Three attributes a serial technology CEO looks for in a CTO

The Chief Technology Officer is now a core member of any C-suite, and needs to combine the traditional skills of technical know-how with a business-savvy approach and heightened product awareness. As a CEO, it can be tough to differentiate between highly-skilled CTO candidates, but viewing potential hires through the lens of these three competencies will make your job a lot easier and your business more robust and visionary. Here’s my take:

The roles and responsibilities of the C-suite are changing at serious pace, and businesses are starting to look for different attributes and qualities in their hires. Across the global enterprise market, CTO job applicants need a wider range of skills and experience to meet the demands of today’s market.

Hiring a CTO today means more than finding someone to sit in the back office contemplating proof of concepts for new technologies. Senior management expects a CTO to simultaneously maintain business output and push technological boundaries. They need to be able to deal with everything from the imminent IoT explosion to managing data security, while staying grounded in their core responsibilities.

For CEO’s looking to make what will be a key hire for the wider organization, only the best will do. You need to ask yourself: who has the capability profile and personality that will ensure the company’s technology acumen is in line with where it needs to be? Can they drive monetization of products by championing a relevant, differentiated and inspiring technology vision?

I look for three key attributes above all others when hiring a CTO:

Experience of Change
I want a CTO to have had some first-hand experience with change cycles and inflection points – likely involving some sort of transformation – within a business. It’s especially useful if this experience calibrates with the moment in time where you find your own business and how you want to evolve it.

A relevant example is this: if a company is hiring a VP of Sales when looking to scale the business from 5 to 50 million dollars, they wouldn’t select someone who scaled a previous business from 50 to 200 million – the critical mass of skill and business infrastructures simply don’t match. So contextual experience is vital, not just with change per se, but the right level and moment of time of the change.

This experience often goes hand in hand with a broader executive appreciation and understanding of enterprise architecture, business enablement, customer success and the full economics of the business. Whereas traditionally the CTO might have been consumed by issues like technology and infrastructure scaling, this focused view simply doesn’t work any longer.

Having a broader business context and first-hand experience with change management, coupled with the CTO technology foundations, is reflective of a candidate who is evolving in line with the needs of the enterprise and is aligning with the CEO.

Product Ownership
If I meet a prospective CTO who’s had ownership and accountability of a product, I’m immediately more confident in their ability to deal with the contemporary demands of customers, partners and the C-suite. Product experience enables insight into the commercial aspect of a business and also means that, as a CTO, he or she will be able to appreciate our customers’ needs.

CTOs need to be able to understand both the ‘why’ and the ‘how’ of a product and where the value-add element can be incorporated – this is something I feel they won’t get by carrying out their work with a hands-off approach. As a company, we can’t afford to miss our business targets of driving a customer-informed view of the product roadmap, and ensuring delivery infrastructure that leads to positive customer experience. Hitting these targets contributes to revenue growth and customer satisfaction.

More than Grassroots
No doubt, a deep and wide technology background remains the essential foundation for any enterprise-grade CTO. He or she will need to understand how our products work at a fundamental level and combine this knowledge with important technology and business trends. Translating know-how into action, and leveraging this expertise and credibility, makes for strong leadership potential.

That said, I’d expect more from this hire. As noted above, I look for the candidate to have a solid understanding of the economic and execution levers underpinning our business model. Being commercially astute is vital, as it allows the company to deliver products and services that are optimized economically and from a customer value perspective. This enables us to have fully-informed business analysis from all angles of the business – including the technology angle.

There are also plenty of ways the CTO can and should step out of their comfort zone. I’d look to hire someone with a willingness to engage in customer quarterly business reviews with the sales team, attend a customer workshop or focus group, or give a keynote speech at an expo. The desire to engage and to be a thought leader internally and externally is vital.

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