Issues around ownership, leadership and organizational skills contribute heavily to the lack of digital planning in many organizations PHOTO: Jakob Owens

"The key to successful leadership today is influence, not authority” — Kenneth Blanchard

In a survey on the state of digital business, Forrester Research found that almost half of responding executives believe digital mediums will account for over 50 percent of company sales within the next few years. For most, this represents a significant disruption to business as usual. 

Unfortunately readiness for disruption doesn’t necessarily match certainty that it will happen. 

A C-Suite of Confusion

While looking at skills needed for digital transformation, IDT found less than half of participating organizations had established and communicated a comprehensive vision for their digital future, only 35 percent had a strategy for digital transformation, and a dismal 27 percent had a clearly defined execution plan for implementing digital strategy. 

Issues around ownership, leadership and organizational skills contribute heavily to this lack of digital planning.

The question of ownership for digital initiatives can be both contentious and tricky, particularly when vision, strategy and execution plans specifying priorities are unfinished. The CMO and CIO are commonly identified as drivers of digital strategy but several new titles are becoming more prevalent in the digital conversation including Chief Digital Officer (CDO), Customer Experience Officer (CXO) and Chief Marketing Technologist (CMT). 

A New Breed of Leader: The Cross-Functional Leader

The downside of these roles, particularly when they co-exist within a single company, is the potential for conflict, turf wars and overlap of responsibility. A small sampling of the contentious questions we hear include:

  • Is the CDO a real threat to the CIO — and is this a power grab?
  • In the near future marketing will spend more money on technology than IT — where does that leave the CIO?
  • Who should own customer experience — the CMO or CXO, and where do digital initiatives fit?
  • How do we coordinate across overlapping roles or conflicting initiatives, particularly our customer experience and digital efforts? 

The reality is these emerging roles are usually created to fill a cross-functional leadership skills gap — the need for business to become more technically savvy (hence the CMT) and the need for technology to become more customer and business process savvy (hence the CDO and CXO). 

In many cases, these people are also tasked with bridging the gaps in siloed environments, something that existing business units have been unable or unwilling to accomplish. 

CIO Magazine described the CDO as a, “seasoned business and technology veteran to tie all things digital together” while Harvard Business Review specified the CMT, “aligns marketing technology with business goals, serves as a liaison to IT, and evaluates technology providers. About half are charged with helping craft new digital business models as well.”   

The Characteristics of a Digital Trailblazer

The good news? All of these roles are much the same in concept, if different in title. In the end, it matters less who owns the digital strategy, and more that the vision is clear, the right people participate and the appropriate skills exist. Following are critical leadership characteristics that digital trailblazers adopt:

CEO mandate and cross-functional torchbearer

Digital transformation reaches across the organization and touches people, processes and technology. It is fundamentally about changing the culture for many companies, breaking down organizational silos and changing mindsets.

This kind of sweeping change cannot be accomplished if it does not come from the top. The successful digital leader must be able to reach up to the CEO to convince them of the value and co-develop the vision for digital transformation, while also reaching across to peers to plan and implement the strategy. 

While a single executive should be accountable for driving the initiative, fostering organizational cohesion and cooperation, this executive is also responsible for rallying the troops around the changes that must take place.

Talent aware

A McKinsey study found the number one challenge in digital transformations is finding skilled resources. 

Companies today are scrambling to fill their digital and technical skills gaps. Many are thinking outside the box: partnering with local universities and vendors to sponsor targeted education such as digital MBA programs, providing perks designed to attract and keep younger tech-savvy millennials and implementing in-house programs to bring existing employees up to speed. 

Capital One, for example, has developed a “Future Edge” initiative where it plans to invest $150 million over five years to “help Americans build the technical skills they need to succeed in a digitally driven economy.”

Determining skills gaps (in both digital and analytical competencies) and getting creative about filling these is something the digital leader cannot afford to overlook.


The executives Forrester interviewed predicted over 50 percent of sales will be digital within the next five years. If this comes true, all businesses will need to accelerate their digital progress. Fostering open and collaborative workplaces, adopting agile development methodologies, encouraging innovation at the speed of digital and finding ways to emphasize agility when re-designing business processes will become an important mandate for digital leaders.  

Regardless of whether your company is a digital neophyte or an experienced trailblazer, strengthening these characteristics within your leadership team will facilitate a successful and sustainable digital transformation.