Home Leadership The Modern CEO: Part CTO?

The Modern CEO: Part CTO?

by Guest Writter
Aaron Elder, CEO Crelate Talent

No matter what sector your company is in, the fact is that technology is now at the heart of most everything we do. Accordingly, 63 percent of CEOs surveyed by PwC in 2015 said they use digital tech for strategic decision-making and risk management.

However, the 2016 Watermark Board Diversity Index found that the number of CEOs who come from a tech background is surprisingly low – only 3 percent, as opposed to 55 percent with accounting or legal backgrounds.

The question is: does a modern CEO *need* to be a tech whiz?

Though I started as an entrepreneur at the age of 17, helped create three successful startups and shipped four successful products, and my resume includes stints as a lead developer for Microsoft and technical consulting for many Fortune 100 firms, I land more on the side of believing that a good CEO doesn’t have to be an experienced coder, but should understand the technology that makes their business “run” and can help ensure its success. I’m a real “know how stuff works” kind of guy, something I am sure I got from my father. But if you replace technology with whatever is at the core of your business, I believe the same is true: If you sell fruits, you need to know how the farm works; if you manufacture cars, you better know how to fill a role on the line.

It’s all about balance.  There are many truths in business. One of them is that the best product doesn’t always win (a competitor can out-market or out-sell you). Another is that the soundest business model doesn’t always win (financial wizardry works sometimes). And the most functional or well-engineered product might not be liked by customers (something prettier might win their hearts).  My background in design, technology, and product development helps me build value and I am fortunate enough to surround myself with business partners that know how to sell and operationalize a business.  As a tech-CEO, I continually look to grow my skills in the areas of fund raising, marketing, and sales.

That’s because I believe a good CEO is a better leader; more than just a good manager. It’s an important distinction: a leader uses technology and data to fuel inspiration and innovation, engage others, and empower them with information; a manager uses them to enforce policy, apply pressure, or even to surveil employees.

For a technology-centric business, a background that includes software design or other IT experience can be an advantage to a CEO because they know enough to be able to imagine what’s possible and to challenge people to make something great.  Talented people want to create great things, which is why I love product development so much – we are all collectively willing something beautiful into existence.  I need to be a part of that. In order to lead from the front, instead of manage from afar, I have to understand the challenges and constraints each member of the team is faced with – and use this to inspire them and myself to build something amazing and aspirational, while palpably within reach.

Big Tech Experience Not a Prerequisite

My time in the “big leagues” actually taught me more about how I don’t want to run things than how to build and grow a successful company. Large, established companies and the skills required to thrive within them are often at odds with those required to succeed beyond their boundaries.  There is overlap for sure, but applying what I learned within a “land of plenty” and making it work when bootstrapping a new venture has been one of my greatest challenges over the years.

How you use data is a good example: If the primary focus is on keeping tabs on employees, enforcing rigid rules, and incentivizing bottom-line thinking, it de-incentivizes the type of creativity and innovation that probably founded the company to begin with. I learned a lot about “managing up” during my stints with the big tech firms, but very little about how to create a work environment and culture that empowers people to take creative risks. Ask yourself, am I focused on data that shows me where I’ve been, or am I focused on where we are going?

Who says that the C-suite is the be-all-end-all of insight? CEOs should encourage transparency, decreasing the insulation between the employees, the corporate goals, and the reality of the business structure. Employees should have a direct connection with the C-suite because both can inspire the other.

360-Degree Management Strategy:  Using Tech, Data, and Other Tools to Lead

Some may think that a tech background is an advantage to a CEO because it serves as “B.S. detector.” In other words, you know enough to hold people accountable. But even non-techie CEOs can play this game by harnessing the right software to track the number of sales calls, measure quarterly revenue, and draw a link between the two. Using a carrot-and-stick analogy, this approach is more stick than carrot.

And, frankly, it’s looking in the wrong direction – data that tells you where you were is much less interesting to me than that which tells you where you are going, or makes clear where you should be going. As CEO, you can optimize information by sharing it quickly so that your employees can use it to make forward-thinking decisions in real time. If it takes six months to learn whether or not a certain approach is working, the feedback loop isn’t tight enough to be useful.

A background in tech might give you more insight into what types of software and systems to put into place to get this 360-degree view of your company, but your tech team is another great resource for this type of knowledge. Don’t hoard information; get it into the hands of your team and make them an integral part of business decisions.

Good leadership isn’t accelerated by the tools, but by the team having the right tools and information to do a good job. I’d rather invest in enabling my colleagues to do their job well than spend time finding ways to micro-manage them.

Tech Impact on Corporate Leadership

While not every technologist is suited for the C-suite, almost every CEO today can benefit from a good understanding of how much technology underpins their company’s day-to-day operations, how it can add value and support growth, and how quickly the tech landscape changes. Just as a company’s success is a target that moves as a company grows, so too the technologies that can hold it back or help it break through to the next level.


About the Author

Aaron Elder, CEO & Co-Founder of Crelate Talent, is an entrepreneur whose 20+ years as a developer included four successful products and three successful startups and the invaluable experience of serving as Lead Software Design Engineer at Microsoft. He and his partners pair their extensive experience in talent-based businesses with their technical expertise to create solutions that augment successful human engagement.

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