From CDO to Digital Leadership

Puneet Kalra, Managing Director, Russell Reynolds Associates, India Given the digital redefinition of markets, blurring industry boundaries, and innovation at the edge as the new normal; many organisations have shifted away from business models which were fundamentally suited to an era of the past. To adapt to a new environment, organisations are radically changing gears in order to drive smoothly through digital transformation and are bringing a slew of new positions into the C-suite. According to a recent Russell Reynolds Associates’2017 research, it indicates that the pace of digital disruption is picking up significantly across industries, with financial services, healthcare and industrial companies bracing for a projected double digit change in the coming 12 months. The world’s largest companies are allotting C-level positions to tech-specific roles, specifically CDO (Chief Digital Officer), who are steering the increasing data and tech operations of firms across the world.

As digital strategies matured, the psychometric assessments and interviews of some of the world’s top digital executives have brought to light that the CDO should not be seen as an extension of a CIO or a CTO limited to the lens of tech savviness alone. There is an emergence of a new breed of leaders who are data-driven, business-centric, technology-savvy and well equipped to embrace and master digital transformation. Evidently, digital transformation is not only a technology discussion, but a leadership challenge. CDO is an executive who is responsible for transformational changes to shape the business model in merging digital customer experience and next generation experience. CDOs lead digital business strategy, online services across web, mobile and social platforms and oversight of enterprise content, applications and infrastructure and oversee operations in the rapidly-changing digital channels. Alongside, they also integrate modern age technologies such as Augmented Reality, Artificial Intelligence and Big Data into business operations to enhance client touch points and work efficiencies.

Accelerated Digitisation across Industries
Companies from financial services to industrial sectors are reorienting their strategies and organisations to align with the customer/asset life cycle and decision-making process. They are leveraging digital capabilities to find new, increasingly targeted ways to convert and engage previously inaccessible touch points in the customer journey. Front-end interactions with customers and clients continue to be the priority of digital strategies, but firms are also leaning
heavily on digital to collect proprietary customer/client data. In retail, traditional players are evolving fast and furious to overcome operational and technology challenges to meet customers’ demand for a seamless shopping experience across all channels and touch points. An integrated omni-channel outreach coupled with personalized experience and communications make or break the end-to-end customer experience – increasing not just the share of mind but also the share of wallet.

Highly experienced digital talent, capable of leading a transformation is scarce

In industrial sector, sensing and deep learning of the entire asset life span enable enhanced services scheduling and smart pricing. Companies are able to dispatch/alert the right and nearby engineers to do the field job at the shortest time. The predictive closed loop process enables instant updates from automated alerts to pricing the most efficient issue resolution and parts ordering at the backend. This not just increases productivity and over all efficiencies but also open doors to generate further revenue and business opportunities. Interestingly, our research shows that 40 percent of the times, the Digital Strategy is set by the CEO, not a functional specialist. This underscores the need for business acumen and general management and end-to-end operational understanding of the business, beyond tech savviness. The General Managers and Marketing Heads are bigger advocates of the Digital strategy than the IT or Digital Head.

Plugging the Digital Leadership Gap
The greatest hurdle is the significant talent gap of CDOs in the industry. Highly experienced digital talent, capable of leading a transformation is scarce. Consequently, the demand for executives with proven experience of transforming organisations digitally and those from pure-play, digitally native companies are immensely high. This creates retention issues, fuelling an increasingly competitive war for talent. We are seeing a greater appreciation by organisations of the difference between a classical CDO and a digital leader. There is an increasing trend of CMOs and sales leaders who are digitally savvy and CIOs who have operations experience, transiting into the CDO roles. But few have worked across functions or have had extensive business experience, and they will have to demonstrate ability to manage changes and meaningful transformation to be successful in this role. They have to overcome the typical CMO and CIO functional mind-sets and expand their influence and impact into the broader business. They will have to operate at the intersection of strategy and technology, and help their boards connect the dots with technology and their digital strategies, often assuming larger responsibilities, including P&L accountability. Around 30-40 percent CDOs now comes with primary expertise in marketing, sales or customer service as against technology.

To enable seamless digital transformation, CDOs have to strengthen their ability to realign the organisation (agile structure, shared metrics, clear delineation of governance and decision rights) to garner vital support from key functions, including the board of directors and the C-suites. They have to also think about how to leverage digital internally to lower costs, improve quality, and engage employees. The CDO needs to influence and galvanise within the organisation, and not work as an isolated team or strategy; it should pervade every functions and departments. The world continues to spin on a data-tilted axis, and making the move from conventional business models to tech-driven ones is more important than ever. Emerging leadership titles such as CDOs did not exist till this decade, but today they are the agents of change amidst the era of digital innovation. Being the ideal amalgamation of technology and business acumen, they are set to play a key role in the transformation and the future success of business with their cohesive, 360-degree approach, especially considering the constantly evolving business landscape. Perhaps, CDOs may lead the way in the rise of the Digital CEOs in time to come.