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:

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:

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?