When companies begin their digital transformation, many bring on board a chief digital officer to help navigate the process. Once the entire operation has become digital, however, leadership responsibility transitions to other executives in the C-suite.

But someone still needs to set the direction. Who should do it? A growing number of executives recognize that they must put customers first in order to succeed in the digital era. For CEOs, the customer experience is a top priority, according to recent IBM research. And because CMOs are closest to what customers want, they are in the best position to shape a unified experience across channels. That explains why  CMOs are increasingly taking on the digital leadership role for the enterprise.

That can be a big leap for executives who have spent their careers in marketing. Indeed, the success of the transformation largely depends on whether CMOs have, or can acquire, the skills to tackle the challenge.

Architects of Change

A seamless, omnichannel digital customer experience includes all touchpoints, from marketing and sales to customer service. Yet many industries still operate these departments as silos, even though customers no longer engage with them in isolation, nor in a predictable order on the path to purchase, nor using a single channel. Marketing leaders must, therefore, be able to win support from a willing team of executives for their efforts to transform the customer experience.

Because the digital customer experience touches so many aspects of the enterprise, the CMO role must expand far beyond marketing strategy and corporate branding to encompass the entire customer journey from end to end. Two-thirds of marketing leaders now say their top priority is to develop deeper, richer customer experiences, according to our report, Redefining Markets: Insights from the Global C-suite Study — The CMO Perspective.

Guidance from the CMO is becoming crucial to help unify all members of the leadership team around a cohesive vision for their company’s digital customer engagement strategy. To develop and execute that vision, CMOs must become architects of change. CMOs who are most successful as transformation leaders—the study calls them Torchbearers—are focused on three key initiatives:

  • Rethinking every business function through the lens of the customer. Torchbearer CMOs challenge colleagues in every function of the organization to demolish internal silos and present a consistent customer experience.
  • Infusing “digital DNA” into the organization. They hire staff or consultants with the needed skill sets. And they involve partners and customers—who have great skills, ideas, and expertise too—as co-creators and innovators. Torchbearer CMOs are more likely than market followers to be focused on collaborating with customers.
  • Using data-driven decision making to deliver personal, relevant, and timely customer experiences. They are harnessing vast amounts of data from digital interfaces to continually refresh their insights about what customers want so they can take action to differentiate themselves from competitors.

This is a lot for marketing leaders to take on, but most embrace the additional responsibility. More than half (54%) of CMOs who responded to the IBM survey say they are prepared to manage the increasing complexity of the marketing mandate. But in order to fulfill their digital leadership mandate, some CMOs may need to expand their skills.

Skills of a Transformation Leader

CMOs are embracing digital business. They report they are better prepared to address key marketing challenges, including the explosion of data, the rise of social media, and shifting consumer demographics. In addition, we found that the marketing executives who have been most successful in a digital leadership role—our Torchbearers—have a holistic business perspective and the skills to match. Compared to market followers, these transformation leaders are:

  • Hyperconnected. Torchbearer CMOs are plugged into every aspect of the business that relates to the customer.
  • Strategic. They are knowledgeable about what motivates internal stakeholders and can engage with them in different ways to get buy-in at all levels of the company.
  • Relationship-focused. Digital disruption is creating ecosystems in which partners bring solutions to market—for example, the way telecommunications vendors, device makers, and content providers team to sell smartphones and subscriptions to video streaming services. Torchbearers are more likely to experiment with different types of collaborative business models.
  • Open-minded. They listen closely to customers, employees, and partners and apply their input when creating new services or offerings.
  • Tech-savvy. Torchbearers are more confident about their ability to deal with the data explosion. They understand the benefits of using data in decision making, and they stay up to speed on the potential uses of predictive analytics, prescriptive analytics, and cognitive computing.

Driving Digital Innovation

With the right skills and a strategic mindset, CMOs can be effective digital leaders. Today’s marketing executives need not only strong knowledge of marketing and digital technology but also a keen understanding of how commerce works. They must put the customer experience at the center of everything they do and view the company through the eyes of the customer.

Add a capable team, and innovative marketing leaders can successfully steer their company through the digital transformation journey. CMOs, are you up to the challenge?