Chief Digital Officer: A New Career Opportunity for Project Practitioners

In a technology-driven world, organizations must align digital and business strategies. And project professionals are perfectly positioned to help.

4 September 2012

Technology can no longer operate in its own silo within organizations. Looking to break down barriers and expand their business in an age fueled by smartphones, e-commerce and social media, more organizations are seeking a chief digital officer (CDO).

In Europe, for example, the number of CDO job search requests rose by almost a third in the past two years, according to a 2012 report by executive search firm Russell Reynolds Associates. The United States has seen the same growth in half that time.

Unlike a CIO or a CTO, a CDO helps the organization harness digital assets — such as websites, e-commerce or mobile apps — to drive business growth.
“A CIO and a CTO are related to the company’s technology and information systems,” explains Manoel Lemos, CDO of Abril Media, a multi-faceted media firm in São Paulo, Brazil. “[But a CDO has a] much more holistic way of thinking about technology across the entire company.”

For project practitioners, the CDO role opens up new career prospects.

“A seasoned, certified project practitioner with business and digital communication experience has the potential to make a great CDO,” says Octavian Mihai, PMP, CEO and digital business strategist at Rock&Social, a social media agency based in Montreal, Quebec, Canada.

“Project managers understand with great precision how resources are allocated, budgets are used and timelines respected,” he says. “They have to deal with communication risks, unclear business objectives and stakeholder management issues. This experience is crucial in understanding how the digital business works and what needs to improve, which is the core of a CDO’s job.”

Another advantage for project practitioners is their experience in managing change.

“Project management skills are always very valuable on digital fronts because the majority of digital projects are starting from scratch or are going to cause huge transformational change,” Mr. Lemos says.

At Abril Media, for example, Mr. Lemos recently established a project management office to help the company transition from just print magazines to digital properties.

Project practitioners looking to land a CDO job should highlight the following skills:  

  1. Stakeholder communications. Play up your abilities to sell a project’s benefits. To build your skills, focus on developing your communication abilities in a digital business context, for example, by becoming a conference speaker and reflecting on digital trends, suggests Mr. Mihai.

  2. Business savvy. Over thinking technical configurations can be a handicap for CDOs and project managers alike. An effective CDO looks at the bigger picture.

    “You really have to take the technical and round it out with a strategic business approach,” says Rick Linde, founder and CEO, Chemistry Executive Search, a New York, New York, USA-based executive search firm specializing in digital executives. “A great move would be to combine a technical background with a top-tier MBA.”  

  3. New product development. “Companies in search of a CDO are looking for somebody who was behind the design of a digital product and can help them create something interesting in this new digital world,” Mr. Lemos says.

    If you have product development experience, put it front and center on your résumé, along with metrics that show the product’s success. If not, consider launching a digital product on your own. Mr. Lemos, for example, developed a search engine for Portuguese-language blogs.

    Like digital media itself, the CDO role is still young — and rapidly evolving. Still, project practitioners who groom themselves for the job today will be better positioned for what it becomes tomorrow.