CDO = Chief Deckchair Organiser? — Why Companies Need North Stars

Titanic — James Cameron

rearrange the deck chairs on the Titanic

(idiomatic) To do something pointless or insignificant that will soon be overtaken by events, or that contributes nothing to the solution of a current problem.

The role entitled CDO, chief digital officer is a relatively new one. Most CDOs are hard working, have great attitudes and bring a different energy to traditional corporations.

Many are extremely busy, there is so much to be done to digitise all businesses. Many will feel like every project they run is akin to painting the Golden Gate Bridge, once you have finished painting it, it needs a new coat of paint.

The better CDOs will treat every digital product as if it “live”, just because a digital product (such as a website) is launched does not mean the job is done. This is only when the work begins. Depending on the business, a new website means a new eco-system around the website, such as social media distribution, blogging, search engine optimisation/marketing etc.

The great CDOs are usually great for reasons not all of their own doing.

Yes, the best CDOs do great work, yes, they are leaders, yes, they digitise mindsets as well as products and business models. However, the best CDOs are the best because they are embraced by senior leadership, by leading CEOs, MDs, COOs and extremely importantly they are supported by CFOs.

In the best organisations CDOs sit on the board. If they know what they are doing, they should be embraced at this level by the other board members. If they are not embraced, they will be simply “busy” doing “stuff”, but this “stuff” will remain disconnected from the general direction of the business.

Arranging the Deckchairs on the Titanic

Without connection to the business, mentioned above, the CDO does not really stand a chance. They are simply organising the deckchairs on the Titanic. Even worse, they may be rearranging the deckchairs on a Ghost Ship, a ship with no direction and no navigation at all. Perhaps worse again, they are on a ship with an absentee captain.

North Stars


“The North Star” from a marine perspective refers to the star, which guides ships in a certain direction. At night, ancient mariners were guided by the stars. The North Star was their constant marker. The North Star remained in one consistent spot, while other stars rotated around it. This gave sailors a consistent truth from which to determine their direction.

From a business perspective, (and a personal career perspective) we need this direction. We need a consistent (agreed upon) direction, which guides all company and individual activities, which, in turn, guides all organisational thinking.

If companies have a resonant, resilient North Star. If this North Star is agreed upon by all decision makers and in turn by their own departments and teams themselves have their own North Stars, then the company knows its direction.

Then companies start to thrive.

CDOs need a North Star in order to Succeed

For a CDO to succeed, they need this North Star, which unites the whole company in one direction.

In this world of disruption, where many companies and industries are running out of runway and running out of relevance the company needs leadership to provide a clearly articulated North Star.

Doing this not only unites teams, but informs your customers what you stand for both explicitly or implicitly.

A final thought. Now replace the CDO with anyone in the organisation, heads of Marketing, Finance, HR, Technology or Strategy.

Imagine how a company would succeed if everyone followed the same North Star?

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