CTO as Storyteller

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Probably because of my background as a writer, I’m enamored of the idea of the CTO as a storyteller. I like this perspective expressed in The Voice of the Storyteller:

In writing, the connection between storyteller and audience is just as important. By using some subtle devices, a narrator can reach out to the reader and say, “We’re in this together.”

It’s that idea that we’re on a shared journey of discovery that appeals to me, and it’s why I’m taking the opportunity to respond to an email I received a few weeks ago but had let sit in my inbox until now. In a lot of ways, I see the journey of becoming a CTO as a shared experience. That sharing comes about because of the wonderful advice and helpful ideas and insights other CTOs have shared with me along the way. I don’t pretend to be an expert in this area, only someone who wants to share what he’s learning as he learns it…and probably will gain new insights as time goes by.

For me, the CTO is a storyteller, a person who reveals to the organization s/he serves insights about how technology can transform teaching, learning and leading in powerful ways. Sure, there’s a lot of other things the CTO is called upon to do, but the role of storyteller is one that lies nascent in the work.

A colleague (out of state) recently sent me this note and asked I respond:

Over the past few years I was applying for CTO positions, but when I followed up with whoever they hired, they all seemed to be from an IT background.  Many of the job postings give an equal number of bullet points to the educational side and the “nuts and bolts” side, yet it appears that often the former is lip service.

While I know my way around the inside of a computer, I’m not an expert by any means, and my knowledge of networking and data is relatively weak.  We’ve often heard how this position is evolving from strictly technical to one of “educational leader,” yet I’m not seeing that play out, as many of the hires have come from business and have little to no educational experience.  My question, therefore, is two-fold.

First, do you see a similar trend in TX?  Second, as someone from the K-12 side, what advice would you give with respect to both interviewing and additional training to compensate for a lack of knowledge on the technical end?

The short answer to the first question–Is there a similar trend in Texas that gives primacy to the technical side over educational, even though the latter is given lip service–is, It depends. Obtaining a posting as a CTO really depends on a variety of factors that may have nothing to do with the technical or education side of the house, which I’ll attempt to elaborate on below. Once those are shared, we can back up and reframe the conversation.

Key CTO Tenets
#1 – The fundamental CTO skills are communication and collaborative problem-solving.
When a friend in Oklahoma shared he was getting a new job as a CTO, my first advice to him was to get copies of Crucial Conversations and Crucial Confrontations. Read the books and apply the strategies in his daily work.

Why these two books? Often, we assume because of the success that we’ve enjoyed thus far that we’re prepared for a leadership position. The truth is that the CTO leadership skills that are in demand don’t just require knowledge of technical or instructional areas. In fact, knowing too much about either one may be an impediment insomuch as you fool yourself that your perspective is the right one for your new posting.

Rather, you need to tease out the various perspectives, challenge the perspectives–AND maintain the relationship with those who hold perspectives that may inhibit the organization–and mine for conflict. This is why the crucial conversations/confrontations skills are critical. And, be warned. It’s a natural reaction to look at these skills and strategies, and find them unnecessary.

In other words, I’m a nice person. What I’m doing works for me now. Why shouldn’t I continue? This attitude is your real enemy, as are the ideas that you can cure what ails the new organization you’re headed into. Communication and team problem-solving, future planning, harnessing the power of all the stakeholders on your team and those who have authority over you (e.g. your boss and anyone else you are accountable to). I urge you to re-examine your attitudes and approaches to problem-solving, communication and ask yourself, How can I do this in differently than I have in the past, and facilitate the organization’s achievement of our common goals?

#2 – The CTO must play the role of a human relations specialist while making the complex understandable, new ideas approachable.
Being a shy person, one who often fails at inter-personal communications, I have to work hard to accomplish the idea of making the complex approachable and understandable to others. When you’re in the CTO position, it’s obvious that others expect you to know technology, to be an expert. I urge you to work to change this attitude as quickly as possible.

Humbly, share how you don’t know the answers to everything technical under the sun. Instead, cultivate an attitude of humility centered on empowering your learning, the learning of others, and collaborative conversations that enable you to develop solutions together. A part of this role involves human relations, as well as public relations. The former is focused on gentle interactions with others that ensure they are affirmed in their pursuit of technology-based solutions, while the latter is how you share the powerful story of that seeking out of solutions that benefit those you serve.

To that end, I encourage you to capture these stories in video, text, whatever format you can and share them with as wide an audience as often as possible (my personal goal is once a week, and I often feel that it isn’t enough).

#3 – Nuts and bolts of networking, technical support.
“She doesn’t know anything about reimaging computers, running cable, or scripting updates to software.” I heard that complaint about a female CTO when she first began over 15 years ago.  The truth, though, wasn’t that the female CTO needed to know these things, but rather that she needed to know how to “team” with people who did. I often laugh at the misconception that nuts-n-bolts knowledge is essential to the CTO role, and that usually involves laughing at myself since I held that belief UNTIL I asked around.

