CTOs, Don't Neglect the C-Suite

Chief technology officers can't be all about technology. Building trust with the rest of the C-suite should be a top goal.

As a chief technology officer, you're good at technology; the C-suite wouldn't have hired you without that. But you can't be all about technology. It's even more important to understand the dynamics -- and oftentimes the politics -- of the C-suite. It's your No. 1 client.

Treat your C-suite colleagues as internal ambassadors. While they're all expected to be aligned with the organization's strategic goals, each of them represents a department that has its own vision, responsibilities, strengths and plans for success. The CTO has to be able to hear and understand all of those points of view and develop trusting relationships with everyone else in the C-suite. Why? Because your C-suite colleagues have the power to advocate on your behalf. And how do you build trust? These things all help:

1) Be helpful.

2) Be consistent.

3) Set expectations accurately.

4) Be on the lookout for what's good for the company, outside of technology or your department.

How do those bullet points play out in a CTO's daily work life? Any number of ways. You can, for example, show your business chops by mastering "out-of-tech" activities such as organizing executive team retreats or running the companywide ROI analysis process for the C-suite. This increases your own value -- and the value for your department as a whole. Set clear expectations among your C-suite peers and (conscientiously) let them know you have to work together to accomplish their goals.

Among the best ways to set the expectations you want your colleagues to have are to plan well and to follow through. Planning well is what keeps a CTO and the technology team from failing. Following through is what separates the talkers from the doers. Help your teams develop the right planning processes to clarify what will happen, when it will happen and by whom. Then get your corporate culture to embrace those processes, starting with the C-suite.

I start my planning with the list of upcoming technology projects. I review all employee goals for the coming year, to get a feel for where we are headed and where technology fits in. Once I have listed all the goals that need technology to succeed, I score them, one to 10, based on their importance to the company and the effort needed to accomplish them, then use those two scores to rank them. The list goes to my C-suite peers, and together we set priorities and decide which projects to eliminate that year. With this approach, every department feels that it had a chance to provide input.

With the list complete, my teams schedule projects and publish the schedule to all employees. Sticking to that schedule all year long is a top priority, and if any project falls behind or even has to be abandoned, we make that known to the C-suite as soon as possible. On the other hand, a great idea might come up midyear, in which case we'll use an insertion process.

Perhaps the most important non-technical skill that every CTO needs is the ability to communicate effectively. I'm a strong advocate of regular one-on-one meetings with C-level colleagues -- mine are weekly or every other week -- to address needs and goals, while finding opportunities to mix in brainstorming topics now and then. Discuss where the company is headed with every member of the C-suite, observe any internal challenges or technology limitations, and ask as many questions as possible. Their answers build your relationship. Focus on the needs of the organization as a way to build this relationship. Then, talk about what your C-suite peers are trying to change within the organization and how they can leverage talents to position themselves as agents of change.

Think about what constitutes effective communication, though. When you're among your own team, it's appropriate to draw on your years of deep technical knowledge, but your colleagues don't necessarily want to hear about technical details. They care about results. As CTO, you're the bridge between IT and the rest of the organization, and you need to communicate in the language used outside of IT. Let's say that you have concerns about the security of improvements to manage the use of mobile devices and clouds. You have to reassure your colleagues about the security measures you are taking and the safeguards you're implementing, but do it without getting mired in the techie particulars. Leave the jargon and the in-the-weeds details for your own department -- they enjoy it.

Finally, it is essential that you know your business's business. As a member of the C-suite, you're expected to come up with ideas, but they have to be ideas that fit and serve the business. Innovation for its own sake will be viewed skeptically. If your ideas are going to benefit the business, they must be born from listening to your peers. Only then will expectations be met and ROI realized. Letting the organization know you're listening -- and acting on it -- builds trust.

Finding the perfect balance between cultivating trust, maintaining lines of communication and ensuring consistent follow-through will put you on track to help achieve the organization's vision. And that is what ultimately will define a successful CTO.

John McAndrew is the vice president and CTO for the Association of Corporate Counsel (ACC), a global bar association representing more than 30,000 in-house counsel employed by more than 10,000 organizations in 75 nations.

Read more about management in Computerworld's Management Topic Center.

This story, "CTOs, Don't Neglect the C-Suite" was originally published by Computerworld.

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