The role of Chief Digital Officer took shape several years ago to help organizations transform the legacy and analog aspects of their business into something more contemporary and digital. But in recent years, hiring for CDOs slowed. The media chimed, “Say Goodbye To The Chief Digital Officer” and “RIP CDO”—pointing out that for many companies, the role had too much overlap with other executives.

After all, if the goal is for digital to permeate the entire business, shouldn’t every leader be responsible for it? 

But today, in the midst of a global pandemic, companies are feeling greater urgency than ever to figure out the digital delivery of their services. And while it’s still wise to consider digital transformation a collective responsibility, a senior leader is needed to spearhead change at this critical time. The truth is, most leaders can’t just figure it out on their own—on top of everything else they’re accountable for. While we’ve seen digital leadership brought in through the role of President or CMO, we’re also seeing that the role of the CDO has re-entered the spotlight.

CEOs want a digital leader on their team.

What is a CDO and where do they fit?  — The CDO roles we’re seeing are very senior, reporting directly to the CEO. While consultancies may advise on digital transformation, the role of CDO is not commonly outsourced. CEOs need to have this person on their leadership team to help integrate digital as a core element of enterprise strategy. The CDO must be able to bridge old and new and lead people across the organization through change that is oftentimes uncomfortable. 

Despite what the name might suggest, a Chief Digital Officer is more of a consumer leader than a technology one.

What is the profile of a CDO? — A CDO is not typically an IT person, engineer, or career technologist. They are a consumer-oriented leader (many coming up through marketing) with strong business acumen. They tend to have P&L experience and a background in strategy, as they will have a large hand in driving enterprise strategy and overseeing how disparate parts come together.

Where we look for digital talent depends on our client’s size, industry, and whether there’s a physical product or not. Generally, CDOs have spent time at a major tech company (e.g., Amazon or Apple), though some clients prefer that candidates have subsequently ventured elsewhere smaller where they had broader scope and accountability. Ultimately, experience in both environments is valuable.

Digital isn’t a side business, it is the business (and the culture). 

What does a CDO do? — The CDO’s focus is on the customer and new business opportunities, whereas a CTO or CIO is more focused on infrastructure (thus their partnership is quite important—imagine trying to deliver a new service to your customer without the backend support…). 

The CDO’s role is also about integrating digital strategy into the company’s broader enterprise strategy. Gone are the days of digital operating as a silo. Not to mention, digital transformation isn’t just about strategy, but culture as well. Delivering a digital strategy requires new mindsets and behaviors, which a CDO can help teams develop. For example: establishing a clear vision for what you want to achieve; taking a test and learn approach; embracing agility and flexibility; and balancing near-term value (create impact for the customer NOW) with long-term transformation.

Digital transformation is more human than it sounds.

What qualities make a digital leader successful? — A CDO must work in different modes that may sometimes seem at odds: On the one hand, they must be scrappy—moving quickly and efficiently with limited resources to start. And on the other hand, they must work in partnership with every leader across the organization to attain a common vision. To do so, they must excel at:

  • Collaboration: For digital to truly permeate the organization, the CDO must work effectively across all functions and bring key stakeholders along. Without the support of Marketing or IT, for example, changing how the company delivers its services to customers is going to be an uphill climb. 
  • People skills: Building on the notion of collaboration, the CDO will likely need to navigate a lot of internal dynamics, especially if this is a new role in the organization. Company veterans may see this change as a threat, so it’s important that the CDO excels at bridge building and finds ways to create wins for all.
  • Listening: Change is uncomfortable. An incoming CDO needs to make sure that teams are heard and feel a sense of trust. For a digital leader who’s accustomed to looking at data to inform decision-making, the concept of deep listening and gathering inputs shouldn’t be too foreign.

It takes a team.

What might make a CDO search go sideways? — A great candidate is going to ask themselves: Can I be successful in this role? If they sense the leadership team is lacking commitment, they’re going to walk away. There are a lot of opportunities for them right now and they need to see the right conditions in place. In other cases, the company might pull back because they’re not ready to invest in the level of change this role brings. Ultimately, success requires that everyone is all-in on the decision.

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The urgency of digital transformation today has us at Rich Talent Group thinking a lot about the role of Chief Digital Officer and what makes it successful. Here’s what we’re seeing: