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What do successful Chief Digital Officers do?

Sunil Sehgal

The chief digital officer (CDO) role is still relatively new in the industry. Analysts report approximately 80% of existing CDOs are the first to hold this role in their company, and 65% of CDOs have put in three years or less. So, what is the career path to the position of CDO and what are the necessary skills?

I have spent extensive time working with CDOs as a trusted partner on various digital transformation initiatives and I’ve reached interesting conclusions about how they build a successful digital transformation shop.

Digital transformation is not an off-the-shelf product or sold on a cloud. It’s an initiative built on use cases that provides tangible business benefits. Data, analytics, and the cloud are some of the building blocks.

Skills of successful digital leaders

  • Customer obsessed

The CDO is a business partner to the C-suite and should demonstrate a strong understanding of the core business of the company, and how customers buy the company products or services. In most cases, the CDO has direct responsibility over the technical and product teams. Driving change with customers in mind is key to success for a CDO.

  • Listening and communicating

The CDO is responsible for driving external and internal change, and this impacts people and processes, and technology selection and use. Internal change is often hard, and key qualities include being a good listener and the ability to separate what is needed versus personal agendas.

Good CDOs are always able to evaluate, prioritize, and communicate the business value and advantages of new solutions. They also communicate what is needed to deliver on the commitments and know how long it will take.

  • Building the art of the possible

A good CDO drives teams towards the “art of the possible.” Out-of-the-box thinking, being creative, design thinking, and a user-centric mindset are some of the key attributes to building something that did not exist before. A good CDO is also comfortable taking risks and driving teams towards exploring the unknown.

  • Driving a culture of change and hiring teams with dreams

A savvy CDO knows the importance of a smart, skilled team. The best people come at a price and sometimes have an attitude, but all this is worth it to build a team that can think outside the box and are avid learners. It pays to have a mix of experienced and experimental folks.

  • Working alongside teams

Digital transformation is hard, so successful CDOs work alongside their teams and participate in scrum meetings and daily standup calls. They get into details and understand the solution design and user interface and are focused on solution adoption. An experienced CDO also has relationships with vendors and industry peers. They are avid learners and naturally good at networking.

  • Take responsibility and establish success criteria

Good CDOs does not rush to a conclusion; they understand the problem statement, evaluate various options, and thoughtfully map their strategy and execution plan. They know issues will occur, that digital transformation initiatives are full of unknowns, and that all the answers will not be available.

They learn from mistakes, own them, fix the issues, and move on. This type of CDO operates in full transparency with the team and always wins trust.

  • Keep an eye on the future

Embrace new technologies (data, analytics, cloud, AI, ML, etc.). Don’t look for shortcuts, but instead invest time in understanding and leveraging the power of new technologies. True scale and transformation only come from being bold and taking risks.

Examples from the telco, media, and technology sectors:

In a recent digital transformation initiative, our client’s challenge was to turn employee complaints into positive sentiments while measuring the employee experience. From this challenge a new product was launched called “Employee OneView,” which seeks to map employee experience around use of everyday technology and collaboration tools. From this use case, a new solution emerged, the Employee Engagement Platform. This big-data technology analyzes enormous data sets, maps use patterns and problem areas and finally suggests remedial actions to employees. The digital score for employees increased to 7.5/10, and with increased adoption, the goal is to reach 9.5 within 3–6 months.

The path to being a CDO

Why is a CDO hired? It’s either to build a new digital capability or transform something that already exists. So, focus on financial returns, take time to understand the business impact and be business savvy, in addition to bringing technical competency. Technology is a means to an end, so stay objective and focus on the business goals of your digital transformation initiative.

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