Executive Education

4 Things That Make or Break a CEO/CTO Relationship

The only thing as crippling as a CEO’s exit is a CTO’s. The departure of a CTO can influence everything from turnover to the long-term viability of a business. The CEO/CTO partnership is indispensable to a business’ sustainable growth — if it fails, there’s a chance the business will fail with it.

Comcast Cable recently lost Sree Kotay, its 10-year CTO. With a new CEO, Kotay’s exit was inconvenient at best. With the average CTO pulling in $229, 231, departures like this are costly.

FedEx co-founder and CEO, Fred Smith, realized the positive potential of including technology into the business early on. In 2000, Smith hired the company’s first chief information/tech officer, Rob Carter. The partnership led to more than ten years of company success.

It’s obvious good things come from the marriage of a CTO and a CEO, but CEOs must provide their CTOs with the following to be successful:

1. Strong communication: While most CEOs identify weak communication as the root of company problems, many also treat communication as a “soft skill” everyone has. This problem is compounded when strategy-focused CEOs need to connect with development-focused CTOs.

To find common ground with such differing expertise, CEOs need to ask questions of their CTOs to maintain an ongoing dialogue about what’s important to both:

• What is the digital strategy? What percentage of the business is digitally enabled?
• What should we consider between automation and outsourcing?
• What’s our definition of technological success compared to disruptive companies like Apple and Google?
• Is our technology portfolio and innovation aligned with our opportunities and threats?

2. Team-building freedom: As consultant Julie Kantor says, “CEOs foster disengagement when they hire a talented team and then either micromanage them or fail to empower them.” CEOs are experienced leaders, but they’re not their company’s most technically talented people.

While a CEO can pinpoint the traits and behaviors employees should exhibit, a CTO knows which hard skills are necessary and should be given the freedom to find the best candidates. With lost salary and productivity costs exceeding $350,000 for a bad programming hire, CTOs should be empowered to locate the tech talent CEOs need on their teams.

3. A clear understanding of overlaps and influences: Setting goals is no small feat, especially when a fast-moving CEO is trying to push products or services forward and not seeing eye to eye with the tech team. The deeper problem is that the developers and stakeholders have different priorities and values; no amount of agile methodology, machine learning, or wizardry can solve that.

CEOs and CTOs need to recognize how the other person thinks and determine where their choices overlap. If the company is built on a foundation of taking risks, the CTO has to be willing to follow the CEO’s lead and build new features or platforms. Likewise, the CEO of a traditional company has to motivate the CTO to adapt historically successful plans on building solutions.

4. Access to the best software solutions: Despite being the resident tech guru, a CTO can’t be technologically progressive without utilizing the best tools.

Not only will earmarking funds for software improve the company’s work, but it will also enhance its essential tech members’ quality of life. A study of CTOs found those who were unhappy with their project management software were also unhappy with their work-life balance. Software’s long-term effect on a company’s competitiveness in the marketplace can’t be overstated.

Losing a CTO can be painful. A CEO’s success is intertwined with a CTO’s; meeting a CTO’s needs should be taken as seriously as moving the company forward. Without a strong CTO, that forward movement may never come.

Written by: Mark Minevich — two-time author and B20 member — founded Going Global Ventures to guide leaders through the global economy. Mark is a senior fellow of the U.S. Council on Competitiveness, a vice chair at Comtrade Group, and a UNOPS advisor. An expert in digitization, autonomy, and AI, he covers these topics as a contributor for Forbes, Entrepreneur, and Observer.

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Mark Minevich
Mark Minevich is the principal founder of Going Global Ventures and venture partner of GVA Capital in Silicon Valley. He is also a senior fellow of the U.S. Council on Competitiveness in Washington, D.C.; a vice chair of Ventures and External Affairs at Comtrade Group; and senior advisor on Global Innovation and Technology of UNOPS. He is a taskforce member of the B20’s Digital Task Force as an expert in digitization, advanced autonomous systems, and the future of AI.