“Technology is nothing. What’s important is that you have faith in people, that they’re basically good and smart, and if you give them tools, they’ll do wonderful things with them.” – Albert Einstein

As a corporate culture, we’re incredibly focused on the progressive power of new tech, but our tech-driven mindset often overshadows the value of the people guiding that vision. Even though “finding the right tech” has become one of, if not the chief conversation for business strategy, most businesses still treat Chief Technology Officers as middling advisors. The role of CTO should be as an executive first and a technologist second. If the CTO does not have a seat at the executive table and does not understand the business challenges, how can he or she effectively guide and deliver higher quality solutions?

History is History

The CTO role caught on in the 80’s and, until 5 or 10 years ago, was mostly the same – focus on the company’s technology and the infrastructure to support it. The language around a Chief Technology Officer’s role is traditionally VP level when it should really be C-level. The CTO’s role was to find or develop the right hardware or software product, build a team to implement & support the product, and control the costs. The technology was enclosed within the walls of the organization (unless the business was a “tech” company). On a large scale, nothing was mobile, wireless or cloud based for businesses.

But the times they are a-changin’.

The Job Description is Evolving

Traditionally viewed merely as the most senior technical expert on the staff, the CTO’s true role is to “use IT to gain a strategic advantage for the company.” It’s not just about recommending the best tech anymore. The popularity of social media and digital tools (i.e. Salesforce, Office 365, Dropbox, etc) are current examples of how the CTO’s area of influence expands past the “hard tech”. These days, a CTO’s responsibilities cover building out a complete digital toolset – including digital profiles.

The CTO is now tasked with assessing the strategic and financial value of various types of technology to determine how it affects the company – and it’s bottom line.

CTO’s No Longer Operate on their Own Island

Today’s CTO is doing more than just keeping the tech lights on and more of a business partner. It’s a role that allows one to identify technology trends that can boost productivity and innovation. Defining tactical, long-term strategies based on these trends can have a big impact on a company’s bottom line. And considering the prevalence of technology across all departments and business functions, the CTO influence can be felt throughout an entire organization. It’s common to find CTO’s in the middle of conversations ranging from the strategic planning of a company’s modern adaptation to coordinating discussions about online advertising budgets.

Technology is defining our future and, as more business units are leveraging technology, the CTO becomes critical in making certain everything integrates and functions seamlessly across all business units. More importantly, he or she needs to ensure that these technology initiatives are financially and strategically in line with the overall corporate focus.

CTO’s Need to Shift to a Partner Role

As more and more CTO’s continue to be relegated to an advisory role rather than a partner role in the C-Suite, their budgets are being pulled away and distributed to other C-level executives for department level technology initiatives. More than ever, heads of Marketing have vast technology budgets – and more options on which to spend those budgets. The landscape they’re operating in is digital, dynamic and data-driven – the land of the CTO. It’s also getting more complex by the day.

It has become increasingly essential that a CTO act and be perceived as a true C-Suite partner.

How a CTO Becomes a Partner

While there’s no magic formula, being a brilliant technologist and staying up to date on the latest and greatest tech trends no longer makes you a successful CTO. I’ve found that, in nearly 25 years of working alongside Chief Technology Officers, today’s successful CTOs must:

  • Be a politician – ability to navigate the rocky political C-level waters of all organizations
  • Be a business person – truly understand the industry you work in and the business you work for. Understand the corporate mission and strategy. Navigate business deals. Be financial savvy.
  • Be a big-thinker/visionary – strategy isn’t just for CEOs. Strategize, optimize and/or scale along with the business.
  • Be approachable – the big CTO pitfall – don’t say “no” automatically.
  • Be agile – understanding politics, business and strategy won’t help if you can’t act quickly.
  • Be a leader and a team player – manage up, down and sideways.
  • Be a communicator – you’re the evangelist for the company’s tech vision.

It’s time for CTO’s to initiate the evolution from the person who keeps the website running and the lights on to a true business partner in the C-Suite. Take the initiative to become a leader in all aspects of the business and drive innovation from within.