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Who Art Thou, Chief Digital Officer? The CDO position is something every company should have, but how do you fill it when you don't understand it?

By Bryan Kirschner

entrepreneur daily

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

It's hard to find something if you don't know what you're looking for.

Just ask professional recruiters tasked with finding the elusive chief digital officer (CDO). A recent Gartner poll of executive search experts found that uncertainty about what's expected of a CDO results in flawed searches for these digital leaders. Many business leaders realize the importance of going digital, but that's where their clarity (and experience) ends.

Part of the problem is that "digital," in the context of an enterprise, was for years treated as yet another channel, alongside brick-and-mortar stores or resellers. Now, however, with the new expectations of smartphone- and tablet-equipped customers, employees and partners, the word "digital" has taken on greater meaning, with implications across the whole enterprise. And it's no longer a silo or channel to be managed, but a critical strategy for overall business success.

In fact, the CDO has little to do with the traditional practices of IT, making it difficult to define the new role by business function. Broadly, the mandate of the CDO is to lead an enterprise through a digital transformation -- the evolution that adds a digital dimension to the experiences of everyone a business touches. At the heart of leading this digital transformation is a vision that takes into account the implications of technology for every aspect of doing business. This requires a brand new perspective rather than what exists today at most enterprises.

Related: 3 Ingredients to Building a Digital Brand From Scratch

Who can be a digital leader? Traditionally, a chief information officer (CIO) or chief technology officer (CTO) primarily focused on the question of how to make a company more efficient by deploying technologies inside a company. But digital transformation requires shaping the market position of a company by fully exploiting the potential of a digitally transformed world outside a company. This requires that brand new perspective mentioned above, understanding the relevance of technology to creating differentiated experiences for customers, partners and employees.

The importance of digital transformation intersects with many existing roles in an organization, but it needs a leader. And while it would appear anyone could be a CDO, not everyone can be the right kind of digital leader, which presents the wall professional recruiters often run into when searching for a CDO.

A CDO by any other name … First, it is important to note that while an enterprise might create a brand new role, it can also assign the important responsibility for digital transformation to another executive. Tomorrow's CDO may well be an evolution of another role in existence today.

Arguably the most powerful "CDO-style" strategic impact to date was made by someone who isn't a CDO at all: Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos. In 2002, Bezos declared that all internal Amazon systems would be built from then on to be "externalizable," a move that truly transformed the company and gave birth to many of its market-leading services.

Related: Richard Branson on Finding Talented People Who Can Grow Your Business

Indeed, Amazon (or Facebook or LinkedIn) will probably never have an executive title of CDO. At companies like these, you could easily add "digital" to everyone's title today. Creating value with digital assets has been inherent in every leadership role at Amazon and similar digital native companies from day one, and it's a big part of their success.

Creating the right framework for filling the CDO role -- and, by extension, launching a successful digital transformation -- requires a recognition that every department and every executive position should embody the same passion for creating value with digital assets as the top digital natives do. This digital commitment then will become the determining factor for which companies thrive, or fail, in every industry.

How to spot a CDO in the wild. Now back to the original question: what to look for in a CDO?

The key is to first understand the most important traits of a digital leader, regardless of title. And these traits might not be the ones you would expect, according to research from the Apigee Institute. Surprisingly, traits that aren't correlated with the most successful digital leaders include willingness to take risks and intellectual curiosity. According to the research, companies in search of a digital leader are better off looking for individuals who are visionary, persuasive and adaptable, and who have strong social and business networks.

Gartner research also found that senior executives who search for a CDO to mirror their rivals run a significant risk of failing in their digital business initiatives. Ultimately, having clarity and vision about your own business and digital transformation is step one. This combined with identifying the leadership traits above will be the best indicators of success for companies embarking on a digital transformation and putting the right leader in place to get them there.

Related: How to Find Great Candidates by Looking Past the Obvious

Bryan Kirschner

Director of the Apigee Institute

Bryan Kirschner is the director of the Apigee Institute, a research and strategy organization that helps companies succeed in today's app economy and tomorrow's programmable world. Prior to the joining the institute, Bryan was the director of open source strategy at Microsoft.

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