9 qualities of a successful CTO

Five CTOs discuss the challenges in their field and the personal and professional qualities that are critical to their success.

How to succeed as a CTO
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A chief technology officer (CTO) is the executive responsible for defining an organization's technology strategy and leading its technology teams. The position is similar to that of a CIO (chief information officer), but CTOs are particularly focused on exploring new and existing technologies that are of strategic importance to the organization.

Despite the title, the role of a CTO requires considerably more than technical expertise. The CTOs I spoke with said that soft skills are just as important to their ability to lead. Here are nine critical attributes of a successful CTO, according to technology leaders who hold that role in their organization.

Focus on people

CTOs typically don't work independently. They are part of a team of technology professionals who together aim to help their organization use technology effectively. It is important to be able to pull together a team that can weather change and challenges. A CTO must be a good judge of character in order to build a strong team.

“Without great people, everything becomes 10 times harder,” says Mark Long, CTO at Vytalize Health, a provider of digital services for healthcare providers. “Be as methodical with your recruiting process as you are with any other system or security program.”

Part of leading a team is mobilizing people around the company's and the CTO's vision. “Great people want to work with other great people and grow,” Long says. “We are in a very dynamic industry. What makes someone great today probably has a 12-month shelf life at best, so you must develop a learning culture and prioritize leadership in developing your people.”

Attracting and retaining top talent should be the number one priority for technology leaders in the year ahead, says Nicola Morini Bianzino, global CTO at consulting firm EY. “Human ingenuity, resourcefulness, and diversity of experience—combined with mastery of the technological tools of the day—have never been more important in our search,” he says.

To attract and retain the best of the best, technology executives must focus on the aspirational mission of the organization and how employees can help make an impact, Bianzino says.

Anticipate technology trends

No one expects CTOs to be fortune tellers, but they do need to have a strong sense of what’s going on in the technology marketplace. A good CTO anticipates what is likely to come along in terms of new products, features, and challenges to address.

“To excel as a CTO, it is essential to have a keen ability to identify technology trends ahead of the curve,” says Aron Brand, CTO of CTERA, a provider of cloud-based products.

“A successful CTO is always on the lookout for the latest advancements in technology, having a deep understanding of the industry and anticipating future developments,” Brand says. “This allows them to make informed decisions about which technologies to invest in and which to avoid. They have the foresight to see the big picture and understand the long-term impact of their decisions, while also considering the immediate needs of the organization.”

CTOs need to be full of curiosity about technology, tools, and business to keep up with never-ending emergence of new technology approaches and business conditions, says Kevin McInturff, CTO at Logility, a provider of demand planning software for supply chains. “Being content with old patterns will not allow you to meaningfully participate in these newly emerging opportunities, and you should question assumptions constantly,” he says.

Strong communication skills

This attribute shows up in just about any list of important traits for executives, and for good reason. The ability to communicate clearly with fellow executives and team members is vital for getting projects completed and ensuring the organization's technology goals are met.

“The most important attribute of a successful CTO is the ability to tell great stories,” Brand says. “Technology can be complex and difficult to understand for many people, but a CTO with strong communication skills can translate this complexity into a compelling narrative that engages and informs.”

By being a great storyteller, a CTO builds trust and credibility with stakeholders and helps everyone better understand the value of the technology they are developing, Brand says.

CTOs need to be able to speak in terms that business leaders will understand. “To be effective as a CTO, translation of your ideas and perspectives to bring truth to the table in a relatable way will be pivotal in your success,” McInturff says.

“You can be the best technologist and strategist in the world, but it won’t matter if you are unable to communicate those strategies in a way that speaks to your audience."


Change is constant in the technology field and in business in general, and CTOs need to be flexible in how they approach every aspect of their role. That includes how they manage their staff.

“In the last few years, we saw the global marketplace of talent turned on its head,” says Erik Reeves, CTO at Anaqua, a company that provides software to manage intellectual property. “With the transition to remote work, companies had more choices to make about how to manage, retain, attract, and grow talent—and flexibility became a key asset. People in our industry can and want to work virtually. Recognizing this desire was critical for our ability to be agile as an employer, especially in an incredibly competitive market.”

With a global workforce that can work anywhere, organizations need to adapt and use it to their advantage, Reeves says. “For example, we grew our global footprint and adopted hybrid work options before the pandemic,” he says. “We provided the tools and opportunities for employees to be successful remotely, but also offered office resources to ensure colleagues remained connected to one another.”


Flexibility is vital for the role of CTO, but it needs to be counterbalanced with discipline, Reeves says.

“Technology planning and tech transitions can have long arcs,” Reeves says. “The time from investment to [return on investment] can vary depending on the type of investment. A strong tech leader needs to know when to stay the course and be disciplined, even if it means little or no short-term benefits.”

CTOs also need to know when to pivot and act decisively. “Part of this is understanding that a technology leader does not dictate the direction, but rather they need to be part of an intelligent guidance,” Reeves says. “Focus on business outcomes and goals set by the organization. Knowing how and when to advocate forcefully is part of that dynamic of flexibility with discipline.”


Although CTOs are tasked with staying on top of emerging technologies that are still in development, or even in the concept phase, there are times they need to deal in pragmatism, favoring practical applications over intellectual or idealistic approaches.

“The most important business decisions rarely fall neatly into a single ideological answer, requiring CTOs to be pragmatic,” McInturff says.

“Having the ability to swiftly sort through conflicting priorities, relationships, and client needs to find solutions that best balances these, and understanding that this may not be the answer that best aligns with what you might personally prefer, is critical,” McInturff says.

Focus on outcomes

Success as a CTO is best defined by the executive’s impact on the most crucial business metrics, Long says.

“Too many CTOs fall into the trap of becoming order-takers: ‘implement this platform’ or ‘build me feature Y,’” Long says. “But it’s not your company’s leadership or your customer’s job to design your technology. CTOs need to look for ways to innovate and drive value. I tell my teams, ‘we don’t get credit for closing tickets or shipping features; we get credit for delivering the desired outcome.’ To accomplish this requires a design-thinking approach.”

First, a CTO should consider the problem that each stakeholder is trying to solve. “Read between the lines,” Long says. “Take time to understand the business domain in which you work to help create a vision and gain buy-in. Then, communicate in the language of those groups. Everyone in your organization needs to know why they are doing what they are doing.”

Technical depth

It's impossible to be an expert in every technology or even a small slice of the technology market, Long says. But a background in highly detailed, hands-on technical work is key to having the problem decomposition and analysis skills to dive very deep when required.

“Whether it’s a vendor trying to whitewash its product or an internal team that’s stuck, you need to continue to ask questions to peel back the complex layers to get to the true essence of the problem, system, or need,” Long says. “Your job is not to have all the answers; it's to keep asking questions to reveal an unseen opportunity or the gap in your team’s thinking.”

Without having spent an extended time in the weeds, CTOs will not be in a position to ask the important questions, Long says.

Transformation mindset

Technology departments have transformed from being a historically isolated function to being an integrated business, key to the growth and survival of organizations, Bianzino says. The CTO's role has transformed along with this trend.

“In many ways, technology has moved from the ‘back-office’ to a boardroom agenda and priority, and this has required a shift in approach for CTOs,” Bianzino says. “I’ve seen this in my own career when I became the first technologist to sit on the board of EY.”

The firm’s services require a lot of intelligence and expertise, “so if we don’t use technology properly to deliver those services, we’ll be at a disadvantage,” Bianzino says. “It's not enough to have strong technical skills; understanding the business side is critical for successful digital transformation.”

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