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I'm working as a CTO in a small company. We have a few part-time employees but will increase the workforce when needed.

For the past 6 months I've been working on introducing tests with the goal of having continuous delivery. We've just started to use the tests on every pull request. Two of the tests were flaky and had race conditions. Someone noticed this while I was on vacation. One of the team members then suggested we should switch the current test framework/test tools to an other competing product.

When I returned, he had done some work of porting tests to this new framework as a proof of concept (with the CEO's blessing). I think this is a bad idea since frameworks are both good enough and we already have invested significant time in one of them.

I'm thinking that the real problem here isn't the tests, but that I have a team that is not working towards the same goal. My mission should be to unite the team around one solution and secondary optimize the work as possible. I sat down and compared the two test frameworks. I collected my thoughts, trying to explain why we should stick with the existing framework, but that I appreciated the research work of the employee.

In my analysis, I made a small technical error. The employee noticed this and questioned me about it. We then had a technical discussion leading to both of us having a better understanding of this particular feature/limitation.

Later I got feedback from my CEO. "It's a good thing that you try to unite the team. But when you share your thought process like that and your subordinate notices an error, you're undermining your own authority".

I've thought a lot about this. I believe my CEO is correct, but on the other hand, I don't think a CTO should always be right. I believe in a work environment where it's okay to make mistakes and where the technical excellence of the product is not limited by my own abilities, but the result of the teams abilities, leading to a product that none of us would be able to build on our own. A great leader can lead people that are smarter and more capable than himself.

Can you respect a CTO that is wrong?

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    I don't understand the question you're asking. If you're asking if it's okay for a CTO to make a technical mistake in front of an employee, yes you're human and to err is human. It's about building a culture when it's okay to point out the flaw in your leader's argument (respectfully of course) and not have your head bit off. I think your CEO is focusing on the wrong thing and thinks a leader should never be wrong about anything, which is impossible. – jcmack Mar 14 at 8:07
  • @jcmack I've edit my question, is it more clear now? – iveqy Mar 14 at 14:39
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    I don't see how acknowledging an error and working towards a solution and better understanding undermines your authority. Quite the contrary, in my opinion. – busman Mar 14 at 16:16
  • @iveqy Yes much better! – jcmack Mar 14 at 17:12
  • In my book everyone that refuse to admit his\hers mistakes is a horrible boss and one which I will not work for... Refusing to own up to your mistakes might help your ego but it will cost you a lot of bright employees down the line. – cypher Mar 16 at 22:24
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You CEO has taken a leaf out of a certain type of book where he believes (presumably all) C-level executives or management are above question and are never wrong.

However, authority is not the same as competency. It is generally true that leaders should exercise their authority where required, however doing something that calls your technical competency in question, is not really something that should be or can be avoided.

The role of CTO requires you to take a more high level approach. Assuming you have competent employees, they will soon overtake you at purely technical skills, as that is what they should be exercising every day. A CTO's responsibility includes learning from your technical people, making decisions, and setting direction.

What does undermine your authority is if you bend over backwards to justify your decisions. Getting in pointless arguments about what is considered more important, sometimes just needs to end with "At this stage, we are proceeding down this path." If people are learning from each other, there is no harm in that.

Some employees may abuse a CTO that is willing to engage in open and transparent discussions, so you should just keep that in mind.

(Side note: Proof-of-concepts are a valuable tool in a development process.)

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    I will add: surrounding yourself with people that are smarter/more competent than you makes you a better leader - you're getting/pulling the best team in. – Bleh Mar 14 at 16:08
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    "It doesn't make sense to hire smart people and tell them what to do; we hire smart people so they can tell us what to do." - Steve Jobs – jcmack Mar 14 at 17:14
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    I had trouble parsing "doing something that calls your competency into question is not really something to be avoided". Do you mean that one can not avoid it? Or that one should not try? – meriton - on strike Mar 14 at 17:23
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    I will absolutely respect a higher-up more if they are transparent about their decision-making factors, take feedback on a mistake seriously, and are willing to discuss it and ultimately to change their minds if warranted. – Hellion Mar 14 at 19:21
  • @meriton Both, updated. – Gregory Currie Mar 15 at 2:56
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I think part of the problem is "My mission should be to unite the team around one solution". I don't think that should ever be the mission for a C-level person. You should be setting direction and goals, not dictating the solution. If the company is so small that you need to be involved in design solutions, that is fine, but let your teams try to work this out on their own. You can still make the ultimate decision, but let other people do their job as well.

As far as "showing authority as a leader" and "respecting a cto that is wrong"... who could you respect that never allowed themselves to be wrong, no matter how wrong they actually are. People that can't be wrong are horrible to work with and for. I can respect a CTO on their technical merit and their leadership, but also their ability to recognize the talents of others and knowing they can't do it all.

