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Delivering Digital

Are Chief Digital Officers the Next Crop of CEO Candidates?

New survey of the first generation of CDOs shows they have aspirations for the corner office

Today’s digital leaders could well be tomorrow’s CEOs if a new survey out today is any indication. Recruitment firm Egon Zehnder released a new survey of chief digital officers (CDOs) that tapped into the mindset, methods, and motivations of what are essentially the first generation of digital executives within global organizations. Among other findings, the report found that the role that CDOs most often see themselves occupying next is that of CEO.

That’s not to say that CDOs are gunning for their bosses’ jobs. These executives don’t necessarily see themselves as CEO at their current company—42% of them simply believe that’s the title they’re destined to earn after they’ve gained experience in their existing transformative leadership role.

“It makes sense if you take a step back, because these are very strategic leaders, they’ve got high engagement with others, they’re almost entrepreneurs, evangelizing and such,” says Lindsay Trout, global digital practice leader at Egon Zehnder, who helped lead up the survey of over 100 CDOs for the CDO Decoded report. “They have a broad purview of responsibility and influence across functions.”

As a recruiter and observer of leadership roles at large organizations, Trout says that the experiences CDOs are gaining in their positions are filling a need in the market for executives with general management experience.

As she explains, while general managers were heavily groomed at most large organizations for decades, that started to shift in the 2000s, when there started to be a lot less mobility across functional lines.

“In the past two decades, we’ve really prized functional specialists. Your marketer, your technologist, and so on,” she says. “They’re very clean and clear funnels.”

However, a business world increasingly full of specialists makes it difficult to recruit the kind of dynamic general managers that make for great CEOs.

“But the chief digital officer does operate across those cylinders. They have to think about hiring practices, HR norms, supply chain policies, customer data,” she says. “There’s a lot of different touchpoints, so they have that general management purview and training in this role that sets them up to do well as a CEO.”

Most importantly, CDOs view the business world through a lens that takes a digital-first perspective on all aspects of doing business. And that innovative DNA is increasingly what boards of directors will be looking for in CEOs of the future.

“I was just speaking with a board last Wednesday about a $9 billion public company. They need a new CEO. Of course, what do they want?” Trout says. “They want transformational leadership and a tech-forward leader.”

In fact, the trend of former CDOs filling the CEO position is already starting to coalesce. Last year the CDO Club worked with Bain Capital to produce a list of 101 former CDOs who have gone on to CEO roles from 2015 through 2018. One of the most notable names included there is Adam Brotman, a poster child of this phenomenon. Brotman was the first CDO at Starbucks and one of the early leaders instrumental to architecting the Starbucks digital transformation. Last year he was hired as co-CEO of retailer J. Crew for a one-year stint, moving on this spring to another CEO role in charge of restaurant technology provider Eatsa.

This year has similarly seen additional moves from the CDO cohort to top executive management roles. German financial services company Allianz transitioned its CDO Solmaz Altin into the role as the new CEO of Allianz Asia. Meanwhile other signs of upwardly mobile former CDOs included the hiring of former Subway CDO Carissa Ganelli hired as president of the Edible.com division of gift delivery company Edible Arrangements and the appointment of the former CDO of Volvo Cars, Atif Rafiq, as president of commercial and growth for MGM Resorts International.

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