CTO vs CEO - how cooperation can work

Removing barriers and an antagonistic mind set for make the CTO & CEO relationship work

The relationship between the CEO & CTO is a special one. In a technology startup it might the most important relationship. What is their relationship?

In many companies I have seen, the relationship is an antagonistic one. The CEO doesn’t understand technology and does not understand why things take so long. The CTO does not understand why the only management tool the CEO seems to have are deadlines and how features developers should develop fit into the company vision.

CEO and CTO

Shouldn’t be the relationship between CEO and CTO a partnership? Both depend on each other and want to move the company forward. The CEO needs the CTO to manage technology, The CTO needs the CEO for business guidance and strategy and as a partner with the other executives on the board.

For a better cooperation, both the CTO and CEO need to help each other.

The CTO needs to solve CEO problems, not only tech problems. The CTO needs to understand business to better understand the CEO and to build innovative technology to drive business. The CTO needs to explain technology to the CEO, the levers and constraints on how technology works. The CTO needs to be the bridge between business and technology, with one foot in business and the other foot in technology. Only the CTO can be that bridge and close the gap between technology and business.

What many CTOs do not understand, the CEO is not interested in technology problems, otherwise she would have been CTO. She did hire the CTO to manage technology for her. The CTO is the most experience technology person in the company. He needs to manage and solve those problems.

Too many CTOs still consider themselves developers with a management title, a technologist at heart. And while I consider myself being a coder, there is a difference to being a CTO. The CTO is not only a technology manager like a team lead, Head of Development or VP of Engineering. A CTO is a c-level executive who needs to think about the whole business, the whole company and take responsibility for things outside technology. This is a transition in thinking many CTOs struggle with, clinging to their technology role.

What does the CEO need to do to make the relationship successful? The CEO needs to guide the CTO on long term decisions and align technology with business. The CEO needs to hold the CTO accountable for managing risks that can blow up the company, like security, backups and rewrites. The CEO can’t consider technology a black box that is impossible to understand and let the CTO do whatever he wants.

Both need to build up a relationship. This can’t be done in board meetings and with emails. Without constant interaction, there is no relationship. Without a relationship there is no understanding and alignment. 1on1s are the most important management tool a manager has in his tool belt. So for this relationship to work, 1on1s are essential. Meeting for one hour each week gives both the CEO and CTO the opportunity to learn about each other. Talking and interacting builds up the relationship. On top of a working relationship you can build trust. On top of trust you can build bidirectional loyalty. This creates a partnership.

For a trustful and fruitful partnership, both the CTO & CEO need to make their expectations explicit and be clear about them. One tool to achieve this are expectation quadrants. It is used to align expectations between people and one of the first tools I suggest to CTO coachees to try with their CEO. Too often expectations are not clear, everyone has them but doesn’t talk about them. Expectations that are not clear, can’t be met and lead to dissatisfaction on both sides.

Expectations quadrants for CEO and CTO

Both persons talk about what expectation they have about their role and about the other role and vice versa. Ideally the expectations match crosswise. The expectations the CTO has about their role are the same as the CEO has about the CTO role. If not, both CEO and CTO need to talk about this to re-align themselves. Sometimes CTOs do not tell the CEO the expectations they have about the CEO role. Then their expectations are not met and they are unhappy in the relationship. Go ahead, talk about your expectations about the CEO, you’re partners.

Can you be CEO and CTO at the same time?

Sometimes I get asked by first time founders if they can be CEO and CTO at the same time. First wouldn’t that solve many problems? Second if you’re a technical founder with a development background, can you be CEO and still keep doing the CTO job or do you need a cofounder as CEO?

I do think it’s excellent when developers found a startup and become CEO. Too many of you have an idea, start a company, don’t want to be CEO, get a cofounder and then are sidelined by the CEO vision of what to do and how to run things. If you are a technical founder, learn the little bit of business that you need and become the CEO. Then hire a CPO with a coder backround who reports to you and runs product development. Give insightful guidance on technology and realize your vision. Do not cofound with a CEO to let it all take away from you. Can you be CEO and CTO at the same time? Yes! Be the CEO, make your deep tech company great.

About Stephan

As a CTO, Interim CTO, CTO Coach - and developer - Stephan has seen many technology departments in fast-growing startups. As a kid he taught himself coding in a department store around 1981 because he wanted to write video games. Stephan studied computer science with distributed systems and artificial intelligence at the University of Ulm. He also studied Philosophy. Stephan aced all Diploma exams with 1.0. When the internet came to Germany in the 90 he worked as the first coder in several startups. He has founded a VC funded startup, worked in VC funded, fast growing startups with architecture, processes and growth challenges, worked as a manager for ImmoScout and as a CTO of an eBay Inc. company. After his wife successfully sold her startup they moved to the sea and Stephan took up CTO coaching. You can find him on LinkedIn or on Twitter @KingOfCoders

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