  • Depends on how big the company is. At a tech giant, yes they set direction and goals. At a 30 man startup, they may well be picking the technologies as well. This is also a case where a decision was made (by someone no idea who) then altered at the cost of time. In this case it can be appropriate to just say that the change isn't worth the investment. Especially at a smaller place. – Gabe Sechan Mar 17 at 8:39
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We're human.

Making mistakes or having ideas that don't pan out as hoped is normal.

However, if your board / management loses confidence(especially if you have no sucessful decisions to counter the poorer ones) you will face consequences(disciplinary actions,demotion,end of contract).

Your boss was correct indeed, presenting faulty thought processes too early might undermine your teams trust in your abilities, thus your authority.

However, if during a meeting you have an idea and would like to explore it simply ask the team to do so and test it for mistakes.

This is better,signaling from the start that it's not a thought through thing and would only negatively impact team opinion about you if your mistake is something a junior would be required to know.

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It does sound as if there is something wrong with your leadership style, but the problem is not that the mere fact that you are discussing decisions with your subordinates or own up to your mistakes.

When leading knowledge workers, giving reasons for your decisions has several benefits:

  • it allows people to correct you if you are wrong (that is an advantage, because it is better to be corrected by a subordinate than being taken to task by your boss for a disastrous decision)
  • it allows people to suggest better ways to reach your goals
  • it helps prevent misunderstandings due to ambiguously phrased decisions
  • it allows people to anticipate your decisions, and act in accordance with your wishes even if you are currently unable to guide them

Also, it is a very good idea to listen to suggestions of subordinates: they might know something you don't.

However, explaining and listening, while beneficial, are not always sufficient. Yes, ideally you would convince everyone, but that is not always practical. Sometimes coherence of action is more important than which action is taken, and in these cases it is your responsibility as a leader to end unproductive discussion, make a decision, and make it stick.

Perhaps it is this latter part you are having difficulty with? Might you CEO have meant to tell you that (rightly or not) you should no longer invite discussion in this matter because a decision is overdue?

That said, let's look at your situation in detail:

Two of the tests were flaky and had race conditions. Someone noticed this while I was on vacation. One of the team members then suggested we should switch the current test framework/test tools to an other competing product

He suggested this to whom? If you have assigned and briefed a substitute, why did this substitute approve an action you felt pointless?

I think this is a bad idea since frameworks are both good enough and we already have invested significant time in one of them.

Did your team know that you are of this opinion? If not, why not?

I'm thinking that the real problem here isn't the tests, but that I have a team that is not working towards the same goal.

Correct.

I sat down and compared the two test frameworks.

This sounds as if you made that comparison in isolation? Wouldn't it have made more sense to have the framework switching developer explain why he felt the other framework better? After all, he convinced the CEO that his way is better, so he must have had a reason, right? If he did, it saves you a lot of work, and if he didn't, you can give him a good talking to.

I collected my thoughts, trying to explain why we should stick with the existing framework, but that I appreciated the research work of the employee.

This seems a mixed message? Why did you show approval for him going off-script during your absence, which caused the company to waste time checking an alternative you had already and rightly discarded?

In my analysis, I made a small technical error. The employee noticed this and questioned me about it. We then had a technical discussion leading to both of us having a better understanding of this particular feature/limitation.

And this discussion concluded with which decision?

Summary

A team should not go off script simply because the lead is temporarily absent. I recommend that you investigate why that happened, and fix the root cause(s) so it does not happen again. This may involve reminding certain people of your authority.

Let me stress gain that I agree that listening and explaining should be your first action, but if that fails, sometimes you need to resort to exerting authority - and for that you must defend your authority if challenged. It may seem atavistic to lead through power, but in some situations, and with some people, it remains the only effective way to lead.

  • He was appreciative of the effort, and of the employee showing initiative in trying to make the product better, even if the effort was slightly misguided. Consider it a classier way of doing things than yelling at him for going rogue, when you will want him to use that initiative in the future at better ideas. Especially if this was the first time. – Gabe Sechan Mar 17 at 8:41
  • His leadership style sounds exactly what I've seen in the best managers I've had. Your talk of exerting authority sounds like a tyrant. Its a great way to lose all your senior engineers, good engineers don't like to be micromanaged or told "because I say so". Also a good way for the CTO to lose his job after the seniors leave because the team can't perform. – Gabe Sechan Mar 17 at 8:44
  • You're projecting things into this answer that aren't there. I never said to yell, for instance, nor have I ever needed to. I never said exerting authority should be usual, or even frequent. All I said is that it is sometimes necessary as a last resort to avoid pointless bikeshedding. – meriton - on strike Mar 17 at 15:46
  • And as for feedback to the employee: If the only emotion you show is appreciation, they'll see this as unconditional approval. I'd probably have said something like: "I know you meant well, but I wish you'd have talked to me first", and reserve thanks for situations where their contribution was genuinely valuable. – meriton - on strike Mar 17 at 15:54

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