CTO Leadership Series — Part 2: Top 5 Communication and Leadership Skills Every CTO Should Learn

For many whose passion and profession is technology, it’s not hard to remember many happy hours spent alone with one’s work, learning and experimenting. It makes sense then that they may not all have the easiest time transitioning into a role that requires a high degree of social skills, particularly the ability to effectively lead and communicate clearly.

Adding to the complexity, CTOs often have to navigate dynamic social environments, with a wide range of stakeholders with different backgrounds and perspectives. As Brent Laufenberg, CTO of Rise Interactive puts it, “usually when people leave a CTO role willingly, it is because they don’t want to deal with the ‘people stuff.’” Thankfully, these skills, like any others, can be learned.

In this second installment of our CTO Series, we’ll explore some of the common leadership and communication challenges that CTOs face, as well as solutions for addressing each of them.

1. Motivating and inspiring a team

CTOs often lead teams of highly skilled and motivated individuals — which is what they want, after all — but naturally this type of person may have strong opinions of their own concerning how things should be done. It can be challenging to align the team around a common vision and goals, and to keep everyone motivated and engaged throughout a project.

While there are plenty of books, articles, videos, and even feature length films out there with inspiration and tips to motivate, one of the best ways to do it is to talk to your team members and really understand what drives them. You may even be able to ask outright what sort of feedback and guidance is most helpful and effective for them. You may also consult squad leads on this point. Remember, each team is constructed of individuals, each with their own personal history, ambitions, and communication styles. So while you can of course use insights from prior experience, for the best results, cater your approach to the people in front of you.

2. Managing competing priorities

CTOs must balance the needs of different stakeholders, such as the needs of the development team, their business, and the customers. This can lead to competing priorities and conflicting demands on the team’s time and resources.

One way for CTOs to balance competing priorities and conflicting demands on the team’s time and resources is to establish clear priorities and goals for the team. This can be done by regularly reviewing and updating the team’s project roadmap, and aligning it with the company’s overall strategy. Prioritizing tasks and projects based on their potential impact, feasibility, and alignment with the company’s goals can help ensure that the team is focused on the most important tasks.

Another way is to use a time management technique like the Eisenhower matrix to categorize tasks as urgent and important, important but not urgent, urgent but not important, and not important or not urgent. This can help the team focus on important tasks and avoid getting bogged down in less important ones. As always, good communication and collaboration are key to help minimize conflicts and ensure that everyone is aware of the team’s goals and priorities.

3. Building trust and credibility

CTOs are often seen as the technical experts within the organization, but they may not have the same level of credibility or trust when it comes to business decisions or strategy.

CTOs can build credibility and trust in business decisions and strategy by staying informed about industry trends and developments, understanding the company’s financials and goals, and developing the ability (more on that shortly) to effectively communicate the potential impact and benefits of technical decisions to non-technical stakeholders.

Additionally, CTOs can build relationships with other executives and involve themselves in cross-functional teams and projects to gain a better understanding of the business as a whole.

It can also be helpful for CTOs to be active in their community and stay visible within the industry, participate in relevant conferences and webinars, publish articles and research papers, and have a decent social media presence. After all, building trust isn’t just about having private expertise, but actively showing how much you know.

4. Translating technical jargon to non-technical stakeholders

CTOs often have to communicate complex technical concepts to stakeholders with little or no technical background, which can be difficult and time-consuming. It’s practically translating large swathes of information into a different language with a much more limited vocabulary.

To overcome this challenge, CTOs can invest in training and education programs that help non-technical stakeholders understand the technology and its implication, essentially raising the floor of understanding. Meanwhile, CTOs can themselves invest in education aimed at improving their writing and speaking chops. There are plenty of resources on this subject out there, including full courses, as it is a skill that is increasingly in demand.

Grant Koeneke, CTO of of Driftr recommends getting “everyone that is non-technical to understand that everything in the company made of technology adds value, whether they have thought about it or not.”

5. Communicating the value of technology investments

CTOs can clearly communicate the strategic value and ROI of technology initiatives by using clear and concise language and providing concrete examples and data to support their points. They should be able to explain the initiative in business terms, highlighting how it will benefit the organization, and how it will help achieve the company’s goals.

Bill Kleyman of EPAM Systems says, “There will not be a stationary moment in technology. So, don’t get too comfortable. Read blogs (or write them!), talk to customers, touch base with industry peers, and have good conversations with your own sales people and engineers. It’s critical to understand which way the industry is shifting. And, very often, you can understand these shifts via the actions of end-users and customers. The role of the CTO is to stay aware of the changes as they happen with partners, competitors, vendors, users, and the overall business.”

CTOs can also use various tactics to demonstrate ROI such as: building a business case for the initiative, outlining the costs, benefits, and potential risks; creating a project plan that includes specific metrics for measuring the success of the initiative; sharing regular progress reports to stakeholders; and creating a dashboard that clearly displays the results, and can be easily understood by non-technical stakeholders.

Gulé Sheikh, COO/CTO of eazyScripts, says of leveraging data and graphs, “This is factual and everyone can see how upward trends are positive. I then add my own input on how we got there and the work the team was doing in order to accomplish this.”

Additionally, CTOs should strive to build strong relationships with other leaders in the organization and make sure they understand the business objectives, so they can align technology initiatives with them as things progress. Having this buy-in from the start will help to ensure that the initiatives are seen as valuable and relevant to the organization as a whole.

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