Since every company today seems to be getting into the software business, it’s unlikely that a single executive is able to fulfill both roles successfully.
The days when a firm could hire a CIO to run corporate IT, and rely primarily on that executive to guide all use of technology, are ending. As companies in every industry adopt digital business models, they are rethinking the roles of their technology leaders.
Companies still hire CIOs. Increasingly, however, CEOs are in search of technology leaders who can take charge of the systems, devices, and development operations that power their new digital products—a role that more typically falls to a CTO. Deciding which to hire —a CIO or a CTO? or both?—is critical to ensuring that you have the right technology leaders in place to execute your business strategy.
To make the best choice—and ultimately recruit the best candidate—you need to clearly define the purpose of the role, its relationship to other technology leadership roles in your company, and how you will measure success.
The Basic Differences Between CIOs and CTOs
CIOs and CTOs serve different roles, and the executives who fill them have different backgrounds and expertise.
CIO is a business role. These leaders, who are members of the executive committee, are responsible for corporate IT strategy and management. They work closely with other C-level leaders to transform internal and customer-facing processes using technology.
Whether as decision makers or advisers, CIOs help colleagues prioritize and coordinate IT investments among business units and functions. CIOs may have a computer science or engineering background, but you hire them for their experience with project and program management, business operations and building relationships.
A CTO may serve a variety of roles, but all of them are deeply technical. Depending on the company they may run the technology infrastructure, have responsibility for envisioning future technology-based business models, or head product development. Tech startup founders who created their company’s product may also have the CTO title.
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CTOs have an educational background in technology and deep experience running systems or developing technology-based products and services, but most do not have a lot of business management experience. If software is central to a company’s business model, the CTO may serve on the executive committee along with, or in place of, a CIO. In a company where the CIO has top-level responsibility for digital strategy, however, the CTO may report to the CIO.
Who to Hire
It’s unlikely that a single executive will be able to fulfill both roles successfully. To the extent that every company today is in the software business, it’s useful to remember that many software and telecommunications companies have both a CIO and a CTO. The CIO runs the internal systems used for finance, HR, and other business operations, while the CTO is in charge of the product or service roadmap and the systems needed to deliver them.
If you’re only hiring one position, you have to decide which role is best suited to achieving your business strategy. If your path to growth is paved with acquisitions, a CIO—who will have experience with due diligence and integrating corporate systems—is probably the better choice. On the other hand, if your company is grappling with dramatic changes in how it engages with customers—for example, a shift from door-to-door, in person sales to selling on social media—you’ll likely want a CTO who is skilled at creating innovative digital experiences.
You may also conclude that, like technology companies, you need both a CIO and a CTO. Although more CIOs today are spending time envisioning new applications for technology, they often don’t have the expertise needed for a hands-on role in product strategy. For example, an automobile manufacturer might have a CIO to run its vast corporate IT portfolio, and a CTO to lead development and execution of the technology roadmap for self-driving cars. In such cases, it’s critical to understand how these executives will work together.
Define the Role Before Recruiting
The multitudes of factors that go into the choice of CIO or CTO make the decision complex. Your executive recruiting partner should help you think through which is best for your company before you start your search, so you can identify the right technology leader among potential candidates with diverse experience.
Candidates, meanwhile, need a clear understanding of what you expect from the role, what they bring to it and what they will be able to achieve. The digital transformation at the core of most companies’ business strategies is shaking up technology leadership. While some candidates may appreciate the opportunity to create a new role at your company, a mismatch in expectations and expertise could spell disaster for both of you.
Whatever role you choose, it should be based on what your company needs, and you should be able to articulate that in the marketplace. If you do, you’ll find the technology leader you need to guide your company toward its digital future.