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Welcome to our series of CEO Guides. These articles provide a short guide on key technology topics, reflecting the common questions we are asked by CEOs as well as providing an outline on the critical foundations of each topic. 

What defines a great CTO?

Why is it important to hire a strong CTO?

Key points for CEOs and Board members

Common CEO questions about hiring senior technology leaders

What technology leadership is NOT

Examples of how AKF Partners works with organizations to hire and develop technology leaders

What defines a great CTO?

It is not hard to find many general articles on what makes a great leader. But it is a rare mix of attributes that make a remarkable CTO. We have developed an AKF CTO hiring checklist for companies when recruiting for senior technology leaders. This list includes:

    Transformation agent

    Simple solutions to complex problems

    Engineer and Technologist (thisis only PART of the job)

    Relationship builder and relationship skills

    Creative problem solver

    Critical thinking skills

    Financial and business acumen (hard to find)

    Ability to contribute to corporate and product strategy

Any CEO needs to ensure the leader they are hiring will be able to tackle the company’s current challenges today as well as its future needs. Many organisations tend to hire to solve the problems they face at that very moment - often execution pace, team and stakeholder relations or strategic direction.  But great leaders can direct and steer their team over multiple stages of evolution. A CEO needs to be clear on what they need their new tech or product leader to achieve - in three months, 12 months, three years and beyond.

Why is it important to hire a strong CTO?

Companies today must be proficient at technology to win in their market and to expand into new products and services. This means having senior, seasoned technology leadership represented at the executive level. We have seen the product and technology function layered in almost every corner of an organisation - whether under marketing, sales or even finance or HR. However, in today’s world, it needs to be a strong function that sits at the top table and contributes to the company’s strategic direction.

Key points for CEOs and Board members

Technology is a value-driving function. It is not a service function and should not be confused with IT. Therefore, any product and tech leader needs to be highly commercial and somebody who can drive the commercial performance of the business

Senior leaders need to demonstrate a mix of execution and strategy. Unfortunately, recruiters often fall into the trap of thinking solely about execution experience and skills

Consider your future tech leader as a part of the CEO succession plan. This approach ensures you hire a strong overall player. You would not hire a CEO-in- waiting who did not understand finance. The same goes for product and tech leaders. If this is an area of weakness (due to lack of exposure rather than aptitude, then it is very easy to provide training)

It is critical for CEOs to have alignment across their executive in terms of vision, priorities and metrics. Too often product and tech leaders and their teams bump up against either conflicting priorities - or perhaps even worse - a never ending list of different priorities depending on the team. No software team can excel if the CEO is not very clear on the direction and the handful of key priorities which should be based on business critical outcomes not output.

CTOs are passionate executors; they get things done. Therefore, they need to have strong interpersonal skills to build support across the organisation

All of the above should be communicated with your headhunter and Chief People Officer. Unfortunately, many people have a set view of a ‘typical’ tech leader and which runs counter to many of the points above. 

Common CEO questions about hiring senior technology leaders

Should we use a big headhunting firm or a specialist tech boutique recruitment company?

Size of the recruitment firm is not important. But as a CEO, you want to find a recruiter with a strong reputation and a broad network of talent. Many headhunters say they can recruit a CTO but unfortunately many don’t really understand technology or maybe are more experienced in hiring IT leaders (which can be a very different profile).

Quiz potential headhunters on previous assignments and you may also press them to provide examples of the type of candidates they would approach if they were awarded the assignment. This can be a strong indicator of both their network as well as their understanding of your recruitment needs.  

How can I ensure my CTO candidates have strong technical competencies?

We would encourage any organisation to put their shortlist candidates in front of some of your key tech team members. Not only is this a great way to assess fit but it also is a good test of capabilities. Often companies can be wary of this step but properly handled, it is a fantastic way of including the team in the process and building support for your incoming CTO.

