The Rise of the Chief Digital Officer

The human face of digital transformation

With numerous disruptive newcomers snapping at their heels, many corporates, spanning sectors such as financial services, media and retail, have decided to invest in Chief Digital Officers (CDOs) to drive the wholesale transformation necessary for growth, or even survival. The number of CDOs currently stands at around 2,000 globally and hiring one typically signals a commitment to transformation. But what should the role encompass? And how do you go about finding the right person?

We’re often tasked by ‘traditional’ businesses to find a change agent who can embed both digital- and customer- centricity into the entire company’s DNA. Long gone are the days where digital is the sole concern of the CIO or CMO. Instead, organisations now require a leader who can break down silos, build teams and evangelise digital and the customer across the entire business.

CDOs can come from marketing, strategy, product, technology or general management. As the path of the DCO becomes increasingly well-trodden, we’re seeing more digital executives from pure-plays considering transformational roles within corporates. As well as bringing valuable expertise of how a digital-first business works, they can also inject an ‘intrapreneurial’ spirit into traditionally slow-moving corporate environments.

The CDO will typically build a broad team spanning UX, design, product, engineering, digital marketing and data. These skills are often acquired externally but training can also be used to unearth existing talent within the organisation.

CDOs, and the digital transformation they oversee, are not just confined to large listed corporates. Private equity firms are seeing digital as a key growth driver for their more traditional, multichannel portfolio businesses and so are also hiring CDOs to lead this change.

Since the measure of a CDO’s success is to make their own role obsolete, as each business becomes truly multichannel or digital-first, the era of the CDO may prove to be a transitional one. However, today’s successful CDOs could well be set to be tomorrow’s CEOs.

It is also important to note that meaningful change has to come from the top, with a CEO who is committed to supporting the CDO’s vision.

Tips for hiring CDOs

  • Be sector agnostic
  • Hire those with the experience to drive cultural change
  • Be open to people from both the corporate world as well as those with pure-play experience and ideally find a hybrid from both worlds
  • Ensure that the CEO meets candidates to demonstrate the importance of the role

Clare Johnston is founder and co-CEO at The Up Group