CEO vs CTO – Fixing a Broken Marriage

Many times IT dysfunction in a company comes down to the inability of the CEO and the CTO (or CIO) to effectively communicate.  When you talk to the CEO, the problem is that, “The CTO just doesn’t get it.  Every time we ask for something the answer is ‘no’ or that we need more resources to do that.  There just doesn’t seem to be a sense of urgency, or even an understanding around what are obviously the most important goals of the business!  I think we need to go in a different direction.”

And from the CTO’s perspective, the typical assessment is that, “The CEO just doesn’t get it.  She has no idea how much is on our plate and what actually goes into building the platform – and if she would just stop changing direction every week, we might actually get something done!”

The reality is that there is truth in both perspectives and until both parties accept that, you will never get the productivity that you want and need from your technology team.  So… for the CEO, once you admit that the CTO might not be clueless, here are some practical things you can do to repair this relationship and, in turn, maximize the output of your delivery organization.

  1. Accept the Difference – The CTO most likely doesn’t think the way that you do, hang in the same circles you do, dress like you, talk like you, etc, etc, etc…..  It is not surprising that you might have some challenges communicating effectively!  If you can accept that and not try to force a round peg into a square hole, that alone will go a long way towards improving the relationship.  But to take it one step further, spend some time together outside the direct context of business.  Get to know the person.  Have lunch together, go out for a beer after work, maybe you both like to play golf, do something!  It might not help but then again, it might make all the difference.
  2. Get Alignment – make sure that business goals and objectives for the coming month/quarter/year are well understood by the entire technology team and that the plans for that team are in alignment with them.  Even better, include the CTO in coming up with the strategy and goals for the business – you will secure much better buy-in and you will likely get some great insights to help shape that plan.
  3. Trust – Unless you want to learn all things technical, you must be able to trust your tech leader.  If you think that team is not working hard enough or not getting enough done or you think estimates are too high and you try to micro-manage your way to justifying that belief, it will backfire – guaranteed.  If you don’t trust the CTO, get someone in who can validate or assuage your concerns.  If the concerns are valid, replace the CTO ASAP and move on.
  4. Stay the Course – Yes, you must be “nimble” and the company may need to pivot from time to time and you must also be responsive to your customers, however, none of this is an excuse for being all over the place.  Developing software (and other complex IT systems) is a lot like building a house – there is way more that goes into it than just the parts you see and when you change direction (let’s move this room over there), that will likely result in expensive “foundational” changes.  Continual changes like this result in greatly diminished productivity, morale problems, a shaky platform that will not scale, and, ironically, to you thinking that the CTO cannot deliver. 

 At TechCXO, our fractional CTOs/CIOs have significant experience helping to bridge this gap and make the CEO/CTO relationship functional.  From advising the CEO to mentoring the CTO to even taking an active leadership role over the Technology team when things are beyond repair, we can help you get to where you need to be from a product development and technology standpoint.

Greg Smith is TechCXO’s Managing Partner – Product & Technology.  See his full bio and contact information here.