Careers in IT: What is a Chief Digital Officer and What Does One Do?

The evolving C-suite position creates a comprehensive, customer-first digital strategy.

As technology changes and customers spend more of their time online, more companies seeking to transform themselves with technology are turning to a relatively new member of the C-suite for help: the chief digital officer. 

Not to be confused with the other CDO (the chief data officer), the chief digital officer’s scope is as wide as it is varied, encompassing any and all fields necessary in the organization’s quest for digital transformation.

What is a Chief Digital Officer?

The chief digital officer is essentially responsible for overseeing an organization’s digital transformation. That may sound simple, but depending on the organization, that could mean anything from replacing systems and processes to developing a digital strategy.

“The role is to influence almost every aspect of the organization and the functions within the organization,” says Sami Hassanyeh, who served as the chief digital officer at AARP.

For Hassanyeh, that role started with expanding the organization’s digital infrastructure and has grown to include many aspects of user experience. His title is now senior vice president for digital strategy and membership.

When Rob Roy was first brought on as the chief digital officer at Sprint Wireless back in 2016, he oversaw one of the largest digital transformations of a Fortune 500 company, which included goals like pushing more sales online.

Since then, his role has focused on the company’s digital customer strategy, like the launch of its Priority Status program. The app-only program allows customers to get in line virtually for the most sought-after devices, like the   iPhone 11 or the  . Roy also has overseen the company’s growth in artificial intelligence, including expanding its use of chatbots for customer service. 

“We like to talk about how we’re helping to drive a reverse cultural takeover for the company,” Roy says. The job can vary widely from organization to organization because, as Roy says, “there’s no real template for it.”

Chief Digital Officer vs. CIO vs. CTO: What’s the Difference?

While the CTO or the CIO is involved in the tech, the chief digital officer is more concerned with the strategy. For example, the chief digital officer can come up with an idea to better serve customers online, but it is the CIO or the CTO who would implement the technology.

It’s often a collaborative effort, Roy says. “My best friend in the corporation is our CIO,” he says. That CIO, Scott Rice, “leads the development of the technology that will power the transformation, and I really see my job as really evangelizing and kind of progressing the digital transformation from both a business perspective and a process perspective.”

Tom Berray, who has placed chief digital officers through his work with Cabot Consultants and IRC Global Executive Search Partners, says that when organizations first started hiring for the role, there was talk that the position would eventually replace that of the CTO.

“I’m not seeing that at this point,” Berray says. “I’m seeing that this is an additional role.”

Hassanyeh says that because the chief digital officer’s role does cross over with every aspect of the business, it’s especially important to work with other executives and team members. 

“To be successful, you have to work with everybody,” he says, “whether it’s the IT folks, whether it’s the marketing folks.

MORE FROM BIZTECH: Learn how organizations should deploy technology with users in mind.

Who Should a Chief Digital Officer Be?

While the position can have different responsibilities across different organizations and industries, there is a major common thread: It is essential that the chief digital officer be a collaborative strategic thinker capable of working with different teams within the company. 

“Collaboration is probably the highest of them all,” Roy says. “Depending on the type of company you’re coming from, it’s going to be a fairly dramatic shift in behavior, so communication and collaboration are key.

Hassanyeh also emphasizes the importance of understanding an organization’s business and culture. To be successful, the chief digital officer must know “how to fit into the organization, how to change the organization and how to get that organization to come along on a difficult journey,” he says.

When searching for a chief digital officer, Berray says, organizations are looking for digital experience but also for collaborative leaders. “Somebody who’s really straddled things like technology, communications, content, some of the product work that the organization has done and who has got a healthy dose of digital experience,” Berray says.

What Is the Average Salary of a Chief Digital Officer?

The path to the position can vary, especially since the exact role changes from company to company. Hassanyeh started at AARP as a programmer before moving to the organization’s web team, where he climbed to chief digital officer. Roy’s experience was in running an e-commerce company before starting at Sprint.

Taking on this wide range of responsibilities, according to Payscale, can land a chief digital officer an average base salary of just over $200,000 per year. The position can earn tens of thousands more in bonuses and profit sharing.

Does a Business Need a Chief Digital Officer?

The fundamental job of a chief digital officer is to transform an organization into a digital-first mindset. In practice, that often means recommending the right mix of technologies to enhance the customer experience, playing a key role in the deployment of those technologies and monitoring customers’ interaction with them on an ongoing basis to reduce customer friction and improve satisfaction.

Roy described the role as something akin to a “chief customer officer” for a digital world. “As more and more people migrate through customer journeys digitally, understanding those journey markers and how they’re going to affect you is so, so important.” 

Because of that, and because of near-constant technological advancements, Hassanyeh says that the job reaches beyond the initial organizational transformation. “There’s no beginning and end,” Hassanyeh says. “It’s going to be a continuous adventure.” 

Berray agrees. “I anticipate the role will continue,” he says, adding that the trend is going “up with everything digital” as companies continue to search for new ways to interact with their customers.

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Oct 30 2019

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