Many of the great responses I received from CTOs were essentially the same–while technical knowledge will be important, and you’ll need to continue to learn while on the job, you will have people you must rely on. If they’re not the right people, you’ll need to put people in place who can be relied on. The work of the network designer isn’t that of the CTO, and vice versa. Find what you’re good at, and do what is necessary to ensure their success, building synergy with all team members.

Now, while I could go on focusing on the essential skills of the CTOs, what they need to do (and I encourage you to read my CTO’s Role series), let’s take a look at the 2nd question you asked.

Reframing the Conversation
Now that you know some of the aspects of being a CTO and what I think about them, I’d like to suggest that there is no trend one way or another about being too techie or instructionally-focused. Rather, what a district perceives as their need is what they hire for. To get hired for the right job, the one that matches your skills, you need to find and apply for work in districts that need your particular skill set.

Most folks will say, I have an instructional tech skill-set but no one is hiring me for a CTO position. Others will say, I know how to run fiber for the WAN, select vendors impartially, engage in project management but they won’t hire me for a CTO position. The reason why is that skills in either competency are insufficient.

So, if having a powerful skillset in one or both areas is essential, but insufficient to obtaining a CTO position, what is it that’s needed? The secret is how to mesh the two areas, to interact with others to address their concerns. This is the leadership component of being a CTO.

Often, I’ve seen principals placed in tech director positions. Sometimes, that works due to a natural aptitude for certain individuals who can learn to be more techie. In others, I’ve seen PR specialists for districts put into the role of CTO, or techies who learn to wear business suits assume the mantle. Yet, in each case, it wasn’t the skillset (or the suit) that qualified them for the position…it was their attitude, their commitment to the organization and their ability to marshal the forces at their disposal to solve problems, as well as communicate that story in a compelling narrative.

Based on these reflections, I would encourage an applicant for CTO role to do the following:

  1. Understand where you skills are, as well as inventory your weaknesses. Make sure you know how to staff your weaknesses. Remember, you don’t have to be the expert but you do need to know how to marshal the experts on your team to get work done and that involves some knowledge about the subject.
  2. When you interview for the job, ask yourself, Where is the focus of these questions and how can I respond in ways that show my competence while illustrating the kind of leader I am? Insights into the process, and more importantly, yourself, will come over time. What you’re looking for–and your potential employer is as well–is the opportunity to align your strengths to their needs in a way that is incredibly obvious and powerful for the organization. What is the organization really looking for–a team builder, a technical expert and/or instructional expert? I like to call that person a “tech demigod,” in other words, a non-existent person no one would want to be around anyways…few people like know-it-alls.
  3. Be authentic in your interview. If you can’t be honest and comfortable when discussing difficult subjects–remember, it isn’t about you but about improving service to the organization and humbling yourself to get that done while protecting the dignity of others who serve–then you probably aren’t the right person for the job…and the interview panel will sense that. And, finally,
  4. Build personal connections with others. I can’t count the number of times someone told me, “When I retire from education because my retirement job will make me rich, I’ll recommend you for the position” and it didn’t come true. That said, I’ve built many personal connections with people around Texas and I’m grateful for what they’ve taught me or shared. My goal in building those relationships wasn’t because I wanted them to endorse me on LinkedIn or whatever. Rather, I built those relationships as we sought to solve Texas’ edtech problems together or sharing what I was learning as I was learning was useful to them. These connections will sustain you, give you a “tail” to lean on and affirm your professional work when no one seems to be hiring.
  5. Persist. Before landing on my current posting, I sat in front of many panels and learned the rhythm of those questions. I achieved an attitude of distance, a way to step back and enjoy the process as if it wouldn’t make a difference either way in my life. Rather, what I want is simply to learn and ensure that the organization is successful.

I suppose, upon further reflection, that being able to achieve that attitude of humble distance focused, not on personal success, but rather organizational achievement is what saves me. My goal isn’t to advocate MY way of doing things, but to find the best-fitting, research-based or team researched, affordable when appropriate approach to the betterment of the organization and the people I serve.

That attitude of humility brings me peace in any discussion that grows contentious, any conversation that becomes confrontational.  With that attitude unshaken, you can be a CTO that has one goal, one purpose and invites others to rediscover that, to rise above the petty fight for scarce resources.

What are your thoughts, veteran CTOs? Am I full of blarney?




Everything posted on Miguel Guhlin’s blogs/wikis are his personal opinion and do not necessarily represent the views of his employer(s) or its clients. Read Full Disclosure

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One thought on “CTO as Storyteller

  1. Helen November 25, 2012 at 12:32 pm Reply

    Great post, Miguel! I have downloaded Crucial Conversations—the author should give you a commission! Even though I am not a CTO candidate, your ideas help in staff development training and curriculum and instruction! Thanks!Helen

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