Technology and the CEO Résumé: Climbing the Tech Learning Curve

Part II - What they need to learn and what they don't

Not every CEO has technology experience—nor should they. But CEOs increasingly need to understand why technology is important, what it can do and to take steps to make sure they are factoring it into both their decisions and their company’s strategic direction. In this three-part series, CEOs and experts weigh in on the increasingly important role of technology in today’s business landscape. This is Part II. 

CEOs do not necessarily need to learn how to write code or understand the technical details behind the cloud to adapt to today’s technology environment. Instead, they just need to be comfortable and conversant with technology.

“The CEO needs to have enough proficiency and knowledge to be able to ask intelligent questions, to be prodding people to stay on the leading edge of what the technology can do, and to ultimately make resource-allocation decisions about where the company is going to make their investments,” says Paul Winum, senior partner and practice leader, Board and CEO Services, at RHR International, a leadership development firm.

“Most CEOs who grow up within an industry learn about the technologies that apply to that industry. The challenge is to stay current about how emerging technologies might apply in the future.”

When RHR assesses clients’ internal candidates for executive positions, “part of what we’re trying to gauge is their comfort level with technology and their attitude toward technology,” says Winum. “People who embrace technology, who have a certain fluency in talking about technology, will be better equipped to deal with the unforeseeable changes that will occur in the next five years.”

“People who embrace technology, who have a certain fluency in talking about technology, will be better equipped to deal with the unforeseeable changes that will occur in the next five years.”

CEOs can start raising their technological fluency with plain old-fashioned learning.

“Read up on it,” says Ron Cohen M.D., CEO of biotech company Acorda. “Make a determined effort to go online, go to conferences. If you hire a good head of digital strategy, go to a conference with them and have them introduce you around. Meet some of the people who are involved in that world.”

Sharing insights with executives at other firms also can help. “Spend time with peers in the market—not direct competitors, but companies that might be at a similar life stage and grappling with similar questions about technology,” says Margot McShane, executive director at the San Francisco office of executive search firm Russell Reynolds Associates. “Having good peer support is important.”

Spending time with companies that are driving disruption also can help. McShane says that some CEOs visit Silicon Valley firms, where “they are not just going in for a dog-and-pony show for an hour. They are sitting with the culture, they are sitting with the employees.” They learn “how we are doing business. This is how we make decisions. This is the language we use.”

For more formal input, Alan Guarino, vice chairman of CEO and Board Services at the Korn Ferry search firm, says his company has helped CEOs create technology advisory boards.

“They are made up of executives who have recently had tech leadership roles,” he says. “They serve as a sounding board and occasionally evaluate the organization’s technology decisions. The type of technology leaders who serve on these boards is dictated by the client based upon the company’s technology needs and its market.”

Read more:
Part I: Technology and the CEO Résumé: Why it Matters
Part III: Technology and the CEO Résumé: Instilling the Right Perspective on Tech

Peter is a longtime business writer and editor whose work has appeared in a variety of publications and outlets. A former editor at a B2B custom-publishing company, he has written on topics including technology, leadership, energy, finance, management, intellectual property and legal issues in business, among others.