Once you have a shortlist of final candidates, you may also want to consider a technical leadership interview.  AKF Partners often does this for companies and top headhunters. This usually takes the form of a one hour interview with particular focus on technical competence, leadership style and ways of working. Such interviews can also dive deep into any critically needed skills, such as machine learning or security or areas of concern, such as balance between strategy and execution.

If you do not do either of the above, at minimum headhunters should also be able to provide some validation on technical capabilities through references.

Why do my CTO candidates say they want to be involved in strategy?

Good tech leaders are creative problem solvers and should be focused on strategic outcomes.  A key element of their role should be to anticipate future events and consistently ask questions about how technology impacts the business, its people and culture, and future direction. Every CEO needs somebody in the room who can articulate what is going to be possible tomorrow that is not possible today.

How do I measure the success of my new tech leader?

Tech leadership metrics should reflect how the individual and their team creates value for the business and therefore should primarily be judged by business metrics. A common mistake is to measure a CTO but a long list of products that have been released. The number of solutions simply isn’t the right solution – the overall efficacy in business terms of those solutions is. In fact, be wary of leaders who do NOT want to be measured by the business outcomes of the solutions they help create. Another common pitfall is not ensuring alignment on objectives across the executive team. 

How can I ensure great start for my new CTO?

Successful CTOs are leaders, not followers and they frequently challenge traditional approaches (and that should be one of the key reasons why you hired them). Their ability to communicate candidly and welcome scrutiny are key differentiators among leading CTOs. But many other executives in your team may not expect this. So, you need to encourage your CTO to give feedback, challenge conventional thinking and comment on commercial matters as part of your executive team meetings. 

Why does my CTO need to be commercial?

At AKF, we have yet to meet a team that suffers from a shortage of good ideas. But we have met teams that have clogged up their roadmaps with lots of good and mediocre ideas that, cumulatively, have little impact. Saying yes to every good idea, however small, means you’re not making time for the great opportunities.

A highly commercial CTO will not allow this to happen. They will remain focused on the bottom line and ensure all work benefits customers and the company.  

Why do my CTO candidates all appear to resist timelines and roadmaps?

Good product teams are focussed on impact. Therefore, a CEO should avoid demanding very specific dates for releases or a one to two year detailed roadmap with a big list of deliverables. Teams and their leaders need to be held accountable and should be judged on the value they create for your users and the business. Good CTOs will want to work for a CEO who understands the importance of delivering impact rather than just outputs.

However, being focused on impact does not mean teams can avoid all questions regarding when something will be delivered. During the interview process, it is a good idea to get your candidates to acknowledge that teams should be shooting within a time range and/or they should have a good understanding on how much time to invest in each idea. 

What tech leadership is not

A CTO is not the same as a CIO and CTOs and their teams do not work like traditional IT teams. Product and engineering are not service departments that take and process requests. It is their role to marry the customer needs and the business needs to create optimum impact

Building software is not just executing a solution. It is about identifying the right problems to solve with the most effective solutions. Be warned, product teams will almost always ask ‘What problem are you trying to solve’ when somebody asks for a new feature 

A CTO is not a project manager (although those words appear in job specifications more more often than we would like). Look for candidates with strong execution experience. But resumes with only project management experiment should be treated with caution

Examples of how AKF Partners works with organizations to hire and develop technology leaders

We work with large corporates, scale-ups and start-ups when recruiting senior roles such as Chief Technology Officers, Chief Digital Officers and Chief Technology and Product Officers. Engagements include:

    Work with CEO and Chief People Officers to identify company technology needs and draw up job specifications

    Provide interim CTOs if the permanent recruitment process is expected to take a significant period of time

    Conduct technical leadership interviews of final candidates

    Support and coaching for new tech leaders, especially when doing strategy, building a new organization or transformation

    Training for senior technologists (such as our highly regarded CTO Bootcamp) or training for boards and executive teams on how to become a product and technology focused organisation