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As I was writing my previous post about The Constipation of Scale I got an email from a co-investor talking about a CEO / CTO conflict. It had an interesting phrase in it that I realized applies to many CEO / CTO relationships – “CEO needs to lighten up and CTO needs to tighten up.”
While this isn’t always the order (sometimes the CEO needs to tighten up!), the source of conflict like this is pretty predictable. I’ve seen this over and over and over again – as an investor you see the natural (and healthy) tension between CEO and CTO. If the CEO and CTO don’t know how to play together (or are both experiencing their roles together for the first time) this healthy tension often continues to evolve until armageddon looms. One day you wake up and realize you’ve got an issue.
Ironically, it’s an easy one to address. Our friendly neighborhood CTO needs to tighten up and our CEO needs to lighten up. Now – I said it’s easy to address – not “to solve” as this behavior change often feels like a chinese finger trap – they harder you work at it, the more ensnared you get.
As I reflect on this, these situations spiral out of control more frequently when the CEO and CTO are not co-founders (e.g. one or the other is hired in after the company is founded.) As CTO’s are natural technical founders, this dynamic often appears when a CEO is hired – even very early (e.g. < 10 people in the company), especially if the CTO / founder never actively acknowledges the dynamics between a CEO and CTO (e.g. the CEO is the ultimate boss.)
The success cases are ones where the CEO and the CTO work hard on their relationship from the start, recognize that they are different people, have different styles, have different roles, and actively engage in figuring out an effective working relationship.
Like most things that are out of balance, you can get in balance quickly by shifting your behavior a little. This doesn’t just apply to CEO / CTO relationships – it applies to negotiations, political views, marriages, and even relationships with your dog. If you are naturally “tight”, try lightening up. If you are naturally “light”, try tightening up. In either case, it’s a lot easier than dealing with a meltdown.