5 Things a CTO Should Know About Board Meetings
Most CTO’s don’t belong in a board meeting.
It’s not because they aren’t valuable, but there aren’t great resources for technology executives.
Life as a head technologist doesn’t prepare you for the lions lurking in board rooms. We’re taught insane misinformation about value, and then we are submerged into the C-Suite.
Other executives show up with metrics about growth, revenue, and stock value. We show up with burn-down charts accentuating meaningless stats about progress.
I don’t have an exact formula, but I did learn how to understand value. I’ve compiled the five things that worked for me. Here we go.
Stop Talking About Your Process
It’s a mistake to assume your colleagues care about the sausage factory. No one cares.
How you build software is important — to you. But business stakeholders care about what you create and the impact.
Their opinion can often seem bottom-line focused. It is.
Building software is involved. It requires expertise in software engineering processes and people management.
To manage a team is an art. You must command respect but also motivate your team.
The best teams are motivated. They care and own the process. It’s essential to have a plan they believe in — every detail matters.
But translating the nuts and bolts into value is nuanced. If you want respect in the boardroom, you must speak their language. “Business speak” is essential for celebrating the successes of your team. This secret code determines the status of your team.
Your team can be classified in two ways — day laborers or thought-workers. If you want the latter, learn to describe the technology. Use their words.
Discuss churn and not morale — debate ROI and not features. Leave the process out of the board room lest they all try to manage your strategy for you. I assure you finance nor marketing will show up to share their task list.
Don’t Appeal to Morals
The moral high ground is low ground.
I used to look stupid. I’d walk into a board meeting hell-bent on protecting my team’s honor. But my approach was wrong.
I approached my time segment in a board meeting with valor. I explained how my team stayed up late — how engineering worked so hard. I made eye contact with everyone in the room as I described the greatness of my team.
I patted myself on the back when I shared how they did so much with so little. The heroic efforts of my team needed to be known. I evangelized my team’s successes.
It took a while before I noticed they were all checking emails. My time slot was the most used time for the infamous “bio break.”
How could they not care? Why were their eyes glazed over? I said to myself, “this is some important sh!t.”
I spoke to a friend in the business. He told me that even as a friend, he was bored with my presentation. He said I sounded like I was bragging about my team. When I told him I was, he said no one cares. “What’s in it for them?” he said.
I had an epiphany — I was a glorified line manager. I reported on the production line. My presentations had too many “I’s” and “my team.” I needed more about them and business. My approach of bloviating about team process stats was hurting them.
Shift To Business Words
One day I walk into an executive meeting, and I see smirks on everyone’s face. It’s early, so I am not my sharpest. I put my laptop down and drop some Stevia into my coffee. Glancing at the whiteboard, I notice a hand-drawn graphic depicting the longest-running defect.
The EVP of sales drew a chart showing the impact of engineering on revenue before our new process and after. His point? We implemented an inefficient process. Sales suffered because “the process tied his hands.”
I bit the inside of my lip, folded my hands in front of my face, and shook my head. He ranted about the sales acquisition pipeline. In his words, revenue decreased because of our “sham of a process.” We needed to focus on the customer. Focus to him means building whatever they wanted, no matter the cost.
I let him finish. It took patience.
I asked if I could use the projector for a few minutes. Before I started, I wondered if they thought my team was effective. Over 50% of the room said no. The rest? They were neutral at best.
I asked, what if I told you the process protected 65% of revenue? Everyone stopped checking their email. I paused for effect.
Then I said, what if I told you I could put a cost on each bug? They asked, how? I ignored them and added, “what if I told you the ROI on 85% of new features was zero?”
The CEO says, “if that’s true, I am going to fire someone.” I said, “You promise?”
Tell A Story To Each Person
I took a sip of my coffee. The CEO just promised to fire this nut job — a wicked fantasy of mine.
I told a story of success. I used their words — business words.
The company’s new process worked. Customer complaints on month by month basis decreased by 48%. Our most pissed customer renewed and resumed status calls.
Engineering morale was up by 60%. Why? Death marches ended.
I took a survey before and after. A few people gasped when I shared this slide.
My next two slides surprised everyone. My hope? The sales guy would be escorted out of the building by security — at least I felt that at the moment.
I had everyone’s attention for the first time; I drank a little of my coffee in front of them. It’s strange how people wait through silence when you speak their language.
I hit the space bar to go to the next slide.
I presented a simple listing of each feature by quarter. Next to each feature, I listed usage stats. Customers did not use most features. We used three out of sixty-two features.
I calculated the dollar amount of each feature. Then I went around the room and told a story to each person.
I told finance a story about wasted capital. If we continued to chase BS features, we might as well set money on fire. I explained that new features should have an ROI calculation. I asked, why would we commit our most precious resources with no idea of the outcome?
You see, finance thinks in terms of risk. So, I used risk words.
I turned my focus to business development. My next slide showed revenue by API. If we spent a little cash on scaleability, we could service more APIs. An increase in our API footprint would guarantee revenue over time. We would strengthen our relationships with existing, paying customers.
I knew that business development cared about relationships. So, I used relationship words.
Use the Mission and Vision as a Guide
Luck favors the prepared.
After getting my clock cleaned for years, I learned a few things. Instead of obsessing over process statistics, I measured success by my own KPIs — metrics I shared with my colleagues.
I spent time crafting narratives around business metrics. I learned to tell a story.
My last slide boldly showed the mission outlined by our fearless leader. Underneath the mission, I showed customer testimonials. Not one comment spoke of new features. Instead, customers asked for working features. They wanted scale, trust, and transparency.
I related each of my slides to the vision. If we wanted to be a “pure-play technology platform,” it made more sense to build out API infrastructure. A new workflow or whiz-bang UI widget wasn’t part of our mission, nor did our customers care.
Final Thoughts —
Learn the business and speak the language
You are smart, and your team is excellent. But you have to explain. Words are essential, as is your audience.
Sprint words are for the engineering team. Finance words have an audience. Knowing your audience and crafting a narrative can save your career.
It took years before I stepped off my soapbox about the engineering process — my career sky-rocked.