Why Your Next CEO Might Be Your CDO

The primary job of a CDO is to help a company become more fluent in digital channels and infuse a digital DNA into the culture of a company. The end goal is to have all departments feel as comfortable in the digital medium as with print and events.

I’ve been a Senior VP of Digital, Executive VP of Digital, and Chief Digital Officer (CDO) the bulk of my 25-year career. I’ve served in this role for B2B, enthusiast, and book publishers … and in privately-owned, private-equity-backed, and publicly-traded companies. I have always said that the “Chief Digital Officer” is merely a temporary role, so a recent article from FIPP discussing CDOs becoming CEOs caught my eye.

In a media company, I believe the primary job of a CDO is to help a company become more fluent in digital channels and infuse a digital DNA into the culture of a company … from content and production, to audience development, marketing and sales. You might even have a fully separate digital department during this transition time to help execute the strategy while the rest of the company is learning and still focused on the traditional parts of the business.

The end goal of a CDO is to have all departments and personnel feel just as comfortable in the digital medium as with print and events, and to look across all potential channels options for the best ways to serve their readers and advertisers. A company has turned the corner when the digital innovation no longer comes from the CDO and the digital department, but from the “traditional” editors, sales, production and audience development teams. If this culture transformation is successful, the responsibilities for digital will be re-integrated into their rightful departments within the company.

When this transition happens, a CDO is no longer really needed to lead digital innovation or execution. Instead, the role of the digital team changes to more of an IT function focused on customer-facing technology: hosting, web / app development, systems integration, data management, and internal user support and training. The CDO either must shift to more of an CTO/CIO role overseeing digital technology and operations or find another CDO opportunity elsewhere.

There is one other option, however … the CDO could transition into the CEO role.

If you have been a truly successful Chief Digital Officer, you have a unique perspective on the entire media company. Typically you have worked closely with the CEO and CFO and been involved with C-suite and board-level strategy, decision-making, and communication. You understand the financial and business dynamics of the company, not just for digital, but for the legacy parts of the business as well. You have a clear picture of your customer base, what drives revenue, the cost factors, the competitive landscape, and your key business partners and vendors.

You have also interacted closely with all departments of the company. You’ve learned how editorial, production, ad sales, ad operations, marketing, and audience development all work, understand how they fit together, speak the language of each department, and have heard their needs and ideas. You’ve had to communicate a vision that they understand, believe in, and can rally behind. Leadership and communication skills are critical.

But a good CDO is also so much more than just a digital technology advocate. They realize that, while digital is critically important to the future of any media company, it is only part of the picture and must fit with the rest of the business. The goal isn’t so much to drive digital specifically as it is to grow the entire business.

Given all of this, the Chief Digital Officer is perhaps more uniquely equipped to take on the role of CEO than any other person within the organization. Certainly there is even more that a CDO would need to learn to successfully make the transition. But I believe that what happened at Hearst with Troy Young taking over as CEO and Jeff Litvack taking over as CEO of AdWeek are bell-weather moments for the publishing industry. Personally, I expect to see even more examples of CDOs becoming CEOs in the coming years.