Unfortunately, there aren't as many Chief Digital Offices as various surveys predicted a few years ago. I regularly meet qualified professionals who hold this position, some officially – but the majority of them, unofficially. What I often hear in these conversations is quite disillusioning. What at first appeared to be a position in which the individual could actually make a difference, has now turned out to be a shadow position within the company. Perhaps senior management or even the CEO himself is to blame. Read on to find out how the CEO can sometimes manage to demotivate talented, highly motivated employees.
Many enterprises can point out successes in digitalization. Some are highly visible from outside the company – which is always the case when customers are integrated. Other successes aren't immediately visible or only apparent from inside. In keeping with the adage that success has many faces, failure only one, it is usually the CEO who is at the podium when a success story catches the attention of the media. In this case the CEO talks about digital strategy and team spirit, but the next day the relevant media report about how “CEO xyz is creating the digital future of company abc.” Usually, the CEO wasn't even really involved in the project – at least not beyond authorizing the final contracts and briefly perusing the original project concept. The situation is entirely different if a project should monumentally fail. In that case the blame falls squarely on the shoulders of the CDO. No one talks about team spirit anymore.
Not all, but many, CEOs are receptive for buzz wording. Especially those who consider themselves to be “doers”. These CEOs are constantly bombarding CDOs with ideas and suggestions; ideally, they would prefer to implement everything that is technically possible and is propagated in the appropriate blogs. This type of CEO is fairly harmless, as he doesn't stand in the way of change. The problem rather a different one: The CDO has a lot of work. He has to coach the CEO, explain why something makes sense and something else doesn't. Why timing is important. That, despite everything, technology and employees need time to keep up mentally and from a resources point-of-view for change projects to work.
Another widespread feature is the continuous propagation of the progressiveness of the company (keywords: innovation or innovative, big data, multi- and omnichannel, transformation) whenever the opportunity presents itself. But, when the time comes to implement specific changes, for example those that affect existing revenue streams, then another round of endlessly considering, verifying and testing the plausibility of the project begins. Projects are checked for such a long time that during the meantime a competitor has time to launch something similar – and can demonstrate initial success. The result: The CEO walks into the office of the CDO and asks “Why on earth don't we already have that.”
When it comes to costs, the wheat is separated from the chaff. This is a good time to observe which CEOs are serious about transformation- and digital projects and are willing to invest large budgets accordingly. Lip service is especially frustrating in this area. Large corporations often fill key positions in this manner. Budgets and scopes for action are promised. But, when it comes time for implementation – at which time the supervisory board and corporate executives realize that these measures can, at least in part, have a serious impact on the business (together with significant investments) – senior management makes an about-face.
To advance digital transformation in a company in an interdisciplinary way is neither certain nor completely plannable. That individual projects and strategies fail lies in the very nature of business. After all, mistakes can happen and measures fail to achieve the desired effect even with the best available data and a team with the most skillful employees. A CEO should be aware of this possibility. Nobody fails to make mistakes. Of course this should be a “Carte blanche” to approach projects with a "who-cares" attitude. These moments of failure should be considered to be part of the culture. Or, to be more specific, not the failure itself, but rather what ones does with the failure. Instead of calling the entire project or measure into question, one should analyze the failure and draw the appropriate conclusions to be able to provide input for a future, improved project.
After casting CEOs and senior management in a negative light in the five afore-mentioned points, I would like to emphasize that I have met many leaders who strongly support their CDOs, and who trust and work well with them. I often perceive these individuals as true leaders. My wish is to meet more of them in the future.