canstockphoto14655492The following is the first in a series of follow-up posts to expand on the 13 Essential Roles of a Chief Digital Officer.

Organizations without a strong digital culture have been the first to adopt the CDO role. And that makes sense. A high-tech startup has digital as part of its DNA in most cases, but legacy organizations need someone to help give a push into the digital era. The CDO works with the executive team to effect change that better integrates digital tools, tactics, and strategies to help achieve organizational goals.

A strong CDO serves as a catalyst for needed change by identifying opportunities to expand the organization’s digital footprint and collaborating with all levels of the organization to create a cohesive strategy and implement new tactics.

Being a change agent isn’t easy. When a CEO decides that it’s time to elevate the profile of digital by adding a new c-level hire, there will be individuals who feel threatened, either because of a potential loss of turf or a disruption of the status quo. That’s not to say that CDO’s face insurmountable obstacles. They don’t. Much of the team — even those who may have to cede some responsibility — will likely be excited to have someone who understands the digital sphere and can help figure out how best to take advantage of it on the organization’s behalf. However, it would be foolish to think it will be entirely clear sailing.

When a new CDO comes on board, the CEO must send a clear message that increased digital activity is a major priority. Any executive who serves as a change agent — digitally or otherwise — must be able to speak and act with the assurance that the boss will back them up.

At the same time, it would be a mistake for a CDO to come in like a bull in a china shop. Listening to the existing team players and understanding their roles, responsibilities, and challenges represents a vital first step to being accepted and effective.

Change agents do not work alone. There will be valuable collaborators throughout the organization. Some will be digitally savvy or enthusiastic individuals who haven’t had the support they have needed. Others will be people who understood that more should be done with digital communications and are grateful to have an intelligent ally in that effort. Growing support from these individuals will help to win over skeptics and build grassroots support for needed change.

As a change agent, the CDO must be respectful of the organization’s tradition but not trapped by it. The digital strategy must complement the established brand image and expectations.

Finally, it is important for the CEO and CDO to both understand that change doesn’t happen overnight, especially in an organization with a strong traditional culture. Setting reasonable expectations will be important to the overall success of the effort. Too often organizations turn to digital as a last-ditch effort to rescue a failed existing strategy. Digital is not an end in itself, but rather a tool for implementing attainable goals and objectives.

With proper expectations, cooperation from key team members, the backing of the CEO, and an innovative, collaborative approach, the CDO can be an effective agent for organizational change that will make a difference in the bottom line.