Do chief digital officers have the toughest jobs of all?

CDOs must set out their digital vision and guide their organisations towards it.

Alibaba has caused quite a stir in digital circles of late. The e-commerce site’s frankly mind-blowing IPO has generated serious hype and I’d wager there will be a fair number of companies looking to replicate its success.

The corporate hunger for Alibaba’s key to digital victory will trigger senior executives around the world to ask: “Where is our CDO?” Consequently you, as a clever digital person, will be parachuted into a role that is billed as the saviour of the company.

Unfortunately, the first global conglomerate saving challenge lobbed at the shiny new chief digital officer is often: “Can I have an app for that?”

This simple question encapsulates the true challenge of being a chief digital officer. In all but the most enlightened organisations, digital is an enigma wrapped in a fog of misconception. Your CEO might view the unbounded financial returns of Alibaba as a vision of what the business could become. Yet despite the strategic magnitude of that thought, digital myth often drives the belief that spending £20k on an app will solve all problems – and a bunch of kids can build one over the weekend, can’t they?

A focus on speed is one of the biggest stress factors for CDOs. In an attempt to distance yourself from the days of sluggish IT, you have positioned yourself as fast and happening and well and truly at one with that Shoreditch crowd. You can rapidly prototype. You are agile, open, collaborative and a breath of fresh air in the stuffiness of the corporate culture. You can deliver.

Yet in truth you are faced with a nervous board, a frankly aggressive tier of middle management hell bent on defending their pensions, a digital team who, despite being extremely keen, can only communicate in techno babble, and a legion of agencies and consultants pounding at your door. Don’t even mention the state of your legacy IT infrastructure.

In truth then, you feel like an excitable flea leaping around on the back of a sperm whale. Unless you take the time to penetrate the internal musings of that giant leviathan you are going to struggle to change its course. Here’s the Catch 22: it’s that giant leviathan that has just read about the Alibaba IPO on his or her tablet and wants you to get a move on.

CDOs can be the catalyst to drive digital transformation; however, to be successful they need to be flexible. On the one hand they are thoroughbred digital purists, as much at home in the social media editorial policy meeting as they are in the depths of a morning developer “stand up”. On the other, they speak corporate speak, mix it with the c-suite and the politics of the board and their skin is hardened from the unrelenting onslaught of naysayers.

This latter skill is often overlooked, either by the individual or the recruiting organisation. Nobody is naive about digital anymore. It’s more likely an organisation’s digital activities will be failing to deliver expected value, and a belief will develop that things have to be done differently. Unfortunately many organisations fail to take time to conduct an honest appraisal of their current capabilities in digital and balance that against a well articulated vision of where they actually want to get to.

This is the path that has to be trodden en route to Alibaba’s cave and it is a challenge that the CDO has to champion. They have to combine their twin skillsets to great effect, to set the vision and then guide the organisation to it. In short, it is the old school skill of leadership. It’s just leadership in the digital world.

Originally published in The Guardian's Digital marketing hub.

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