Inspirational Leaders – Anna Barsby – The ‘T’ in CTO, Technology or Transformation?

During the Grace Blue Leadership Talks we often discuss the evolving role of the CMO, but is the Chief Technology Officer – a role often overlooked by CEOs – fundamental to a future-ready organisation? Over the past ten years, the role of CTO has migrated from being the number two to the CIO, to being at the heart of many organisations and the enabler of the transformation of an entire business. To explain why a CTO is now an intrinsic part of any successful business, we invited Anna Barsby – one of the UK’s most recognisable and awarded technology leaders – to offer her perspective on the importance of giving technology a seat at the table.

Like many CEOs who don’t really understand technology, we were expecting Anna’s talk to include a lot of tech jargon to bring out our inner technophobe. But Anna explained a CTO is first and foremost a people and change leader; a personable individual who is focused on business outcomes and can engage and influence – the board, the business stakeholders and the techies. The role is not actually about tech, it’s all about understanding the business and having a passion for tech enabling innovation. So, the T in CTO is as much about transformation as tech.

Like any good CMO, the CTO must be able to tell a story, bring people on the journey and sell a clear vision. At the heart of transformation is the customer, not the product. Anna empowers her team and ensures they understand the impact they have on the success of the business. In doing this, she creates a culture where there’s a collective desire to be better and the scope moves from upgrading systems to ‘leapfrogging’ and adopting whole new technologies. Being the first in category to adopt new systems comes with risks but by being well networked and close to suppliers there is usually a safe and precedented way to innovate. Her modern way of thinking has reaped many rewards for her previous businesses, most recently Morrisons, where she drove real end-to-end transformation for the retail brand.

However, the biggest blocker for transformation is mentality so a CTO must first understand the mindset and culture of an organisation. It’s crucial to interpret the desire for change throughout the business before embarking on any radical change. Transformation cannot happen where there are siloes; there must be an end-to-end business approach with everyone on board to deliver the same outcome.

So why don’t all CEOs have a CTO on their board? It’s often because they don’t understand the role, even if they acknowledge there is a need to give tech a seat at the table. Frequently, they go to someone they know rather than go to market to find the best person to take them on their transformation journey. Anna believes recruiters should challenge CEOs to think differently about the role of tech in their business. Trust is crucial to transformation and successful CEOs will empower their CTO to set a transformation vision and then roadmap for its delivery.

This pandemic has thrown so many plans into disarray and now more than ever we question what does future-ready look like. Should your next major hire be a people and product orientated digital change leader, otherwise known as a CTO?

Anna is Founder and Managing Partner of management consultancy, Tessiant