“You miss 100% of the shots that you don’t take”

What does the role of a chief digital officer (CDO) at a commercial release estate entail? That’s the question that popped up when my close buddy–Sandeep Dave–got appointed as Chief Digital and Technology Officer at CBRE, US. Thankfully, he not only explained his role and the ‘why’ behind it but also shared some valuable insights that may help you shape your career…

Q. Can you describe your current role? What are the primary results that you are expected to achieve for your organisation in this role?

A. I head “digital and technology” for one of CBRE’s business lines. A little context may be relevant–digital trends, technologies and business models are changing customer expectations and are transforming every industry in a material way. As a result, several organizations are introducing a “chief digital officer” role in parallel to a traditional CIO/ CTO. However, the separation of that role often results in innovation hubs that sit outside of the core organization. To compete and win in a digital age, it’s critical to drive a company-wide transformation. As a result, within CBRE, we decided to combine the two roles.

As mentioned, I lead digital products and technology for one of CBRE’s business lines. This role encompasses digital strategy, innovation, product development and engineering.

 Q. What are the things that excite you–about this role?

A. As business models become increasingly digitally-enabled, often we see incumbent business models come under pressure. Digital leaders often enjoy increasing customer satisfaction, higher margins and greater market share. CBRE is a market leader in the Commercial Real Estate (CRE) industry. We have embraced “digital” in various aspects of business. We are transforming how we develop product (e.g., agile product development), what products we take to market and have embraced new digitally enabled business models. We are on a phenomenal transformation that, I believe, will not only increase our market share (because greater customer satisfaction) but also lead the transformation of the CRE industry. I find that to be phenomenally exciting.

Q. What’re the top 2 or 3 challenges for you in this role?

A. A company-wide transformation along multiple dimensions puts a lot of pressure on the organization – new ways of working, new talent needs, new learning and development requirements. This transformation can only be successful with energized employees who believe in, embrace and deliver the transformation. Ensuring employee engagement and helping them navigate the change is a huge challenge.

In a similar vein, a long change journey can be exhausting. Sustaining a transformation and its positive trajectory is another challenge. It’s a marathon and must be carefully planned. It is critical to demonstrate wins along the way. Engaging and gaining buy-in from a diverse set of stakeholders is a key success factor.

Q. Is this the kind of role that you had dreamt of when you were in college? If not, how did the shift happen? Are you happy with it?

A. I would be lying if I say that I had predicted this journey. I have enjoyed every bit of it.

In 2005, Steve Jobs gave a commencement speech at Stanford University (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D1R-jKKp3NA). In his speech, he outlines some of his life choices and how they benefited him in the most unexpected ways. He goes on to say that “you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future”.  There is profound wisdom in that.

As I reflect on my journey (or rather as your question makes me do so), it has three distinct parts (or dots), a) many years as software engineer, b) several years as a management consultant and c) the amalgamation of those two skills (technology know-how and business acumen) become an extremely desirable combination for leadership in a digital age.

Q.   What are the skill sets needed to reach this role?

A. As you know, the pace of change has increased tremendously. The average tenure of an S&P 500 company has gone down from 50 to 15 years. Industries are witnessing new business models upend old ones at an unprecedented pace. This change is being underpinned by digital trends – data, mobility, user experience.

When it comes to skills necessary to succeed in this environment of change, a quote by Eric Hoffer comes to mind…

In times of change, learners inherit the earth…, while the learned find themselves beautifully equipped to deal with a world that no longer exists.

Several organizations are moving away from hiring for “prior experience” to hiring for “ability to learn and adapt”. In addition, a combination of business and technical know-how is a rare but extremely desired combination in this digital age. Google coined the term “smart creatives”–individuals with business, product and technical knowledge.

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