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Escaping the Technology Expert Trap

  • September 2022

A company is two months into its search for a new Chief Technology Officer. This critical role, reporting to the CEO, is responsible for driving the technology and product development roadmap and the company is putting significant effort into the search process. The search team has met with a half-dozen qualified candidates, but none are offered the job. Despite their qualifications, the company feels that these candidates are just not “up to snuff.” 

Is this scenario unusual? Not at all. This kind of paralysis on the hunt for a CTO is all too common. Often, the search team will begin to despair that their ideal candidate does not exist. But that’s not the problem. Great CTO candidates are out there. The search team is facing a common obstacle: They are caught in The Expert Trap. 

The Expert Trap is a circular mindset in which the search team becomes bogged down by an assumption that the new CTO must be an expert in the company’s technology. This hyper-focus on technical expertise leaves the team unable to view strong outside CTO candidates as anything but lacking. This is especially acute when the search is the result of a retiring incumbent. Explicitly acknowledged or not, companies often look for that exact expertise of the former CTO.

Search teams generally don’t start out in this trap. We are typically approached by organizations that need to fill a CTO slot but don’t see internal candidates who are right for the job. They tell us that the internal candidates lack “leadership.” This leadership deficit can be one of scale; no internal candidate has the ability to lead a large, distributed organization of this size. Or it can be a deficit in communication and ability to effectively influence beyond the technical organization and across the C-suite.

But when we present companies with candidates who do possess these required leadership capabilities, they are often dismissed for lack of specific technical knowledge. Even though they initiated the search to find a strong leader, they now demand an expert. The Expert Trap is an ongoing loop of unhappiness and frustration.

So, how can organizations break free of The Expert Trap? Here are three things to keep in mind:

  • Remember your original impetus. Hiring a CTO with exceptional leadership skills is a smart move. Often this individual will preside over a team of hundreds, even thousands, of engineers and research scientists. They may be located all over the world. They may have joined through any number of mergers and acquisitions. And they will surely represent a wide variety of backgrounds and cultures. A CTO must have the leadership ability to engage with this diverse and talented global workforce and to set the technical direction of the company.

  • Technology is only half the job. Effective CTOs spend as much as 50 percent of their time working with people outside their function. This often includes sales, marketing, finance, IT and business unit general managers. In addition, these technical leaders often have large external roles, such as helping to close deals with customers, working with research consortia or speaking with investors. A successful CTO must be able to translate technical issues into business discussions. Successful product roadmaps are rarely set by technical possibilities alone but by market needs and expected financial returns. This ability to collaborate and influence effectively across and outside the organization is of high value. 

  • Trust the technical capabilities of your internal organization. Consider and evaluate whether the domain expertise exists across the organization. Is it there, but the leadership is missing to effectively guide and direct it? We find that new CTOs do not need to have the deep technical answers themselves but just need to be able to ask the right questions and guide the team. In fact, having experience from a tangential industry or technology can bring additional insight and a broader perspective. In addition, new CTOs almost always come up to speed faster than expected. Learning new technologies is not work, but it is what excites them.

Making a CTO hire is, of course, a high-pressure undertaking. No company should leap at an inappropriate candidate, just to fill the slot. But when considering CTO candidates, look at the broad leadership skills and capabilities that they can bring to the table. Focusing on a narrow set of technical expertise can cause an organization to overlook candidates who can lead the function to greatness. And that’s a trap worth avoiding.

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