Information Technology

The new chiefs on the block: how data and digital are shaping leadership teams

By Chris Underwood, Adastrum Consulting
Information Technology
Published: 3 November 2017

The prolific rise of digital technology and data science has reshaped every facet of society – how we shop, communicate and play. It has also had a profound impact on how we work and how organisations operate. No business can – nor indeed should – avoid the implications, challenges and opportunities that come with embracing digital transformation.

Customers and employees alike have the web at their fingertips 24/7. Mobile technology means that people can make purchasing decisions anytime, anywhere. In addition, people are telling businesses what they want, like and don’t like, constantly. This not only offers organisations the potential to enhance interactions with key stakeholders, transform customer experience and engender customer loyalty but it also gives them access to an enormous amount of data, which in turn holds vital business intelligence.

Data science in particular is driving the evolution of business and the workspace and this is only set to grow, considering we have barely scratched the surface of the A.I, Machine Learning (ML) and the cognitive computing revolution.

Leadership roles therefore reflect this significant shift. Chief Data Scientist, Chief Digital Officer, Chief Data Officer – these are not roles that existed as recently as even eight years ago, but are now joining the C-Suite and are certainly influencing the executive.

The traditional leadership team is rapidly evolving. The trinity of the CEO, CFO and COO still stands firm, however new ‘Chiefs’ and triumvirates of CIO, CDO and CMO or CPO are forming and joining the table reflecting the hugely transformative role that both digital and data are playing across every industry and function of an organisation.

Gartner predicts that by 2019, 90% of large organisations will have a Chief Data Officer while research from PWC’s Strategy& shows that 19% of top global companies now have a Chief Digital Officer, 60% of whom have been hired since 2015 and 40% of whom are also C-level members.

While such change brings huge opportunities for growth, it also raises challenges. For example, for a recent Executive Search mandate, 78% of the CDOs we engaged with were in their first senior leadership role. As such, they will have limited experience of how to operate at executive level and speak ‘executive’ language or use it to obtain stakeholder buy-in.

However, there is much that both the ‘old’ and ‘new’ Chiefs can learn from each other. Dynamic, forward thinking businesses appreciate that Data and Digital now affect nearly every aspect of an organisation, at all levels, and can’t be viewed solely as a technology issue – they offer a way to transform business operations for the better. With this come different approaches and new, agile ways of working. Chief Data and Digital Officers can help to introduce these working methodologies and further educate their peers about the power of Digital and Data, helping shape business strategies in order to deliver exceptional and innovative customer centric experiences.

In turn, more established board members can help those in their first leadership roles to develop the unique skill set needed at such a senior level. This includes not just excellent business acumen and a focus on solving business problems but also softer skills such as Emotional Intelligence (EQ), speaking the ‘right’ executive language and building collaborative networks.

The opportunities presented by digital technology and the data it enables are endless. With the right mix, balance and approach, evolving leadership teams can work together to successfully harness these opportunities, drive growth and realise the art of the possible!

About the author
Chris Underwood is managing director at executive search and leadership assessment and development firm Adastrum Consulting.