What is a chief digital officer? A digital strategist and evangelist in chief

What is a chief digital officer?Of all the new tech-related CXO titles, chief digital officer may the most loosely defined. At many companies, the chief digital officer is a customer-facing role that signals a commitment to a digital future. At others, the chief digital officer’s main responsibility is to strategically transform the company’s technological future in a way many CIOs don’t have the bandwidth to do.

Sometimes, a customer-facing chief digital officer turns into an inward-facing one. Andrew White, research vice president and distinguished analyst at Gartner, recalled a recent conversation with a chief digital officer who told him: “I spent the first couple of years engaged with customer satisfaction. But if I can’t change the supply chain and organize the back end of our business, I can’t improve things for customers.” Increasingly, that chief digital officer found himself working internally, looking at the data solutions the company was using. “I started out customer-focused and outbound,” he told White. “Now I’m looking at our back end and suppliers, so the role seems to have evolved into something broader.”

The one thing that unites the two poles of the chief digital officer role is a commitment to digital transformation. Ragu Gurumurthy, chief digital officer and chief innovation officer at Deloitte, which has helped many consulting clients with their digital transformations, sheds light on what it means to become a digital organization.

“We can’t say, ‘We’ve transitioned all Deloitte applications to the cloud, therefore Deloitte is digital,’” he said. “We can’t say, ‘We have robotics process automation in finance, therefore Deloitte is digital.’ We have to do all these things and more to be a digital enterprise.” Becoming digital, he said, is a matter of mindset—retraining people and retooling business process—as well as adopting new technology.

The chief digital officer role and responsibilities

The best chief digital officers are able to envision a company’s digital future and also bring other executives and users on board with that vision. “Evangelism comes more and more under the digital role,” said Justin Cerilli, who leads the financial services technology and data & analytics practices at consultancy Russell Reynolds Associates. “It’s always about people, processes and technology and how digital enables that. The people in these roles have to focus on process, on the business strategy, and on how to tell a story to get there.”

While other tech-related chief titles have a clearer path to the role, chief digital officers can come from many different backgrounds, he said. They may have technology backgrounds, data science backgrounds, marketing backgrounds, or they may come from consulting or research firms. “Sometimes it’s a good strategy person,” he said. “It depends what the organization needs.”

“Often, it has to do with someone’s ability to influence others,” added Mike Doonan, partner at executive search firm SPMB. “They’re usually coming into an old-line company that’s used to doing things one way. This is the one intangible I advise my clients to look for—you want someone who’s a visionary but also someone who understands people can’t absorb that vision all at once. If we’re at A right now and we need to get to B, they need to paint the picture of what B is, but then break it down into small incremental pieces of how to get there without skipping any steps along the way.”

To test this ability, he asked job candidates: “You had a vision for launching a new service and everyone told you you couldn’t do it. How did you do it?” Those who fail only focused on the vision and got frustrated when no one followed them, he said. They couldn’t explain the short-term benefits.

Where the chief digital officer fits in the C-suite

Some chief digital officers report to the CIO or to the CMO. But when chief digital officers fulfill a more visionary function, they should report to the CEO or perhaps the COO, experts said. In fact, Gurumurthy argued, in those situations, other technology executives should report to the chief digital officer.