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Product Innovation

4 Styles of CTO: Which Is Right for Your Enterprise?

CTOs are crucial for helping large organizations translate tech trends into innovative product, but there’s no cookie-cutter way to do that

In order to stay ahead of digital disruption, enterprises need a strong technical leader to keep them on top of technical shifts and what they mean to the customers, business models, and long-term organizational viability. According to the experts from McKinsey, this is the role of the CTO, who’s essential to track the technological threats and opportunities and match those to product innovation deployments that lead to success in the market.

“The importance of this dual-facing aspect of the CTO’s role emerges with particular clarity in conglomerates and multi-business-unit organizations, where cross-cutting topics are at risk of not being recognized,” write Kimberly Borden, Shivanshu Gupta, Florian Weig, and Jim Williams in a recent McKinsey brief. “Companies can often uncover new, transformative opportunities by finding the ideas that fall between the cracks in the organization and scaling new initiatives so that every business unit benefits.”

They note that many digital transformation failures occur because too many organizations today don’t have someone solely in charge of this visionary leadership function. More than one in four organizations today don’t have a CXO responsible for “identifying and implementing cutting edge technologies for the business.”

According to McKinsey, there’s no one cookie-cutter way for CTOs to take up this mantle as chief technological oracle and rainmaker. Instead, the firm’s experts say successful CTOs tend to fall into four distinct archetypes—each of them suited to different kinds of organizations and industries: influencers, challengers, enablers, and owners.

Here’s a breakdown of how McKinsey sees these styles shaking out:


Type of organization: Less tech-intensive industries; typically found in consumer goods companies

Job description: Focusing on internal and external interfaces, advocating for innovation through partnership with emerging tech providers

Management style: Tech scouts and deep thinkers; usually lacking formal power such as control over resources but ability to counsel business leaders


Type of organizations: More tech-intensive industries, usually with higher R&D as percentage of revenue and multiple business units

Job description: More externally focused, charged with strategy and portfolio management, and preventing entrenched business units from growing complacent with technology, less direct control over R&D

Management style: Uses creative tension and veto power for improving R&D performance, bringing in outside ideas to drive transformative change to existing activities and processes


Type of organization: Less tech-intensive industries; multi-business-unit companies with lots of overlap in technologies and projects

Job description: Tasked with driving efficiencies across business units, process, and personnel management, and generally have a lot of R&D operations under direct management

Management style: More internally focused, improving processes, cross-pollinating ideas, increasing investment in a limited number of business-critical projects


Type of organization: More technology intensive, higher R&D as percentage of revenue, and single-product business, often found in auto OEMs

Job description: Tasked with centralizing R&D personnel and budgets underneath them, with complete control over product and tech development for the company

Management style:  More internally focused, with nose for strategy and portfolio management, with high degree of power and autonomy

A Matrix

McKinsey places the four styles of CTO leadership in the following matrix based on degree of control afforded to them and their ability to directly draw on R&D resources:

“While each type of CTO can be successful, it is crucial to identify quickly which approach will work best within a particular company,” the McKinsey experts write. “This is not always easy to do, because there is often little or no time for a honeymoon period in which to define just how the CTO is going to work with the rest of the organization, and a few stumbles can lead to loss of credibility with line management and eventual ‘organ rejection.'”

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