Welcome to the C-suite! How do CTOs succeed at the leaders’ table?


Technology is no longer just a tool to support businesses; it’s now often the business driver, which places CTOs at the core of business development. Welcome to the leadership team CTOs! But how do you successfully infiltrate yourself as a technology leader into the C-suite, and does being part of a ‘first team’ mean you have to neglect your place in the technology team you lead? As a CTO, you should act as a partner to the business who adds value to the senior leadership team through enablement, decision making and valuable reporting. So, once you’re a fully-fledged C-suite member, what can you do to keep your place in the executive leadership team?

Here’s our take and input from CTO Craft Community members about what they recommend for making your mark and proving invaluable in the C-suite.

Changes in the C-suite

Traditionally, the C-suite welcomed only the bare minimum of colleagues, including the CEO, COO and CFO. But as market challenges continue, the C-suite requires different skill sets and knowledge to thrive. 

According to an Ernst and Young 2019 study, 82% of CEOs added a C-level position in the last five years to cover areas including innovation, digital and strategy. And 72% of CEOs said they considered changing or adding C-suite roles. And all this before the monumental change the pandemic brought to businesses.

But a role in the C-suite doesn’t just mean that CTOs need to know their team and goals inside out; they must be able to combine their technical expertise with the organisational strategy and vision. 

CTO Craft Community member and CTO at optilyz Daniel Bartholomae says, “As a CTO, you are not only responsible for technology. You are responsible for the full company’s success. This sometimes also means understanding other business areas and challenging the work of your peer executives.”

The impact of the pandemic

We can blame the pandemic for many things, but rarely is it associated with positive change. Instead, the need for CTOs to step up quickly (and without warning) into critically urgent decision-maker roles came with the pandemic. As a result, CTOs found themselves on the frontline addressing the challenge of accelerated implementation of digital technologies and then facing the aftermath of external and internal threats.

Fundamentally, the pandemic drove the value of CTOs forward at an unprecedented pace. Their impact on business value and transformation was impossible to ignore as, without strong CTOs, businesses should question how they would have adapted or survived when the pandemic hit.

The rising reputation

A 2021 study of 3,000 CEOS by IBM highlights the value assigned to CTOs:

  • When asked which C-suite roles they believed were most critical to the success of the business, CTOs and CIOs came joint third just behind COOs and CFOs.
  • The importance of the technology voice at the table is even more prevalent in companies that ranked in the top 20% based on financial performance, as those CEOs saw their CTOs as second only to CFOs.
  • 40% of CTOs in the study reported directly to the CEO.
  • 67% of CTOs said they reported into the C-suite rather than a business unit.
Adapting to a new first team

The idea of the first team, as described by creator Patrick Lencioni, is the concept that effective leaders should prioritise supporting their fellow leaders over their second team/s, their direct reports. And while this may sound like a simple adaption, the reality of the leadership team being more of a priority than technical teams is not necessarily an easy mindset to adjust to when joining the C-suite.

Joel Chippindale, CTO Coach and Adviser, agrees, “Many of the people I coach have been newly promoted into CTO positions. The shift in mindset that I struggled with when I moved into the role and see others finding difficult, is that move from seeing the team that reports to you as your primary team to seeing the C-Suite as your primary team.

“This is a really important shift to make if you are to be successful when you first move into a CTO role. Your success in your new role relies on your ability to work as part of the leadership team, to be able to build relationships with the people in this team, to understand what motivates them and what they need, and to see them as people who can support and help you out.”

How do you make this adaptation? It takes time to understand and trust the new team. You need to treat them like a cohort, be inclusive with your information sharing (if it’s relevant), and be prepared to share experiences and feedback and ask questions as you should learn from each other. Yes, it might feel exposed or vulnerable, but as a team, you have to work together as a team and face complex challenges.

Strategy, strategy, strategy

Did we mention strategy? You know your area, teams, challenges and goals inside out, but are you communicating these details to your fellow C-suiters? One vital aspect of your CTO role is understanding market and technology trends and their implications for your business. You’re the expert, and your input and perspective on market trends are vital for the leadership team.

You’re expected to come to the C-suite armed with technical expertise and leadership and be able to explain to C-suite colleagues how you can use technical resources to meet the organisation’s long-term strategy.

It’s your role to align technology strategy to business strategy and ensure that the service and product development process is fit for purpose. Whether this means new hires or outsourcing, the strategy to manage this sits with you as the CTO. 

Bring the data

We’re not saying you have to crunch numbers above anything else, but to be a true asset to the C-suite, you need to bring the data and reports. Depending on the size of your team, you may have someone to prepare and analyse the data, or you may be responsible yourself.

Regardless of the data preparation, accurate and current metric and KPIs will need to be communicated to fellow leaders. It’s down to you to assess and present internal and external market data.

Highlight risks and solutions

You can hugely impact the C-suite by being honest about tech and security risks and explaining the risks, scale, potential impact, and solutions. However, there’s no point hiding the truth only to be hit by a security breach that you weren’t surprised about but those other leaders were in the dark about. That’s just not going to raise your reputation in the right way.

Focus on communication

As a CTO, you must communicate effectively with the CEO and all your C-suite peers. 55% of CTOs report that their main C-suite engagement is equally with the CEO and the COO. But it’s not just about being about to communicate with C-suite members; it’s about how you do this. 

For example, you need to translate technical detail and explanations into business speak that C-suiters understand. Blind them with science (technology!), and your impact may lessen.

Laura Tacho, Engineering Leadership Coach, former VP of Engineering and CTO Craft Coach, agrees, “In this new world, you’ve graduated from just solving engineering problems to solving business and company problems. Imagine sitting in a meeting where a sales leader is using a ton of jargon and acronyms, and you can’t keep up. There are two typical reactions here: you tune out because you don’t understand what’s being discussed, or you think the sales leader is talking down to you and making you feel a bit stupid for not knowing the sales lingo. 

“It’s not hard for other leaders to feel this way about engineering. It’s not their job to understand the detailed inner workings of APIs, AWS, or software development in general (though everyone at the C-level should have a reasonable understanding of how other departments operate). Instead, you need to figure out how to explain it in ways that are relevant to the business and to your peers; otherwise, you risk losing credibility.”

Widen your business scope

And then there’s the challenge of having different discussions than you did pre-CTO. While you must consider technology and its impact on the broader organisation and communicate this to your fellow leaders, you must also give opinions on the business and be able to question others and understand their part in the wider business. A siloed approach to understanding only technology in the organisation won’t cut it in the C-suite.

Tacho says, “Joining a leadership team can really stretch the “business muscles” of first-time CTOs and VPs. Depending on your previous roles, you might have been able to spend most of your time focusing on your department or your teams — specifically, you’re mostly operating within engineering. Now, as part of a leadership team, your peers aren’t other people in engineering. They’re the other department leads and executives.”

Although the challenges of adapting to the C-suite may be tough and not for everyone, being a CTO in a leadership team can offer many rewards. As you develop your understanding of the wider business and adapt to being a pivotal part of the first team, you will undoubtedly expand your knowledge and sense of achievement and build strong relationships across the C-suite.


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