Look who's coming for the CEO role

Digital touches all areas of the business – operations, finance, marketing, sales, customer engagement, and IT. With experience in all of these areas, the Chief Digital Officer is brilliantly positioned for the CEO shortlist.

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Digital is the way of the marketplace today. One look at our hyper-connected, data-driven ways of working, and it’s clear that digital is also the way of the future. In the midst of rewiring business models, mindsets and mechanisms for the digital age, it’s important to ask about leadership. Who has the skills and experience to take on the challenging job of digital transformation today and tomorrow? Who from across the senior leadership ranks is best equipped to be CEO? Will it be COOs or CFOs? CMOs or CIOs?

Because digital technologies touch all areas of the business, the best candidates for CEO roles will have experience associated with all of the major C-level roles—operational (COO), financial (CFO), marketing, sales, customer engagement (CMO) and information technology (CIO and CTO). Few senior executives could claim substantial experience in all of those areas until the recent emergence of the CDO (Chief Digital Officer) role. CDOs, tasked with leading and delivering digital transformation across all areas of the business, are gaining broad and varied business experience and skills. That diverse experience is one reason that leading candidates for the CEO roles of tomorrow may well be the CDOs (Chief Digital Officers) of today. Let’s look at some of the other reasons why the pathway to CEO seems fairly unencumbered for effective, strategic CDOs.

Collaboration is everything

Digital is not just about doing a few things differently. It’s about transforming all areas of the business in order to leverage digital tools and capabilities, from data analytics and social engagement to mobile technology and cloud solutions. To be effective, CDOs have to be able to successfully partner and collaborate with executive leaders and stakeholders from across all areas of the business. Consider the kinds of projects CDOs might lead over the course of a year and the many business leaders they partner with along the way:

  • Launch a social recruiting platform - HR, CEO, CMO
  • Moving applications and data to the Cloud - CIO, CTO, CEO, COO
  • Transforming content marketing - CMO, CEO
  • Creating new customer UX for website - CMO, CEO
  • Improving customer analytics and data management - CMO, CEO, COO

The nature of digital transformation is highly collaborative, which makes today’s CDOs some of the most experienced collaborators in business today.

Transformation: No big deal

Change is hard in business, right? Not for the CDO. Digital is a disruptive force and those who lead digital initiatives must embrace the long view, knowing that the transformation of processes and models today will drive profitability and innovation tomorrow. It’s called vision -- something that CEOs have always needed in order to lead.

Now CDOs are learning the importance of cultivating and sharing a powerful digital vision that unite stakeholders and employees behind changes that can upend business as they know it. Consider the fact that Microsoft just bought social media fixture LinkedIn in an historic $26.2 billion purchase. It’s a bold, digital move that brings Microsoft directly into the world of hyper connections and social engagement while opening up its access to new workplace products and services. No doubt this leap toward digital is jarring for many across Microsoft and the industry. It will take visionary commitment to long-term, transformative gains for this (and any!) bold, digital move to succeed. 

In the know

The CDO role is as much a technology role as it is a business role. CDOs have to know and understand business strategy, operations and customers in order to identify and lead digital transformation efforts. This knowledge of how the business, its people and its consumers work is another powerful leadership asset that today’s CDOs are rapidly acquiring.

Add CDOs to the CEO shortlist

While only 19 percent of businesses around the world have CDOs today, expect that number to rise as mobile, social, cloud and data initiatives continue to touch all areas of business operations and innovation. Also expect more CIOs to expand their expertise into digital, taking on the role—if not the title—of CDO. In addition, many businesses are seeing CMOs expand their digital and technology expertise. The fact is, the skills and knowledge of the CDO are rapidly becoming essential to business leadership, strategy and innovation. Whether the CDO title is there or not, business leaders who are spearheading digital transformation are often exactly who you want on the shortlist for CEO and who you want planning a bold, interconnected future for your business. 

This story, "Look who's coming for the CEO role" was originally published by CIO.