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Westfield CDO: modernizing the executive team

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Kevin McKenzie featured on our top 100 global digital change agents list, and in this interview discusses the CDO's position at the top table.

Kevin McKenzie, as chief digital officer of Westfield Corp, what’s the end goal for your role, what’s your dream?” I ask.

“The dream for me is seeing everything we are doing in the digital space make a huge impact on the growth of our business” came the reply.

As aims go it’s succinct, but suitably ambitious.

Chief digital officers have been tasked with re-energizing their brands, remodeling them from the inside to help secure its future within an increasingly digital world; a CDO legacy requires a bold vision.

Seamless digital integration throughout all areas of a business – and the Board table by extension – presents an interesting job description for digital officers.

The “dream” for McKenzie is for “digital to be used throughout the business”, but once that occurs there is no longer a need for a role to bring about that change.

This has raised an interesting discussion within the general CDO debate: does the CDO legacy include acting as the next CEO?

It’s my next question.

A company will require each head of function to seamlessly integrate digital elements into their operations, as directed by the CDO’s initial strategy.

In some cases, the CDO’s overarching knowledge of a company, and its strategy, can make them candidates to take the helm as CEO. Taking Gap as an example, its previous head of digital is now CEO of the company.

However, McKenzie explains its a trend that doesn’t extend to Westfield.

“In my particular position, I don’t think it’s a move I’m interested in. The only reason I’m here is because Westfield has a CEO that has sponsored my position, the digital mindset and seen its importance.”

The primary challenge McKenzie is focused on is “bringing everyone else along the journey with you, to make sure you can bring a new kind of thinking to a business that has been around for many years.”

Throughout this digital series, the change agents interviewed have discussed what their role and remits entail.

The role can include mapping digital capabilities to strategic priorities, measuring operational efficiencies and improving weak spots, whilst developing ways to attract and retain a digital workforce that will be the engine of a company’s drive forward.

It’s a position that takes time to produce results or make tangible changes, requiring patience, near total understanding of a company, and trust from your CEO and fellow C-suite members.

The latter factor is particularly important for McKenzie, who’s digital strategy for Westfield only came together when he, “could work closely with the CEO [Steven Lowy] on these thoughts and ideas, allowing for the strategy to really take shape.”

The CDO and the CEO need to be able to work closely together to make sure a digital strategy is aligned to the overall values of an organization.

That message can then be articulated to every other head of section, which is an important step in the relationship between a CDO and his or her colleagues.

A digital head’s remit influences nearly every part of a company. It’s a delicate position, so where does McKenzie see his role fitting, and how does he navigate these distinctions?

“I think the chief digital officer is really at the intersection between a CMO and a CIO. My role is to create an experience for each of my colleagues’ constituents.”

These constituents could be the employees of a HR Director, consumers that marketing chiefs nurture, or back-end systems that a CIO works with.

“Because of that I think all companies need a digital function in order to bring all these qualities and roles together so that success can be the core focus of the company.”

Which leads McKenzie back to his dream and the CDO legacy.

This wide-set remit still needs a vision detailed enough to sustain a brand throughout its journey.

And an end goal requires a sure-footed beginning, which McKenzie didn’t necessarily find a challenge, despite being the newest member of the executive team..

“I think the best thing that happened, coming into the company, was the fact that I didn’t come from a traditional shopping centre or real estate background because I didn’t have any legacy or preconceived ideas and notions of the industry, nor how it was supposed to look and act. I could take a fresh look at it and avoid all of the assumptions.”

Which makes the CDO role sound all the more transformative to the C-suite.

Not only has a new person appeared at the Board table tasked with seeking areas for improvement within each area of a company, but prior knowledge of the industry sector isn’t required to fulfill the obligations of digitization.

It makes for an interesting dynamic that a head of digital can influence over the strategies and relationships within a business.

Ultimately however, the defining feature of a CDO will be their legacy, or how successful they have been during their tenure.

“If you’re a company looking to digitally transform, success [looks like] all of your departments using [digital] vernacular every day.”

That is how McKenzie sees his particular position measured.

The CDO needs to enjoy the full trust of a CEO, as McKenzie discussed, to lay down a relevant strategy, whilst pulling together the different strands of a business to make sure they, “all move together in the same direction.”

After that is completed, McKenzie’s dream can be realized.