Tomorrow’s digital leaders

Why the Chief Digital Officer role is evolving so rapidly

In today’s changing commercial environment, the position of chief digital officer (CDO) is the pivotal point on which a company’s digital transformation succeeds or fails.

However, Clare Johnston, co-chief executive and founder of specialist digital executive search firm The Up Group, believes fundamental to the success of a CDO is their rank within the corporate hierarchy.

“If the CDO reports directly to the chief executive, this signifies the company is taking digital transformation seriously,” says Ms Johnston.

To effect the level of change often desired, very senior leadership is required, feeding into the transformation of systems, culture, processes, talent and development, measurement, and entire ways of working, as well as user experience, she says.

“It’s important to have a senior CDO as opposed to them sitting a few levels down, reporting to a chief marketing officer or a chief technology officer, because digital transformation is central to how a business operates,” says Ms Johnston.

Sean Cornwell, CDO at Travelex, says the role is often created by frustrated chief executives seeking catalysts for change.

“Other C-suite roles are seldom able to drive the required change because they are not broad-reaching enough,” he says. “I think these roles will be with us for a few years, but they are ultimately temporary as digitisation becomes part of every employee’s DNA. You wouldn’t catch Google or Facebook talking about a CDO – they’d be laughed out of the room.”

Those recruited as CDOs will often have grown up in pure-play digital businesses, yet in order to be effective at driving transformation, they need to be able to communicate in a more traditional environment.

“There will be organ rejection,” says Ms Johnston, who describes the optimum CDO candidate as someone with multichannel experience, across digital and traditional.