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Which came first; the chief digital officer or the job description?

by Peter Sondergaard  |  November 26, 2013  |  1 Comment

New research recently published by my colleague Ken McGee examines how CEOs are typically hiring chief digital officers (CDOs). It’s hard to know what’s going on under the cover with internal direct hires and internal referrals, but he learned a lot by talking to senior recruiters about their experience working with clients.

Ken’s research is interesting on several different levels, but one aspect in particular really struck me. It is that many of the search requirements provided by clients lacked the clarity and certainty about digital business and objectives for a CDO that usually accompanies the specificity for virtually every other C-level executive search.

You probably just read that sentence twice. That’s right; CEOs don’t know why they want a CDO or what the CDO will do.

Hold on a minute there, CEO! More haste, less speed is needed here.

We believe that executive uncertainty about digital business and what they expect to gain from a CDO will likely result in valuable time being lost to any number of flawed CDO search false starts and failed outcomes. This will only aid competitors who already have a better understanding about their digital business strategy and the value that a capable and effective CDO can deliver to their enterprise.

So what’s a CEO to do? Put simply, we recommend putting the horse before the cart, not the other way around.

First and foremost, CEOs need to determine whether their enterprise should create a digital business strategy. This should be a key discussion within an existing enterprise-wide planning process that involves the entire C-suite or, alternatively, a separate planning program to kick-start the process of discovery thoughtfully. The outcome should be a definitive, declarative and board-ready position on what digital business means to their enterprise.

CIOs have a critically important role to play in this process. They should offer a briefing on digitalization that is specifically modified for each c-level executive and outline the potential implications that digital business could have on each senior executive’s area of responsibility. This is the foundation to building a clear understanding of the business need and the potential business value. This will, in turn, provide the foundation for a CDO search, based on definitive business requirements.

Until a business need and broad objectives are agreed, chief talent officers should strongly advise CEOs against commissioning a search for a CDO in advance of clearly defining the role.

After all, how can you find what you need when you don’t know what you’re looking for?

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Peter Sondergaard
Former Executive Vice President, Research & Advisory
25 years at Gartner
29 years IT Industry

Peter Sondergaard was an executive vice president and member of Gartner’s operating committee. He led the company’s Research & Advisory organization until August 2018.


Thoughts on Which came first; the chief digital officer or the job description?


  1. you raise a great question – when is a business a digital business and who is the pathfinder to this end state?
    in my book, atomic:reforming the business landscape into the new structures of tomorrow I posit that the new digital economy will have six unique components. boards need to consider which digital component they are transforming to and work out who is leading the charge.
    a recent survey of CXO and CEO opinion suggests that most companies have given up asking the CIO to define the new digital map. so the unacceptable opt-out is to invent a new title!
    seems that CIOs should get more involved in working with boards to define digital and become less consumed by sourcing issues (for traditional back office systems.



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