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Hiring a Technology Leader: Where Does a Manufacturer Even Begin?

Dec. 19, 2023
A look at the skills needed for different types of Industry 4.0 roles.

Technology has never been more important to manufacturers than it is now. Companies need analytics to solve supply chain problems, digital twins of their production lines to drive efficiency and flexible, cloud-based architectures to integrate with their customers and partners.  As a result, CEOs are placing big bets on the technology leaders they hire. They must get this right.

But how do manufacturing CEOs know whom to hire? The technology executive talent market is rife with titles: chief information officer, chief technology officer, chief data officer, chief digital officer, each with a unique (but overlapping) profile and skillset.  I spend a lot of time recruiting technology leaders and can offer some guidance.

Make technology a part of an integrated corporate strategic plan. Gone are the days when companies can have two business plans: the “real” business plan and then the “IT strategic plan” that “enables” or “supports” the corporate plan. It is time for CEOs to accept that technology is their business now, and proactively define its role in their company’s growth.

Understand your current technology environment: Do you still own your own data centers or are you leveraging cloud services? Are you sitting on a mountain of valueless data, or do you have mature master data management and governance? Are your systems reliable, fast and secure, or are you running your business on rickety infrastructure?  A CEO’s knowledge of the company’s technology maturity level is key to hiring the right tech leader.

Become familiar with the technology leadership archetypes: Warning: there is tremendous blurriness between the technology positions on the market, but there are some general differences:

Chief Information Officer:  A CIO provides end-to-end IT leadership which can include:

  •        Moving from “on-prem” solutions to establishing a footprint in the cloud
  • Setting up a data lake with visualization tools that allow your plant general managers to self-serve their own analytics.
  • Ensuring systems and data are compliant and secure (and effectively communicating security posture to the Board)
  • Making the right investments to ensure your infrastructure is flexible and can scale.

Chief Technology Officer: CTOs are all about software.  While many CTOs understand the infrastructure side of the house, they are much more comfortable leading software engineering teams to create new intellectual property (software solutions) to put into the market for revenue generation. CTOs perform best in companies that have a cloud-based infrastructure and are not in “turnaround” mode in need of a CIO.

Chief Digital Officer: There are two CDO profiles: 

  1. A technology leader who is accountable for enterprise IT and for digitizing operations and the employee and customer experience. Typically, this is a CIO who has created a strong IT foundation, has the business partner credibility of his or her business partners, understands the customer point of view and is a change agent—and thus is promoted into the CDO position.
  2. A profit and loss leader charged with creating a new “digital business” that provides software or data products to external customers. This person might join a “legacy” manufacturing business from an e-commerce business, for example, and have a background in sales, marketing, product development, or general management. 

Chief Data Officer: This high-value executive must be technical, innovative, business-focused and a cross-functional-relationship builder. Often called “head of data and analytics,” this executive is as comfortable talking to technologists about data architecture as to P&L leaders and customers about new data solution products. Increasingly, data leadership report to CEOs (not CIOs), ensuring that data is front and center in a business plan, not relegated just to finance or marketing.

Technology Leadership Soft Skills

But regardless of the archetype, CEO’s need technology leaders with a key set of soft skills:

Influence and change management: Technology drives business process change, so technology leaders need to do more than put new solutions into production. They must work with other executives to drive adoption of those technologies, and this requires a tremendous ability to change mindsets and behaviors.

Strong team leadership: Technology leaders must evaluate their teams and ensure there is organizational alignment to strategic goals. A great technology leader will be effective at fostering a culture where even the most technical person on the team understands how their role impacts the business.

Strategic and hands-on

Whether tech execs have large or small organizations, they must be able to sit at the executive table looking out at the market and the future and have enough technical depth that they have credibility with the most technical members of their team.

To sum up: Over the last several years, the role of the technology leader in the industrial sector has moved from a support role to a strategic change agent who will have a lasting impact on your business.  Technology leaders are part technologist, part business leader and part evangelist, and it can be challenging to find the right blend with the right cultural fit. But by spending some up-front time to understand the profile you need at this stage of your company’s growth, CEOs can hire a leader who will have a game changing impact on their employees, shareholders and customers.

Martha Heller is CEO of Heller Search Associates, an IT executive recruiting firm specializing in CIO, CTO, CISO and senior technology roles in all industries. She is the author The CIO Paradox: Battling the Contradictions of IT Leadership and Be the Business: CIOs in the New Era of IT.

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