As I sit back and ponder this, it appears to me that there are essentially seven attributes that most successful CTOs share. Because each of these characteristics is equally important, I won't attempt to rank them; together, these attributes make CTOs the most unique people in IT management today.
Extroversion. In an IT profession that tends to attract more introverts than extroverts, the people who assume the role of the CTO are almost invariably extroverts. To get a good example of a highly extroverted CTO, all you have to do is meet Glenn Ricart from CenterBeam just once.
Intellectual curiosity. There's no getting around one fact: CTOs are the smartest people in the IT profession. Not only are they capable of mastering a broad array of technology issues, they are also well-versed in a variety of business and social issues. Look no further than Dan Woods at CapitalThinking. In addition to being a CTO, he has a master's degree in journalism from Columbia University.
Business sense. Many people in IT tend to be divorced from the business trends that affect the performance of their companies. This is definitely not so in the case of the CTO. They intimately understand the enabler role that technology plays in today's business environment and are just as fluent talking business as they are technology. Companies would be smart to hire CTOs such as Scott Frisbie at Scient who are highly motivated by business issues.
Diplomacy. By definition, the CTO plays the role of integrator across his or her organisation. This means a CTO must have the ability to drive initiatives through multiple departments and business units not only in his or her own company, but in other organisations as well. A good example of a CTO who has to routinely deal with this level of diplomacy is Paul Onnen, the CTO of Nordstrom.com.
Early adoption. Too many people in IT are trying to subtly retard the adoption of new technologies in their organisation as part of a misguided attempt to impose order. CTOs, on the other hand, excel at introducing new technologies into their organisation without disrupting the overall business. Bill Raduchel at AOL Time Warner is one CTO who does this just about every day.
Vision. There is no substitute for vision. The ability to divine where an industry is going before it happens and position your company to take advantage of the opportunity is crucial. No better example exists than Rajeev Bharadwaj, the CTO of the startup company Ejasent, which is helping to pioneer the move toward usage-based pricing for web services.
Common sense. CTOs don't suffer fools gladly. They have an innate ability to sort nonsense from fact. Nobody personifies that attribute better than Henri Asseily, the CTO of Bizrate.com, whose ability to cut through noise to get down to bare facts in under 60 seconds is legendary.
At the end of the day, I am a much wiser person for having met all these people. If you don't personally know a CTO, I would strongly advise you to make one's acquaintance. The perspective they bring on the convergence of business and technology issues will forever alter how you see your company and its potential in a digital economy.