We know to maintain a competitive edge in today's business climate is to prioritize innovation, and that, in most instances, translates to some sort of technology. But what if technological genius isn't innate to the leaders of your organization?
Does it matter? In other words, just how tech or digital savvy does the CEO need to be?
Innovative companies aren't always coded into existence. Digital businesses are like any other, in that they need to exist to solve real problems and overcome carefully-researched audience pain points. And leaders who go through their days with their heads buried in code are likely doing a disservice to their idea, while on the flip side, being completely ignorant to the technology that runs your organization can also be hazardous.
While we've seen unicorns started up by marketers, executives and college students without an engineering background, the success or failure of companies in today's age is determined by a digital intelligence that goes beyond the back-end. CEOs don't necessarily have to know what goes into building the tech (or, in the case of artificial intelligence, building the tech that helps build the tech), but they should absolutely have their pulse on how tech is impacting business.
Customer focused vs. tech focused
CEOs who don't come from a technical background are in some ways at an advantage when it comes to securing funding or launching an idea into market. Those who are trained to think with a customer-centric mindset are less likely to make decisions solely based on tech, such as building a particular feature before testing its relevance just because it uses the latest technology.
But there's still a balance founders need to reach. Yes, there may be a knowledge and experience gap when it comes to detailing builds, writing scripts and de-bugging platforms. That's totally acceptable, and even preferable - great leaders are almost always great delegators, after all. CEOs still must take a holistic view of their industry, seeing opportunities, understanding when and how to pivot and building a digital strategy to meet goals.
Know just enough to be dangerous
It's more important to the long-term health and viability of your company that you nail down your mission and vision than it is to pour all of your hours into learning the nitty-gritty of technology components you don't already understand. But as you grow your company, consider furthering your digital education by consulting with peers or even younger employees within your organization.
The knowledge you're seeking shouldn't be of the specific how-to variety. Instead, aim to grasp how different apps and devices are used, which experiences are causing user headaches and the features that are working well or falling short.
Build your tech stack
If you're still in the early stages, it might be best to bring on a partner to fulfill the CIO role while you focus on other aspects of the business. Task your technical officer with helping you make the right engineer hires that will execute builds. It can be difficult to know the skills and experience that make for good coders and developers if you yourself aren't one, so find someone you trust who can better communicate expectations.
Identify what you don't know, and enroll your team to fill in those areas. As CEO, you're responsible for answering any questions posed to you by investors, potential partners and customers, and many of those questions may pivot around the technology behind the product, service or organization as a whole. Learn how to speak to the components of your product through the lens of business problem solving and leave the rest to your technologically intelligent team.
Understand what matters
In terms of building your digital strategy, the Internet of Things revolution has placed a premium on not just the accumulation of data, but the ability to interpret it. You should be keenly aware of how digital platforms are driving different kinds of engagement and know which metrics are relevant to your goals and which can be ignored. Again, this requires you to know how consumers are interacting with various technology and how digital is shaping their behaviors so you can evolve your ideas and campaigns to meet the ever-changing needs of your audience.
The most visionary CEOs are able to stay steps ahead of not just their competitors, but their customers as well. Anticipating needs and pivoting to meet consumers at exactly the right moment is what separates the disruptors from the also-rans. You may not be able to rush right to your computer and hammer out the code that changes your company's path, but if you have the intuition that something should change, communicate your ideas to your team so they can match the IT with the idea.
Being honest with yourself and your technical limitations is the best way to ensure that they won't be a hindrance to your success. The more you're able to stick to your vision and pepper in digital expertise from the right people where necessary, the more complete leader you'll be.