The Self-Encapsulating CTO

CTOs and VPEs tend to come from a technical background, naturally. That means that some patterns of thought have been engraved in their mind. Sometimes those act like superpowers. For example, the critical thinking skills you gained learning how to debug a production issue effectively and pinpoint the culprit rapidly can often be translated to assessing issues of strategy or executive decisions.

Nevertheless, that technical background can have a counterproductive effect on our ability to operate as executives. The habits of decoupling, specifying APIs, encapsulation, and abstraction are great for a codebase but less effective at directing the day-to-day actions in a hectic startup. This tendency to self-encapsulate can result in people boxing themselves into a corner needlessly.

The best tech execs I work with learn to let go of this tendency to encapsulate themselves into what they believe is the “neat” solution for their position. They are flexible and bring their impact where the organization needs it the most. Let’s unpack this sort of winning thinking that I think more leaders in our industry should adopt.

With Great Responsibility Comes Great Power

This headline is a quote from The Tech Executive Operating System which I use quite a lot with clients. It can be mind-boggling for first-timer tech executives to realize that titles don’t necessarily mean much at the upper echelons of management, especially in younger companies. Oftentimes, the only barrier for taking a particular initiative and running with it is ourselves.

As someone responsible for a sizable chunk of the company’s headcount and budget—and what they are paid to deliver—you have a lot on your plate. You might be surprised to realize that most CEOs understand this and would therefore grant you a lot of leeway to do things. For many, acting to leverage this power requires a conscious effort.

You can and should move upstream. Sit around the table where decisions are made. Speak up your mind. Help shape the plans and roadmap rather than waiting to be given instructions. You will only be helping your company manifest its technical talent. In my book, I lay out a framework for moving upstream, but the most critical aspect is accepting that you are expected to do it.

Don’t Pigeonhole Yourself

Going hand-in-hand with the previous point is the tendency to perform scope management on one’s self. Technical people paint themselves as the technical people and therefore deduce that they should stay clear of others’ areas of expertise. Moving upstream doesn’t solely mean that you should put in your two cents about the technical aspects of the strategy.

I go against “tech strategies” because it creates a myopic view in the leadership ranks. It is perfectly fine for you to have questions about other areas of the business. You probably won’t be offended if the CMO would mention a tool she heard of from a colleague and ask if it can be useful in your organization, too, right? The same should apply both ways.

Further, you shouldn’t encapsulate your thinking and create silos where R&D is solely responsible for churning out user-facing features. I go on and on about Tech Capital as a means of providing others in the company with superpowers. You cannot achieve that if you don’t have an open relationship with the rest of your peers in the executive team.

If you are afraid of going out of bounds or stepping on anyone’s toes, that is perfectly fine. However, it cannot be used as an excuse to absolve you of the responsibility of speaking up and initiating things. Instead, consider working together with your peers, as equal partners, in order to think of ways to improve things. No one likes getting told by a colleague, “this is what you should do.” Someone smart helping you? That a completely different story.

All this is to say that in our day and age, titles don’t mean as much as they used to. I’ve seen CTOs doing product work, sales, marketing, customer success, etc. Use your logic to find where your leadership should manifest.