Bridging the technology and product gap is the key to CTO success

There is a lot of discussion around C-suite power dynamics in the corporate world. It seems everyone has an opinion about which C-level executives are wielding the most influence over corporate direction and strategy. New “C-level” acronyms emerge with each passing year. Today it seems there is a “chief something” for just about every job function or operational department imaginable.

Behind all the “C” titles, however, are actual jobs to do and people to lead. Very real competitive, technological, financial, and human resource challenges are inherent in each C-level role. Absent strong communication ties and strategic alignment amongst those in senior leadership positions, an organization will inevitably struggle to execute its plans and realize its vision.

In the larger picture, the chief technology officer (CTO) is a relative newcomer to the C-suite, taking on a necessary but different role than the more traditional chief information officer (CIO). But what is that role? How is it different? And how can the CTO improve the dynamics in the C-suite to drive the business forward?
Here we explore some of the potential answers to these questions and steps CTOs can take to be more effective leaders.

CTOs Should Avoid the Technology-Only Trap

The first challenge for CTOs is to differentiate themselves from a traditional CIO function. There is a reason why CTOs have emerged and taken an important seat in the executive boardroom in recent years, and its essential to separate the two titles and the roles they play.

The primary driver of this differentiation is that technology and digital decisions are no longer solely a back-office consideration. Customer-facing digitally-enabled products are at the very core of most business plans and go-to-market strategies today.

The traditional CIO is frequently associated with specific, internally facing functions that are mission-critical to information systems and related infrastructure.

Traditional CIOs typically manage things like:

  • Procurement
  • Installation
  • Operation
  • Supervision
  • Maintenance

CTOs, on the other hand, have a much different charter.

CTOs need to be externally facing critical thinkers in the development of corporate products and priorities. They also need to facilitate communication so executive teams can make well-informed and data-driven strategic decisions.

Many business-savvy CIOs have rightfully positioned themselves and migrated to the CTO role in their organizations. But with that change comes a responsibility to develop the essential skills necessary to thrive beyond being a capable manager of IT infrastructure.

The CTO cannot be looked at by their executive peers merely as the person “who manages all that technology stuff.”

The CTO needs to be an active, credible voice and leader in formulating the strategic business and product plans. Otherwise, peers will see the CTO as having only a business support function, following strategic business planning decisions.

CTOs Are (and Should Be) the Bridge Between Technology and Product

One way to think about the role of the CTO is as a bridge between technology and product management. This makes perfect sense when looking at today’s business landscape where a compelling case can be made that “all products are digital” in one form or another.

It’s rare to find a product today that’s not entirely digital – or leaning heavily on digital capabilities – to meet customer demands and be competitive in its marketplace.

Product managers depend on their internal IT departments as well as outsourced digital partners to literally “deliver the goods” to market while constantly assessing customer needs and improving customer experiences. IT managers, for their part, will often say they can “build anything in any timeframe,” provided they have enough money and resources. That said, they need someone to establish realistic priorities.

With an executive platform, the CTO is uniquely positioned to coordinate initiatives from product development with organizational technical capabilities and investments.

This is known as “bridge thinking,” and it helps deliver on the business strategy and goals.

Bridge thinking is a pivotal contribution and one that can be immediately understood by other players in the C-suite, especially if the CEO is proactive in supporting and endorsing this role. By eliminating much of the potential for friction between product and technology, the CTO provides a strong coherent voice for these two functions in the C-suite.

The result of “bridge thinking” is a closer bond between the CTO and the CEO in formulating strategies, establishing goals, and prioritizing products – with the customer and the needs of the marketplace ultimately at the center of each decision.

Bridge the Gap by Connecting Effectively with Others in the C-Suite

As a member of the C-suite, CTOs need to excel at communication and building buy-in from other members of the executive team. To be more effective leaders and communicators in the executive suite using this “bridge” role, CTOs need to:

1. Secure a mandate.

As a CTO, you must avoid assuming you have functional authority to steer and facilitate both product and technology unless it has already been defined in your role.

If you don’t currently have this defined explicitly, this is an excellent opportunity to talk to your CEO about the benefits to the organization of the CTO “bridging the gap.” The last thing you want to do is alienate the very executive leaders you want to help.

2. Be an extrovert.

The CTO role is no place for a “passive” management style that is common amongst even the most brilliant technologists. Being a “tech geek” is certainly fine, but it will only take you so far in a CTO role. You will need to be an extrovert, develop strong skills of persuasion (yes, you are constantly “selling”), and learn to communicate often and in ways that will build consensus across functions.

3. Know your customers.

As CTO your primary corporate “posture” is externally facing. This may be the most difficult adjustment to make for some, especially CTOs coming from a traditional IT orientation that places a primary emphasis on managing internal operations.

You’ll need to become intimately familiar with your marketplace, your customers and your competitors’ products and services. Frequent collaboration with product, sales, and marketing leaders is a must.

4. Facilitate data-driven decision-making.

Executives in the C-suite depend on consistent, reliable, and comprehensive data to make decisions. Much information already exists from the feedback loop product management and marketing are regularly gathering from customers. Synthesize the data, then build additional data capabilities using multiple input sources.

This will enable management to make smart product decisions and support those initiatives with the appropriate technology investments. Insights from data helps management avoid the common decision pitfalls that come from “gut feelings” and “chasing shiny objects.” Product prioritization will be based on meaningful, actionable data upon which all executive stakeholders can agree.

Embrace Your Role in Meeting the Demands of Customers and Your Team

In conclusion, CTOs who wish to build deeper, more credible relationships with their CEOs and C-Suite peers must:

  • Be externally facing
  • Embrace their role as an essential bridge between product and technology
  • Understand that product decisions and technology investments are made with greater confidence when supported by real-time data

Ultimately, the organization benefits from smarter, faster and more effective senior level decision-making that optimizes technology investments to meet the demands of its customers and markets.

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