Why summiting Everest will make Chief Digital Officers the CEOs of the future

Sometimes getting to the top of your chosen profession feels a little like trying to summit Everest.

In previous generations, a combination of “waiting your turn”, the technology (or lack of it) and the requirement for certain key skills meant that the chances of summiting your own “career Everest” were infrequent and prone to disappointment.

The so called “standard ascent ” or south-eastern route from Nepal could perhaps refer to the progression from Sales or Operations, via COO to CEO, whilst the more challenging northern route via Tibet, with its inherent risks and lower success rate, is perhaps more akin to the CFO making it to the top first. In 2015 a Kornferry study of Fortune 2000, showed that only 13% of CEO come from Finance.

Valuable support from base camp, came from Marketing or IT individuals with deep experience but often without either the operational or finance experience to be selected for the final summit.

The Digital Ascent

But now it is as if all the rules have changed. It is if a new route, with new techniques and skills has been discovered that allows a faster ascent. It requires a different technique, a different skillset and a boldness and agility that few traditional “climbers” have. I am of course referring to the Digital route, and a new breed of contender for the summit, the Chief Digital Officer.

The current Zeitgeist is digital transformation – the ability for an organization to adapt its operating model, culture, products and services from the status quo to a more digitally enabled, responsive and agile model. Driven by the connected customer, innovation and the power of social, few organizations are immune to digital disruption that can be as unpredictable and as life threatening as the sudden storms on Everest.

The architects of that transformation are currently Chief Digital Officers. Part evangelist, part technologist, but always advocates of the Customer, the role of data and design thinking, their unusual blend of strategic, operational and commercial skills combined with agility, innovation and passion for the customer are really a blueprint for the capabilities of the CEO of the future.

What makes a successful CEO

According to a 2015 report by Kornferry, successful CEOs are those that are adept at driving growth, managing crises, developing strategies, and managing finances – a rare combination of left and right brain balance and maturity.

But those CEOs are also those that display learning agility, that can adapt, inspire, quickly embrace new ideas, willingly assuming accountability and ultimate responsibility, particularly when things fail. They are insatiably curious and motivated to win,

Whilst the CDO role is still evolving, there is sufficient insight about the characteristics of successful CDOs, that makes a comparison (shown in brackets below) with the skills of the CEO suggest that the CDO is the rightful leader for the digital ascent and summit.

How does the CDO measure up

A successful CDO is part evangelist (Inspiration) and part productive disruptor (innovator). They need to be strategic (developing strategies), yet agile (adaptable). They need to drive operational outcomes by using data, analytics and insights (driving growth) and be commercial (managing finances) and they need a deep grasp of how technology will enable and change their business. They instill a “test-learn-optimise” culture (accountability for failure) and constantly looking for change and improvement (Insatiable curiosity and motivated to win)

There should be no mistake. Digital Transformation is a CEO agenda item, yet mainly fail to recognise it. The more informed “analogue” CEOs are right to bring in a specialist – the CDO – to support that strategic change agenda. But too many CEOs simply devolve digital transformation to a subordinate function. This is akin to putting digital paint over th cracks in their analogue business with the inherent risk of failure a few years down the line.

The increasing need is for CEOs with a strong digital provenance. Arguably the market is not yet mature enough to make this commonplace. But it is no accident that the digital pure-plays that are outperforming the traditional businesses (the Googles, Airbnbs, Ubers, etc) are those where the CEO is deeply digital and where the skills of the CDO – seen by so many to be such a specialist blend – are on full display.

A call to arms

As a chairman, a Non-Executive Director, a Headhunter, a CEO or just an executive on your first digital ascent, I urge you to think about how the skills of the CDO are a critical blueprint for future CEOs. Does your CEO succession plan ensure that the chosen individual will summit successfully?

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