Another look on tech

My thoughts on tech.

Skills required for a CTO - be transformational

21 July 2022

Today, most companies have a CTO. Title, responsibilities, and expectations of the job may vary per company, as there is no singular definition of a “CTO”. But what I notice from various assignments in the software and technology industry is a convergence of the skills required to fill the role of a CTO. Communication and technology vision are frequently mentioned as critical skills. Werner Vogels wrote a blog post in which he describes the CTO role history and the different CTO archetypes.

From my experience as interim CTO and consultant, I have observed an emerging pattern in the industry. Given the critical role of software and data in an organisation’s strategy and the ever-changing environment in which companies operate, the organisation will have a competitive advantage if the CTO also has transformational skills. It becomes more apparent in digital-native companies whose business model centres on selling a software-powered digital product.

Do Something Great

Photo by Clark Tibbs on Unsplash

The concept is not new. In the book Accelerate, Dr. Nicole Forsgren, Gene Kim and Jez Humble found in their research that in high-performing organisations, the leadership is transformational instead of servant. They explore the premise that a high-performing organisation needs to be constantly evolving since the user needs shift, and transformational leadership can give direction and guide the organisation’s evolution.

But what does it mean?

Several qualities help to be a transformational CTO, which are interconnected. This blog post will not explore all the skills and qualities of a modern-day CTO but rather the ones connected to the skill of being transformational.

First and foremost the ability to read weak signals. In short, there are signals before any event (examples of events such as a staff member resigning or an economic downturn, to name two). Those signals can be very subtle (weak) and go almost unnoticed. The ability to capture the signals is the first step in building a transformational skill. With the ability to read weak signals, the power of making sense out of those signals. Just capturing signals is not enough; it is necessary to make sense of it, which is a tremendous challenge since reality is complex and chaotic. Let me be more specific: to be transformational, it is crucial to relate different information. And those relations emerge from the various signals (both strong and weak).

Showing empathic communication is vital. Other authors have mentioned communication before, and I want to emphasise on the empathic part. People can communicate with empathy by changing styles, adapting them to the context, and dealing with different situational nuances. My experiences taught me that using empathy in my communication reinforced relationships, even when the content of the message was not positive.

To be effective as a transformational leader, there are other two important qualities:

  • envision and communicate the principles in which the organisation operates (not only technology related), and
  • know how to navigate the organisation to implement structural changes. As the environment around the organisation changes, the organisation needs to evolve.

It means that the structure and responsibilities change, and as a transformational leader, it is crucial to identify the operating model principles that hamper or facilitate the organisation’s evolution. Due to organisational inertia, it is common for principles to become dogmas, and people stop to challenge them. Evolving the operating model is not a one-off activity; having the organisation’s buy-in will smooth the process. Knowing how to navigate the stakeholders and taking people along in the journey will increase the likelihood of success in changing the organisation’s structure.

These qualities will compound to the transformational skill of a CTO. But it doesn’t end here. In a digital-native company, a CTO is privileged to contribute to the organisation’s strategy rather than having a supporting role. The business proposition is centred on a digital product, and typically it will fall under the responsibility of the CTO. The company’s operating model will be critical for its success. An operating model bridges the company strategy to execution and delivery. A misfit in the bridge (the operating model) will limit the execution and delivery capability of the company strategy. The operating model is connected to the size of the company and the product lifecycle, to name two dimensions.

Where do we go from here?

As a community of leaders in our industry, we still have a long journey ahead of us. Sharing our field stories, failures and successes will inspire others and accelerate our learnings. I believe that the new generation of CTOs (or CPTOs, as some companies redefine the role) are driving the evolution of a digital-native organisation. More specifically, the evolution of their operating model. Gone are the days when a CTO was required to manage an organisation’s technology. Today, a CTO is in a privileged position to capture weak signals and make sense of them. I also recognise that it is not an easy task; it’s based on several factors, such as the complexity of the challenge (evolving an operating model) and the demand of the role (yes, still responsible for the digital product).

In my personal journey, I started to invest in my qualities of reading and understanding weak signals. I’m inspired by the Cynefin community and how they practice sense-making. I even embedded some of their ways into my practice as an interim CTO/ Consultant.

For example, during department updates, I pose sense-making questions at the beginning and end of the update, allowing people to share their perceptions.  In addition to that, I push myself to take notes and have self-reflection moments. The self-reflection is focused on my experiences, and by writing down the experiences, I can identify and amplify the signals. These regular practices helped me to create a foundation on which I can continue building the other qualities.

Being transformational as a CTO is a learnable skill, which I tuned with different professional experiences and knowledge from different communities. Every one of us has a different journey, but in the end, the goal should be to create an environment where people enjoy doing their work!