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The Rise of the Chief Digital Officer

The digitalization of all facets of our society and day-to-day lives is driving what is on everyone’s mind at the moment in our industry: the digital transformation of enterprises and telecom operators that will support it.

To be successful, this transformation entails a 360º evolution of our corporations as we know them. We must evolve the technology, systems, and processes we use, the services and solutions we offer, and how we interact with customers. But more importantly, at the end of the day, this is also about the people, the skills, and culture that will empower a real-time, self-serve, fully flexible, and fluid digital customer experience.

For this new world to take place, it must be initiated, inspired, and led from the top. This is where the Chief Digital Officer (CDO) enters centre stage.

In the last five years, we have seen the rise of CDOs across all verticals, with the role now present in more than 50% of Fortune 500 companies. These are executives who spend every minute of every day thinking, eating, and breathing digital and finding ways to instigate the digital culture at all levels of the organization – not a small feat. A role that did not exist 10 years ago is now at the core of most of our enterprises’ future success.

“But what does a Chief Digital Officer really do?” you may ask. By nature, it is a multi-dimensional role that brings together a number of business functions: technology, marketing, strategy, IT, and customer services/engagement. It endeavours to leverage businesses’ digital capabilities and assets, and instills technology in all areas of businesses to drive the transformation that will trigger efficiency, growth, innovation, and enhanced customer engagement.

These are special executives indeed who are able to bring people, technology, and strategic innovation together to reinvent our organizations.

To be successful, CDOs must, therefore, be multi-faceted individuals who are defined by the following traits:

§ Visionary and progressive thinkers who lead the organization’s transformation using innovation and new technologies at all levels

§ Creative and brave disruptors who have the guts to take on the role of change agent and re-invent all areas of the business

§ Technology-hungry evangelists who identify and promote ingenious technologies, within the organization and with customers, helping address their needs with the right digital solution

§ Charismatic people managers who will lead, inspire, and unite all levels of the organization toward a common goal and foster the cultural changes required

§ Passionate about customers and are obsessed by customer satisfaction, as at the end of the day nothing will exist without a happy digital customer

Interestingly, a significant portion of these new CDO positions are being taken up by women across all verticals, and telecom is not an exception. Global companies with women in CDO roles include L’Oréal, The Guardian, J.P. Morgan Chase, Ralph Lauren, Subway, Finnair, Ogilvy, Accor Hotels, Banco Santander, United Airlines, and the list goes on.

Additionally, nine of the top 50 most influential CDOs nominated by the CDO club in 2017 were women. You may say it is not much, but 18% is well ahead of statistics that estimate that only 4% of CEOs, 7% of CIOs, and 11% of CFOs around the world are women.

The Rise of Women in Technology

If we look at telecoms in particular, we find a similar situation, as only 11 of the top 100 most powerful people in the telecom industry, nominated in the Global Telecom Business’ 2017 Power 100 list, were women. It is true to say that the situation is improving, but we are a very long way from parity.

Could the proliferation of CDOs be the long-awaited trigger that will put a growing number of women not only in C-suite roles but also in technology-orientated functions?

I believe so. I think one of the reasons why more women are taking up these responsibilities is because many of the skills required to fulfill them, on top of being technology-savvy, encompass a mixture of strategy, marketing, people management, and customer engagement. Often these jobs are the ones where women are more prevalent, so the move to becoming a Chief Digital Officer is a more natural one than one to become a Chief Information Officer or Chief Technology Officer, for example.

It could, therefore, act as one of the multiple catalysts to help promote and inspire women to play an active part in the creation of technology, innovation, and our future digital world. We live in an increasingly diversified society and it is my opinion that it is crucial for the people building it to reflect that, may it be in terms of age, culture, or gender. Women in CDO roles could contribute toward achieving this.

Promisingly, in the last two years, several women executives have been nominated in CDO positions within TMT companies: Durdana Achakzai at Telenor, Jacqueline Teo at HGC Global Communications, and Mika Yamamoto at SAP, to name a few. They are now busy leading the transformation of these organizations so that they can, in turn, lead the digital way.

To confirm this, as explained by Jacqueline Teo, Chief Digital Officer at HGC Global Communications, the CDO’s role is anchored at the heart of HGC’s future success.

“In October 2017, HGC was at a pivotal point. It had just been sold to a private equity company and was hungry to expand. Its new CEO, Andrew Kwok, created the Chief Digital Officer role and a Digital Office, aligned with his vision to transform the company. Andrew absolutely views culture and people as key and felt strongly that a digital transformation had to be led top down.

I joined HGC in February 2018, and quickly defined what digital means for the company. It is about putting our customer at the heart of what we do, which challenges how we act and think about our own practices. HGC’s digital office is a key part for our evolution, as it brings together enhanced customer experiences, open platforms and services, organization-wide transformation, and a data-driven culture.”

Be they men or women, the CDOs of today will disrupt, shape, and transform the business world as we know it to create our digital future.

But if this women CDO trend continues, in my view, it will be an unmissable opportunity for women to embrace technology leadership roles to drive business change and, maybe, more importantly, inspire the younger generation and women at all stages of their careers to take on the technology challenge – no pressure, ladies!