With the recent completion of a Chief Digital Officer search, I thought it would be timely to examine the growing demand for CDO’s (the rise of the Chief Digital Officer), and how success in these senior leadership roles is defined. I know that among the IR-500,  about a half-dozen e-tailers have added this position in the past year or so. The one I recently filled was for a mid-sized online publisher listed on the Fortune 1000.
It takes an expert to manage the opportunities, the strategies, and the challenges that businesses face in the digital era. Keeping up with fast-changing technology and consumer behavior is a full-time job. Enter the rise of the Chief Digital Officer, a high-level position that is becoming increasingly common among multinational corporations in publishing, entertainment, retail, and hospitality, all of which use rich digital media to generate revenue. McDonalds, Starbucks, BET Networks and L’Oreal are just a few of the many iconic consumer brands that have added the position of CDO in recent years. I’m also seeing these positions appear in companies that market exclusively to businesses. There have been some predictions that as many as a quarter of the Fortune 500 will have a Chief Digital Officer by the year 2020. While I think it may take quite a big longer before we see that kind of level of penetration, you’ll certainly be hearing a lot more about the rise of the Chief Digital Officer in the months and years to come.
I like to describe the CDO as a company’s top “digital evangelist.” Ideally, this person sits at the same table as the company’s other executive leaders in the C-suite, and serves as a transformative thought leader driving digital strategy and managing all aspects of digital media for the company. And when you think about, there are a lot of digital mediums to drive. There’s the web, email, mobile, video, the list goes on.  We’ve all seen the infographics that have shown the explosion in the number of smartphones now in the hands of consumers. The challenge of reaching and engaging audiences in an always “switched on” world across a wide spectrum of digital channels and complex platforms has become a game changer. In fact, it’s expected that spending on digital media will overtake television advertising as soon as next year.  The CDO recasts fragmented accountabilities and resources into a more consolidated single, unified focus which serves to embed digital capabilities into the very core and culture of the organization. In other words, the CDO creates a true vision to harness all that digital has to offer to the organization.
Just as the Chief Information Officer emerged out of a need to manage huge volumes of data spread across multiple networks, the rise of the Chief Digital Officer has come about as a direct response to the changing ways consumers, as well as businesses, are interacting with brands. The age of the pure linear customer — someone who, especially in big-ticket purchases, moves through a highly defined process of awareness, investigation, consideration, and purchase in which the marketer can step in and be an influencer fairly early in that process — is fading. Prospects now can conduct research anonymously, draw from a wide range of personal recommendations and online reviews through social platforms, and even complete high-ticket purchases without soliciting input from the marketer. For many businesses, this represents a near 180-degree turnabout. When they talk about how digital represents a “revolutionary transformation” for some organizations, that is not an understatement.
The CDO’s job includes recognizing opportunities — even those away from the organization’s own channels — through which the marketer can interact with, and influence, the prospect at any point in the sales process, regardless of which point in the process the prospect blipped onto the company’s radar. It’s also the CDO’s responsibility to guide those outside the company’s e-business team, such as sales and customer support, in re-thinking traditional customer marketing strategies and embracing digital capabilities. To do so, CDOs must be expert at breaking through calcified thinking at an organization: “We’ve always done it that way” is the bane of a CDO’s existence.  The best CDO’s I know are expert influencers.
At many companies, the chasm between old school and new school remains wide. But it’s narrowing, and here’s an excellent example of how this internal digital transformation can sometimes be advanced by unexpected “ah-ha” moments. A candidate I once worked with told me about his experience as a Senior Director of Digital Communications for a consumer manufacturing company — he wasn’t quite a CDO, but close. He remembers being introduced to one of the company’s division heads, who thought this thing called social media was nothing more than a passing fad that had little or no application to an industry like theirs. To change the division head’s perspective, this digital director told him about a popular industry blogger he followed who had a particularly large following. So large, in fact, that this one blogger could instantly reach 25 times more people with a click of his mouse than the industry’s leading trade magazine could reach in a month. Talk about a wake-up call! I’m sure this particular division head is now thinking more about the power of social media, who the major influencers are, and how those influences can help grow brand equity.

So, what kinds of experiences and competencies does it take to join the CDO club?  Other than the obvious — deep expertise in all things digital marketing  and ecommerce — these are also highly transformative roles as I mentioned earlier, so not surprisingly very high on the list is the ability to manage change, and in many situations, actually re-shape the culture of a company that has a strong legacy in more traditional media. Of course at this level, you need a General Manager-like commander who can run existing businesses, develop new business cases, and create new sales and marketing channels — a true all-around senior level business leader.  Other attributes that characterize would-be CDO’s are the same you’d expect for any other executive leader such as setting strategic direction, strong leadership ability, tech savvy, and the ability to build effective relationships across all functions of an organization while being culturally sensitive to those whose universes do not orbit the digital world.
For employers looking for this kind of highly specialized talent, the good news is that there has been a surge in the last few years in the number of candidates who are capable of stepping into these roles.  They are currently VP’s and SVP’s of Digital Marketing. and they’re ready and willing to take their digital know-how, leadership skills and influencing ability to the C-level as the rise of the Chief Digital Officer continues to take hold. Beyond experience and competencies, the biggest challenge I see for employers is one of cultural adaptation. Chief Digital Officers, by definition, are boundary pushers, and at many companies — especially larger, more established corporations — pushing boundaries is not part of the cultural norm. I advise all of my clients, large or small, cutting-edge or more conservative: Hiring senior digital and ecommerce leaders is all about cultural fit. For CDO’s, the stakes are even higher. During your interviewing process, think of the Chief Digital Officer as the “Cultural” Digital Officer, to help you stay focused on those hiring factors that will help ensure the right cultural fit for your organization.

Jerry Bernhart, Principal of Bernhart Associates Executive Search, LLC, is one of the nation’s preeminent and veteran executive recruiters in ecommerce, digital and multichannel marketing, and CRM. With 80 published LinkedIn articles, Jerry is the “voice” of best practices in the recruitment and hiring of ecommerce and digital marketing professionals. Jerry is also the author of the critically acclaimed book, “Careers in Ecommerce and Digital Marketing,” on Amazon, and participates in many leading digital marketing and ecommerce conferences. Jerry has been recruiting and placing marketing professionals for more than 28 years. Check out Jerry’s other insights on the Thought Leadership section of the Bernhart Associates website.

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