What I learned from being a Chief Digital Officer


I can brag that I was among the first to get the “IT job”. When I say “IT”, I don’t mean “I.T.” as in Information Technologies even though some confusion exists on this topic. No, I meant “it” like “this is it”, the “talk of the town”, the job with the unrealistic goal of changing a whole company without being in charge of any particular business…a mission that is scary, exhilarating, narrow and wide, fast and slow, structured and all over the place. I think I learned a lot from trying to modify the trajectory of a very big boat without ever holding the rudder.

There isn’t one speech I have given on the topic of digital transformation that didn’t start with the fact that my 10 year-old son’s first reaction hearing the news was a burst of laughter followed by a humbling question: “daddy, are they aware?”…“that you and your computer are not friends”. Similarly, the few young team members I wanted to embark on the journey did ask me “why you and not me? I know digital better”. These questions have probably given me the best insight on the very concept of digital transformation. If “digital transformation” was purely about technology, I was indeed the wrong casting. But if the most important word of the two turned out to be “transformation”, then I had a chance. What I will learn through the journey is that changing the behaviour of mature professionals that have been born and raised on a given model is by far the biggest resistance you can experience. Transformation is what it is about.

The two very structuring first questions any CDO has to solve are what the role covers and where to start. Surveying the executive committee is a good first step, but chances are that each member will have a different take on the topic: it’s about ecommerce, about collaboration, about social networks, about data, about e-listening, about dialogue with communities, about…devices that are not working well. We gathered a multi-disciplinary-multi-divisional team and began with what seemed to be the most urgent, conveniently enough what I knew best: marketing & sales. How to market brands in a digital age? We gathered the best internal and external experts and created a training course, powered by a user-friendly app that we ran and improved across 10 geographies and 1.000 people. In true digital fashion, this training became internally viral and spread across the organisation.

Then things changed. CDOs are by nature more likely to be impacted by management changes than standard established functions. A new CEO was appointed and asked us to look at digital on a broader scale. We labelled the mission “making Danone digitally fluent”. Enabling the company - born in an offline world - to operate as fluidly on and offline. Beyond the reinvention of Marketing & Sales, we had to tackle the transformation of functions – HR, supply chain… – and that of the collaboration between 100,000 employees. Two immense and very new topics for us.

On the functions, it quickly felt obvious that only they could lead their own transformation, and that a central role would only be a steering one. On the second topic – improving employee collaboration through digital - we thought of the profound paradigm change we had all experienced over the past 20 years: we were given our first computer, mobile phone, internet connection by our company. Companies were ahead of individuals. And today employees are the ones to go and see their IT Dept with requests to adopt apps or devices they have at home. And the answer is often a resounding no: “too expensive, not compatible, not secured”. How can companies catch up? Matching people’s digital behaviours rather than trying to get them to learn new ones. Which translates into implementing the tools and platforms people use outside, making them fit the company’s ecosystem rather than reinventing in-house tools and platforms that would mimic the likes of Facebook or Google. Based on this logic, and fostered by teamwork between digital, HR and IT, we became the first global FMCG to experiment then sign with Facebook Workplace. User behaviour brought to the company ecosystem.

Now, how do you create a transformation momentum? Evangelisation via big conventions is a key. But it is not enough. While they can inspire change, the issue is always the conversion into action on the following Monday. If you are alone – even with an enthusiastic team – trying to push for something that is not considered a priority for operational teams, you are doomed. But the minute you are just supporting their priorities as they see fit, things can go very fast. That is when we figured out that a simple self-assessment tool could become our best ally: operational teams were measuring themselves on a scale linked with the digital vision, then defining where they needed help and asking us for it. All that was left to be done was sharing knowledge. In a targeted way, to the ones asking for it.

I left my job not because I was done or bored. It is a never-ending task. I left after a mentor opened my eyes on what the role of a CDO was: “CDO is the job of two people; one has to paint a vision, show the direction, provide a few roadmaps and tools, and generate energy towards change. The other one has to make sure that every corner has been digitalised and optimised”. When I asked him why it had to be two people vs just one, he replied “because you never find these two sets of skills in the same person”. Days later, these words of wisdom turned into a “eureka”: I could only be the first person because that’s what I do best. Hence the need to finish embarking people on the journey as best I could, then find myself another challenge. Any CDO or any “transformer” has to figure out whether he is the starter or the finisher. And whether his competency is what is needed at that point in time. I believe I left when it was time for another type of CDO to take over.

My CDO experience has taught me lessons that will stay with me forever: how to gather people from different horizons to frame a future, how to embark teams regardless of reporting lines, how to inspire change and turn around resistance. Transformations are needed on many fronts, not just digital. The way to approach them probably follows the same logic.

So, what are the key challenges of a chief digital officer? There aren’t so many after all: painting an engaging vision – backed by top management - of something that doesn’t exist, defining your own role and field of play, finding the right experts to drive change, accepting the fact that there will be a lot of resistance, that organisation changes are always a possibility and trying to embark teams that have other things to do. Oh, and I almost forgot: figuring out what you will do next. Because that isn’t mapped out either.

About the Author

Michael Aidan was in charge of the digital transformation of the Danone Group across all divisions, functions and regions between 2013 and 2016 after leading Brand Evian worldwide and being considered “father” to some of the most viewed web campaigns. He then moved to a tech startup in the field of photography. He is now a consultant.

Daniel Camara