The CDO: Chief Disappearing Officer
“If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more and become more, you are a leader.”
—John Quincy Adams
I have been privileged to meet executives from every sector, many with the newer title of “CDO.” The “D” usually stands for Digital or Data. Here’s my observation from seeing great CDOs in action: they actively work to put themselves out of a job or, rather, to make the job they have unnecessary. They need to be different, not one more creator of a new silo nor a burgeoning empire of new ideas. Neither are they there just to digitise what is already being done.
Let’s take the Chief Digital Officer as an example. While CDOs bring experience building digital applications, their primary role is to nudge an organisation to adopt new or additional ways of working. This isn’t a wholesale change. It’s about taking the strengths of an enterprise and melding them with the characteristics exhibited by those organisations that are more responsive, objective, and outward focused. They incrementally and persistently infuse the changes required in mindset and skills to embrace the “D.”
I share these observations from having talked to hundreds of customers, as well as being part of the team that co-designed the original digital strategy and CDO role at McDonald’s nearly a decade ago. At the time we observed that the role was unlikely to be permanent as designed; instead, one that had a lifespan of roughly five years. As it turned out we were only off by 18 months when a great colleague of mine vacated the CDO role.
So, what roles do great CDOs typically play, and why are they transient?
The Empty Chair
One story embedded within Amazon’s culture is the empty chair which Jeff Bezos insisted on in every meeting. It represented the customer who, while at the heart of customer obsession, was not physically present. “Customer-centricity” needs to become philosophy that permeates every decision rather than be a periodic consideration side-lined by frenetic daily work. Without this insurance companies or franchisors can easily revert to treating more vocal, local stakeholders such as brokers or franchisees as a customer proxy. The CDO helps put the customer at the centre of the agenda. They get to ask the simple questions; questions so simple that many companies overlook them and still cannot answer them today. Who is the customer? What does their journey look like today with our brand? What frustrates them and how do we know? What do they really want?
The Organisational Mirror
It’s easier to justify why change is required than it is to actually change, as we saw in our own 2021 research across 10,000 business leaders. Ninety percent of the leaders admitted they were troubled by not understanding or responding to their customer adequately, and yet only 50% thought they needed to transform to address this issue. I wonder if the other 50% expected their customers to change instead, a common mindset a decade ago.
The CDO gets to hold a mirror up to the organisation, humbly challenging assumptions, questioning subjective beliefs through objective data, and pointing out those uncomfortable truths that others attempt to justify away. They point out the gaps between inspiring vision statements and actual execution. They hold the organisation to account for this saying-doing gap, driving discussions on how to focus on metrics that capture what truly matter to their customers. Additionally, they are willing to show where there is not unity of leadership; regardless of which “D” it is, these changes have to be team sports.
Transformation—and change management in general—requires a skill in storytelling. A great CDO decodes the “D,” bringing understanding and context to what “digital” means to their business, along with other words we bandy around such as “agile.” They use data to show where time and money is being wasted and can be redirected towards more competitive activities and faster decision-making, bringing these opportunities to life using analogies and metaphors. My favourite is the counter to “technology is so important to me that I need my own data centre.” Well, yes, but with the same logic why haven’t you built your own power station too? CDOs help paint a picture of less bureaucracy and spend on internal dynamics and work that doesn’t drive competitive advantage to fuel true company growth.
These great CDOs don’t fixate on data or digital being an outcome. Instead, they focus on how they are used as tools to achieve business outcomes. They bring to life what a better customer experience, product, or service could look like, and why this should be exciting for every employee. They link the vision to what this means day-to-day for employees, while answering that very human question each of us asks: “what’s in it for me?” They help their peers and teams overcome fear of the unknown with a curiosity and excitement about the future, seeing “digital” as not a topic requiring a new standalone strategy but an integral part of a business strategy.
Curiosity without expertise and learning without practice are both futile. CDOs make clear that digital is as much a mindset, if not more, than a technology but that upskilling is required from the C-Suite on down. In fact, they see continuous learning as a characteristic of modern organisations and leaders, and the modern workplace as a place to learn. Amazon’s own “Learn & Be Curious” leadership principle isn’t caveated with “unless you’re a senior leader!” CDOs create different modalities and opportunities for learning, recognising different styles of learning, and the need to deliver learning when needed.
CDOs help every level of the organisation understand how technology factors in (or doesn’t) to solving for customer needs and demystifying technologies like the cloud. They embed customer-centric vocabulary into daily discussions and create confidence in all levels to ask “why?” or to say “I don’t know” rather than the false confidence that is so often projected.
Great CDOs don’t pitch themselves as the new and improved IT department. They partner with the CIO, and increasingly the Chief People Officer (CPO), to bring to life the trifecta of digital or data-enabled transformation: cultural, skillset, and technological change centred on the customer. They are explicit about the culture they want to create, but they experiment to figure out what new ways of working are effective and which can be scaled with their company. Traditional CXO roles create vertical siloes; CDOs create horizontal siloes cutting across the organisation to deliver value and empowering employees. They encourage experimentation with customers using cross-functional teams. They assess how internal processes such as reward and recognition mechanisms, job roles, and governance structures support this more iterative, experimental mindset. They consciously promote the successes of the past and the opportunities of the future.
Determined not disruptive
Finally, the CDO brings high EQ into an organisation. Being the expert is insufficient where a whole-organisation change is required. They are humble, appreciating that they are in role to evolve an organisation, not to save it. And they typically exhibit three characteristics I believe are core to modern leaders: persistence, resilience, and a sense of humour! These changes take time, 3-5 years looking at most organisations that successfully evolve. Good CDOs understand this and take setbacks as learning opportunities and are willing to show their own fallibilities.
The most successful CDOs nudge the culture of an organisation towards one that truly is digital rather than just doing digital projects. The same holds true with Chief Data Officers. The great ones I meet aim to make data a resource everyone can, and does, use to drive action, not just insights. They understand the dynamics of the organisation but hold themselves to a different standard, not getting deeply entrenched in the politics.
These transformations should never end, but instead imbue an organisation with the ability to continually improve. That said, at some point the CDO will have established a flywheel of change and can step back from being the central orchestrator to move on to the next challenge, whether, say, a Chief Customer Officer role in the same company or on to a new organisation and a new challenge.