Why and when CTOs should bring in external skills

Despite many organisations retiring their legacy IT systems, finding new answers to ongoing challenges and forging their way ahead for the digital future, it can sometimes feel like every avenue has been explored and nothing is changing. It’s times like these that a fresh pair of eyes on the situation can make all the difference. Bringing in external technological expertise may be the answer to help identify and work towards fixing the issues. The question is, when and how to do this?

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This is a contributed article by Heather Abbott, Partner at AKF Partners.

Change and transformation have been some of the biggest business buzzwords over the past few years. Many organisations are retiring their legacy IT systems, finding new answers to ongoing challenges and forging their way ahead for the digital future. Yet, it can sometimes feel like every avenue has been explored and nothing is changing, and the same problems are still cropping up. It’s times like these that a fresh pair of eyes on the situation can make all the difference. Bringing in external technological expertise may be the answer to help identify and work towards fixing the issues. The question is, when and how to do this?

Identifying when your organisation may need help

Many organisations are currently driving transformation programmes and the need to push through certain digital projects has been heightened by the pandemic. Despite this, 70% of digital transformation projects are expected to fail. To avoid being part of that 70%, organisations should look out for red flags which could signal issues to come:

  1. Digital transformation is not moving fast enough or has stalled
  2. Time to deliver a new feature functionality is slow and trending in the wrong direction
  3. Engineering morale is low and also impacting time to deliver
  4. A new competitive threat has arisen
  5. Growth has accelerated and current leadership lacks the skillset to grow with the business

Poor morale among engineering can also be an indication of issues in terms of teams and engineering culture or decaying technology or data architecture – all problems that need to be addressed. While the emergence of a competitive threat may not only be a change in the competitive ecosystem, this could present itself in the guise of the organisation itself experiencing explosive growth. This too can generate issues for leadership if not quite equipped to keep up with this pace of change or scope increase. If any of these are ringing alarm bells, it may be time to ask for an outside view.

Mitigating the myths of external threats

Yet, while these are all common problems organisations can face that create a real negative impact on the growth and operation of a business, there can still be reluctance to turn to external experts. For many CTOs, understandably, external help may be seen as a threat to their job or they may feel it is an admission they cannot do their job well. They may feel like this approach will highlight mistakes or the wrong decisions which led to this problematic situation in the first place. There may also be a strong belief that these problems should be able to be solved internally without the need of a ‘fixer’. But it is not about having got something wrong, it is simply about asking for a new and fresh perspective.  In addition, a third party perspective may add weight to initiatives that the CTO is already trying to push forward and gain adequate internal (and budget) support for. CTOs who are the most successful long-term embrace external input to continue to be successful and to accelerate their careers and capabilities.

A curious and open mindset is crucial for success and rather than being threatened by external help, working with another expert in the field should be considered an opportunity to learn and to keep improving. Previous decisions likely were the best decisions at that time but society and business are constantly evolving, and at an increasingly rapid pace. What may be needed now may be different. No single person can know everything and getting help does not necessarily mean everything done in the past was ‘wrong’. An external view may feel uncomfortable at first, but it’s worth remembering everyone is on the same team, with the same objectives.

Enabling innovation

The benefits of bringing in external expertise don’t only apply to individual CTOs but to the tech team and organisation as a whole, with the possibility to bring in deep expertise in very specific, even niche, areas such as, data, front-end architectures etc. CEOs also want and expect innovation from their CTO and tech team and this need has been exacerbated by the pandemic – a stretched tech team, for example, facing this constant demand may force the need for quick or easy wins. The problem is that these can in fact cause greater complications and issues in the long-run. An objective, external view can help to strike the balance and to also help make the case for initiatives that may take longer, but will enable far greater leaps in innovation in the end. This external input can help accelerate support ideas to improve the organisations’ overall outcomes.

External experts can also bring credibility and momentum and help to validate existing ideas. Not to mention, this credibility will be based on working with many different companies – especially in organisations with a lot of tenured employees and low attrition rates, there can often be a tendency to be inward-looking.  Diversity of ideas is the foundation of innovation and external viewpoints help widen out the ideas pool.

Getting the most from external help

Still, the benefits of bringing in external help will only be truly realised if certain practices and guidelines are followed and put in place. It is important to be clear about the objectives with both the company and experts being brought in and the internal team, ensuring everyone is on the same page and working towards a common goal. A non-threatening and collaborative tone should be set from the get-go.  Time should be granted on both sides, to those coming in and the CTO and IT leaders that brought them in, to get used to working with a third party and to gradually establish a rapport and mutual respect.

It is also vital to remember that this external help should not and is never intended to become a permanent fixture. A good consultancy, for example, will aim to equip an organisation with the skills, tools and advice needed to diagnose and fix its own problems in the future, as well as to continually learn and develop. Working with external experts should be an interactive learning experience – the goal is not to tell teams what to do, it’s to enable them to know what to do. External help can offer a “bridge strategy” to ensure the company is able to get to where it’s going but does not provide the final solution and destination. It is about paving the right path forward, helping CTOs and tech teams think differently about their organisation and how they can work towards success.

It is often cited how asking for help is not a weakness but in fact a sign of courage – the same principle should be applied here. Bringing in external skills is not about getting someone to do it for you but to help you to do it better.

Heather Abbott is a Technology executive with over 20 years of experience leading teams and building organisations across multiple industries. Previously, Abbott led Nasdaq’s Listings Business Technology organisation as Senior Vice President of Corporate Client Technology and Enterprise IT. In this role, she was responsible for overseeing the application, development, and delivery of Corporate Client products to help customers more successfully scale, enter and thrive in public markets. She also oversaw all of Nasdaq’s Web Properties, Strategic Technology Partnerships, Corporate Applications and Internal IT. Prior to joining Nasdaq, she was Senior Vice President at Charles Schwab & Co for six years, leading a team of over 400 technologists in Schwab’s core Investor Services business unit.