Staying the course: CTOs in shining armour
I was in a mentoring session a few weeks ago and one of my mentees asked the million dollar question.
What makes for a good bank CTO.
At first the question felt unanswerable. Ineffable.
But then I blurted out my own truth. For what else is there?
We are in the transformation business.
It’s about humans.
It’s about culture.
It’s about process.
But it has to start with systems.
And it sort of has to stay with systems because, if it doesn’t get delivered through systems it won’t go far. So in our world a good CTO is everything.
We are talking knight in shining armour, redeemer, protector, visionary, poet, dreamer, defender, fairytale sage. All at the same time, but not all the time, because some times all the magic boils down to is sitting back and letting you do, poised to save you if you don’t.
When setting about to change an organisation, the way people think and work and the way entire societies organise money, what does the person who sits at the front of the effort need to have and do?
Vision. Gumption. And humility.
Because the combination of the three makes one thoughtful, ambitious and effective.
But how many bank CTOs can you say that about? Heck. How many folks can you say that about?
And yet. They exist.
I have met some. I have and continue to work with some.
They set a course and stay the course.
And we know how hard this is.
And in a bank.
And let’s face it.
Corporate troublemakers, dreamers and challengers rely on this CTO. I know this for a fact. I used to rely on this CTO in my banking days. I still do.
The corporate troublemaker is a certain personality type or they wouldn’t be involved with change work. But I don’t think our personalities determine success or failure. I think they determine if we are drawn to this work or not.
Once in, the things that make a difference are a leader that is engaged, willing and determined to be involved when needed, a shield when required, and a benevolent absence when things go well.
Without that you flail and falter. Without that, the blow will come that will kill you, without a doubt. The hard day you can’t cope with will come, without that leader.
For those affecting change within big organisations, like my ideal CTO, like me in my past life, like many of you, there are many hard days.
Because on top of the hard work there is all the stuff that is as unnecessary as it is axiomatically present.
The hard work of building a thing that is new is being compounded by politics, passive resistance, passive aggression or the worst of all: sneering indifference. When you are pouring your life blood into the organisation and the colleagues you are doing it for try to trip you up, shut you up, hem you in, it can get hard to remember why you bother.
Some days are hard.
Because the work is hard.
Because the organisation is hard.
Because people can be unhelpful for the sheer perverse joy of it.
So it’s hard.
And when it gets hard, as it will, the thing that makes the difference is not your personality. It’s the people who will keep you honest. Not the canaries in the mine who scan the landscape for things that may kill or save you. No. People who do. And have the balls to challenge your driving. To challenge your mood. To say hey you are wrong. Wrong in a choice you made. Or wrong to feel like throwing in the towel.
You need these people in life. And you definitely need them when you are driving large programmatic change in a bank.
They challenge you and keep you on course, these folks. They course correct you. They remind you to go higher.
They are the team that will shield and support you, allow you to get it wrong before you get it right. Tell you you are getting it wrong before you get it right.
They will stay the course with you, and shake you awake if needed.
There is a Frank Turner song that plays in my head a lot when I think about this:
If ever I stray from the path I follow, take me down to the English Channel, throw me in where the water is shallow and then drag me back out to shore
If you don’t live on our shores, substitute the Channel for your body of water of choice and stay with me on this.
Because the hardest thing in trying to build things, change things, do anything… is the messy middle. Where you will get things wrong and what happens next is all that matters.
Will your team stand firm?
Will they challenge you if you are wrong?
Will they protect you if you are tired?
Will they remember why you are doing this on the day you can’t?
I am reflecting on this as I speak of what makes for a good bank CTO.
I am reflecting on this as I am building my own organisation and most of all I am thinking of this as I work with partners day in day out.
Past the contracts and the KPIs, the invoices and the SteerCos, past the deliverables and the press releases, what stands between a reversal being a failure and a setback being the end of the road, is you. Your team. And your CTO.
The humans with all their foibles.
Those who will shake you up when you get it wrong, drag you to a corner, if not the English Channel, and tell you to get a grip, rethink, have heart: stay the course.
The people who will not let you stray from the path you all follow, together.
And the person who, when the chips are down, owns the vision and has your back. Your CTO.
Because as Frank Turner puts it in the same song: If you got my back I’ll go on.
And when it comes right down to it, what stands between success and failure when it comes to the most ambitious programmatic change banks undertake, is a team of people who despite the best lessons in corporate cynicism will have each other’s back, through the messy middle. And a CTO who makes it possible. Because he, or she, makes the team believe. That better is possible. And that it is possible for us. And that in the journey there, s/he will have our back. So we go on.
By Leda Glyptis
Leda Glyptis is FinTech Futures’ resident thought provocateur – she leads, writes on, lives and breathes transformation and digital disruption as CEO of 11:FS Foundry.
She is a recovering banker, lapsed academic and long-term resident of the banking ecosystem.
All opinions are her own. You can’t have them – but you are welcome to debate and comment!