Many have the dream of making it into the CxO (CEO, CFO, CIO, CTO, etc) suite. What skills and abilities does it take to be in position to become a world-class CTO? During the time I was CTO at Hewlett-Packard, what where the skills and abilities I had – and which are the ones I wished I had before taking on the role?
During my time at HP, we grew from $40B in to $120B in revenue and grew the employee base from 40,000 to +240,000. It was a rocket ship where I found myself running as fast as I could to keep up.
So as I look back on my own personal experience, what are the skills I would recommend you to have if you want to become a world-class CTO?
1 – Never Stop Building Your Network
If you want to make it into a leadership role, the depth and breadth of your network of peers, mentors, advisers and experts in critical. Why? Your network is your brain trust. They are the experts you will call upon when you need advice in an area where you lack expertise. Trust me – you will soon discover that there will more areas where you are the armature rather than the expert. So never stop building that network.
2 – Communication Skills
The ability to inspire teams, organizations, industries and customers is an absolute requirement. If you do not have the experience talking and pitching, then get it. Join Toastmasters and gain the confidence to become a master communicator.Once you have a foundation, practice it as much possible. Its a skill that improves with time.
3 – Building A Personal Brand
Most technical people do not consider the importance of creating a personal brand. Most would rather stay in their offices/cube and create away. Building a personal brand can have huge payoffs. In my case, I launched by blog in 1996 and the podcast in 2005. Both resulted in my being on the radar of executives at HP and ultimately by a New York literary agent which in turn secured my book deal. Building a brand takes time so get to it.
4 – Technical and Business Leadership
To be a world-class CTO, you need to be equal parts technical and business strategy. Most don't realize that the CTO is the most important bridge between the business and technology. You need to bone up on your business, financial , operations, strategy, sales and marketing expertise.
5 – Team Building
Start building your ultimate team now. To make it to the executive suite, you need a team that can grow with you as our responsibilities grow. I still have team members who have been with me for decades.
6 – Create Exciting Side Projects
Side projects shows you as a self-starter and reveals things about you that differentiates you from other possible candidates for the role. In my case, the podcast was what put me on the radar for HP.
7 – Non-Stop Learning
The world is a changing place and you need to stay up to date. As the CTO, you set the vision/direction for the organization and to do that, you need to stay up on what is coming next. This is a race that never ends. So find technologies, products, etc that are new and learn them. That way, when other executives in the organization ask about them, you have experience with it and an opinion as to the impact to your organization.
8 – Get Comfortable Being Outside Your Comfort Zone
I knew the CTO role at HP would require more responsibility, but didn't appreciate how much time would be spent in Board meetings, management bureaucracy and other tasks that some would consider as “overhead”. I was fortunate to have been an “elected officer” as another public company but the shear size and scale of HP was new and scary.
9 – Trust Your Gut
Learn to trust your gut. You will not always have all of the data you would like and the ability to make a decision with incomplete, or worse, ambiguous information will be a daily requirement. Testing and learning to trust you gut is an important skill to have in place before you really need it.
So what is missing?
Luck. The myth that the smartest people are the ones that get promoted is exactly that – a myth. There is a certain amount of luck. Being in the right place at the right time, know the right person who thinks you at the right moment, etc. You can significantly improve you likelihood (luck) of becoming a world-class CTO if you challenge yourself to build each of these 9 skills.