that will benefit company accounts, while CTOs are risk-averse and more careful when it comes to the pace of technology in a company, resulting in difficult conversations when it comes to priorities and resource allocation.This may not be entirely accurate, as there are many leadership styles for both CEO and CTO roles - however, there are always goals that are shared for each role. Here are some examples of common goals I’ve experienced:
Attracting and retaining top talent. Most CEOs know that their organization is as good as the people that make it - that’s why they hired a great CTO! As CTOs, we know the importance of cohesive engineering teams - keeping the tech team motivated and challenged in an engaging environment that allows for good work/life balance is of critical importance. Understanding that both of you want the best for your colleagues and employees will make it easy to find common ground that will affect the team.
Making customers happy. Happy customer is good for the bottom line, and will make a CEO happy. To make customers happy, you want to build a quality, stable and scalable product, and avoid outages and disruption - important considerations for a grounded CTO. Whenever I find myself in a challenging conversation with the CEO, we always ask ourselves - what do our customers need? And all of a sudden we would find ourselves working for a common goal.
Continuous learning and improvement. Anyone reaching a senior business leadership position will always aim to better themselves, learn new things and improve professionally. With both individuals at the top of their game, but with different backgrounds, experiences and goals, there aren't many better people to learn from than your CEO or CTO. Since becoming a CTO, I’m privileged and proud to have learned about what it takes to run a business and leadership challenges in general from my CEO. And, though not for me to say, I hope that I have made technology a bit less mystical and easy to discuss and understand for them too.
Learning from each other
One common challenge for a CEO is to embrace the technology at the heart of the company they lead. Often, technology is siloed within the CTO's department, and all and every technical decision is made by the CTO, and every discussion about technology on every level is led by the CTO and his team. When technology is core of the business (and it’s quickly becoming so for most businesses) - then the technology needs and has to be at the forefront of the entire company, board, and, of course CEO. Hiring a CTO does not absolve the CEO from dealing with technology - on the contrary, the CTO should help you embrace and understand it more.
We said before that one of the key roles of a CTO is to be the main technology communicator, ensuring technology is understood at every level of the company - especially by their executive peers and the CEO. Somehow technology can stay buried in a buck of acronyms, and technical slang difficult to penetrate for anyone not part of that community. As a CTO, you need to learn to adapt your language and the communication style, to be able to discuss technology with non-technical stakeholders, CEO, the board, the investors - in simple terms, but keeping that excitement that we feel about technology.
Remember that, as a CTO, you may hold technology in your back pocket - but in this role you’re not just another techie, you are part of the business leadership team and should embrace that role. Learn to improve your decision making, by adding business considerations to your tech expertise. You may be eager to migrate the product to that new framework or programming language all your peers are raving about - but consider for a second how that may impact the business you’re leading.
Embrace trade-offs: Saying Yes and No
Trust has to be at the heart of the CEO/CTO partnership. Believe that your CTO knows the technology, and their tech team, and when they say a new feature will take two months - trust them, don’t ask if it can be done by next week! CTO doesn’t state these timelines for their own sake - they are thinking about the development team that will implement the solution, and the operations team who will maintain it when it falls over when it has to be rushed through.
For me as a CTO, the impact on any decision on your team is a key consideration - ensure that your team can deliver what is promised, never surprise them with one-sided decisions that will impact the quality of work and team morale - a recipe for failure.
Sales-focused executive teams have a tendency for groupthink - considering short term fixes as strategic solutions. CTO is there to maintain strategic thinking when it comes to technology. For example, as a product company, you should always focus on the product - adding features that would benefit a single client, even for a short term gain, are likely not to result in long term value, however unlikely it seems. On the other hand, if, for example, that one client does have potential to open new business opportunities, as CTO you must learn to recognize that.
At the same time, CTO’s have the reputation of being negative - always saying no to any new initiative, and requiring an excessive amount of time for any pivot or change of direction in the business. Often this is justified - but I have found that having an optimistic outlook and preparing for change of direction by offering alternative solutions will be more beneficial than a grumpy ‘it's not possible with current workload and budget’ line. Optimistic and pragmatic outlook can go a long way when leading people and works wonders for personal relationships. So, my fellow CTOs, if you need to say No, do it gently, think about alternatives options and consider middle ground.
One of the key things I learned since working as CTO is designing for flexibility. We techies want to be proud of our work, design elegant software solutions, fastest and most scalable services - and that craftsmanship is why we do what we do. However, in the role of CTO, you need to be pragmatic, and accept trade-offs for the long term goals. This doesn’t mean accepting technical debt, but being selective and ready for compromise. Always design for flexibility and extensibility, as if there is one thing true about business (especially tech startups and scaleups), it’s that pivoting and changing focus are not a question of if, but when.
Strong United Front
The dynamics between CEO and CTO is glaringly obvious when they share the limelight - for example at board or client meetings and investor discussions. I have seen first hand where the CEO/CTO leadership team won their audience by seamless transition in communication, reinforcing each other's points and picking up discussion to take advantage of their individual strengths. This is especially true when the CEO can hold technical discussion, but hands over to CTO for more in-depth details, and where CTO demonstrates business acumen when picking up technical questions.
Keep this up CEOs and CTOs out there - tech-savvy CEOs and business-minded CTOs are at best when working together. As a CEO, understand the importance of understanding technology at the company you're leading - and mentor your CTO so they can learn to include business-focused and customer-centric thinking in their technology expertise.
And to all current and aspiring CTOs - ensure to share the importance of technology with your CEO and wider executive team. TO achieve that, learn to use simple language, avoid techie terms and bring technology closer to your audience. And when your CEO is focused on the revenue and bottom line, it’s not something you’re removed from - use your technology expertise to align with business goals. CEO and CTO are a team who should enjoy working together, challenging and learning from each other - creating a united front that will be the lasting image for both external stakeholders like investors, as well as bringing together entire company together