Making the move from CTO to CEO was a daunting experience for me: after all, I had spent a large part of my career working behind the scenes. Now, I was going to be the face of a company, taking on new responsibilities that encapsulated a whole other realm of leadership than what I had previously experienced.
For chief technologists who deal primarily with the tech and little to none of the finance, marketing or sales, the path to CEO can be difficult to make out. Yet more and more we’re seeing tech-savvy individuals who have long since occupied the CTO position step up and accept the responsibility that comes with the title of CEO.
CTOs are a type of functional leader, meaning their roles are typically expertise-based rather than broadly operational like a CEO (CFO is another example of a functional leader). These types of leaders have specialized skill sets — CTOs are technology experts, and CFOs have an acute understanding of finance. According to research done by McKinsey & Company, less than 15 percent of CEOs in their dataset had risen from functional leadership positions such as CTO or CFO.
CEOs must set the overarching vision and goals for an organization. They make high-level business decisions regarding a variety of subjects that decide their organization’s direction. They must also communicate regularly with their board of directors and other leadership to solicit guidance and find the best course of action in any given situation. It’s a forward-facing role, one that requires a lot more out of a person mentally and socially than other leadership positions might.
As a CTO and technologist, I indeed found that my career consisted mostly of being behind a computer and dealing directly with the technology. This wasn’t entirely the case, as my leadership positions at GSI Commerce and OpenSky afforded me more organizational and operational experience, but for the most part, I was happy to be working behind the scenes. When OpenSky acquired by Alibaba and subsequently rebranded as MoreCommerce, I was approached for the role of CEO, and it was an opportunity I simply couldn’t pass up. But I knew that to effectively transition roles, it would require a lot of learning and discomfort before I could grow into the position of CEO. Here are some of the lessons I picked up in the process that helped me go from a CTO to a CEO.
Keep a Close Eye on Your Business
Businesses are like living organisms, and CEOs must constantly monitor their company’s health and overall growth, attempting to fix any issues that appear. While CTOs have a specific function in dealing with technological matters, CEOs must have a much broader perspective and a wider breadth of understanding in order to properly lead an organization.
Learning every individual aspect of how your organization works is akin to gathering the pieces of a puzzle. Now, you have to understand how all the pieces fit together. While departments like marketing and finance have distinct goals and functions, understanding their dynamic and how they collaborate will give you a deeper insight into the roles of your fellow leaders as well as how the business as a whole operates and seamlessly works together.
Be Prepared to Spend Less Time in Your Comfort Zone
Dan Woods, a tech industry author, consultant and former CTO, claims that “Successful CTOs find a way to beat back their fascination with technology and pay attention to the business issues. Companies will recognize it and reward it.”
It’s true that if a CTO is looking to move into the role of CEO that they’ll have to sacrifice much of the time spent with technology. CTOs will have to dedicate much of their time and effort getting themselves up to speed with the inner workings of the company that they are hoping to lead. Understanding other areas of your company — whether its accounting, HR, production, or marketing — will help give you a better idea of what to do when making decisions that involve those departments.
It’s important to realize that this is only a temporary discomfort. The more you push yourself to learn new responsibilities, the more confidence you’ll have in taking them on. Eventually, it’ll just become another part of the job, a regular task that CEOs will perform alongside overseeing the technology that they will be very familiar with as a result of their CTO experience.
Rely on Your Team
At the end of the day, a CEO doesn’t need to be a complete expert on everything. The senior executives that occupy your company’s c-suite are there for a reason, and the burden doesn’t fall to the CEO alone to make sure that everything is running smoothly and efficiently. When leaders begin to think that they bear the responsibility alone, their stress and anxiety over their business grows and can quickly get out of hand, leading to severe negative consequences for the organization as a whole. There’s nothing wrong with relying on others for assistance. In fact, it’s better when you do.
I am lucky enough to be surrounded by a great team at MoreCommerce. They are experts in their fields who are more than happy to lend me advice and guidance on the aspects of business that I am less versed in. A CEO is only as good as their team, and mine has provided me with the comfort and expertise to lead my company towards a vision that we all truly believe in — to help small- and medium-sized businesses thrive in a digital market.
As should be fully evident, the business world is in the midst of a major digital upheaval. With this in mind, many companies are looking to tech-savvy leaders in the CEO spot. It turns out that now the people who have spent their time behind a screen are quickly becoming the most suited for leading companies toward success. And of course, the quintessential factor for becoming a CEO is experience. The longer that you’ve occupied a CTO or other similar leadership role, the more suited you’ll already be to take your leadership to the next level. The path from CTO to CEO may not seem obvious at first, but by pushing oneself to learn new things and accept new responsibilities, technologists will find it easier to make the transition and continue advancing their careers.
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