chief digital officers: when being successful puts you out of a job

Press Release – Cologne, February 27, 2018

  • Most CDOs see their job as being temporary.
  • CDOs want to change the world.
  • CDOs define their role themselves.

Cologne, February 27, 2018

The world upside down: Managers who do their jobs well are normally rewarded with bigger budgets, more staff or greater decision-making discretion. But for one group of executives, things are exactly the opposite way round: chief digital officers who are successful in their work make themselves redundant. That’s according to the people interviewed in a recent study by the HR and management consultancy Kienbaum. For instance, Elke Katz, CDO at ratiopharm, said, “If we do our job well, we’ll no longer be needed.” Or SportScheck CDO Jan Kegelberg: “CDOs won’t be around forever.” How come? “Our future way of working and thinking will be so connected and digital that in five to ten years’ time, all executives will need to have a digital mindset.”
For the CDO study, Kienbaum interviewed CDOs, CEOs, IT directors and other executives at leading German companies, and asked them about the profile, role, and key skills and attributes of CDOs.

CDOs want to change the world

When asked about what drives them, CDOs don’t shy away from naming big goals: “I want to build something new, shake things up,” said Johann Jungwirth, CDO of VW. “Taking an old industry in a whole new direction: that’s a life mission.” TÜV SÜD CDO Dirk Schlesinger put it this way: “In my role as CDO, I want to make something that will endure in the digital age.”

To help them achieve these ambitious goals, CDOs draw on years of organizational experience, wide-ranging technical knowledge, and commercial expertise. In terms of their academic background, most CDOs studied IT or engineering; very few are economics or business studies graduates.

CDOs define their role themselves

Another curious feature of the CDO role is that it’s often CDOs themselves who decide what exactly it involves–and they’re constantly adapting it. According to the Kienbaum study, the three core responsibilities of CDOs are trend scouting, formulating a digital strategy, and digitalizing internal processes. “Part of my role involves defining and continuously developing the role itself. The key concepts are strategy and structure, culture, and last but not least governance. I see myself as a builder of bridges within the company. My clear mission is to break down the overall process of digitalization to the level of individual strategic business units, while bringing all employees along with us,” said Henrik Hahn, CEO and CDO of Evonik Digital.

Professional experience, change management skills, and knowledge of technology are crucial

When executives are asked what skills and traits are critical for CDOs, the things that matter most are mindset and attitude: in particular, being willing and able to deliver innovation, collaboration, and change. Less important are factors such as customer focus, entrepreneurship, and proficiency in agile methods.

Promoting gender equality has low priority

There are very few women in companies’ digitalization units – just over 10% at present. But most companies seem to be doing very little to change the situation. Over half of those interviewed for the Kienbaum study feel that their company is not doing enough to promote gender equality in digital roles. “It’s important to get more women into management positions. That includes quotas for women, and supporting both men and women with their career choices,” said Sabine Smentek, Permanent Secretary for Information and Communications Technology at Berlin’s Senate Department for the Interior and Sport.

CDOs often collaborate with start-ups

CDOs collaborate with start-ups and digital talents in order to inspire and accelerate digital transformation in their own companies. Around three quarters of those interviewed for the Kienbaum study have worked with or invested in start-ups, or developed new products and services with them. “I see partnerships with start-ups as something very positive. Start-ups have a fast, unconventional way of learning, which I’m very open to. They create protected spaces outside of a CDO’s own processes and structures,” according to Yvonne Balzer from Kienbaum.

You can download the 2017/2018 CDO study from[1].


Saskia Leininger – T.: +49 221 801 72-490 | E-Mail:

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