CDO Leadership Skills That Matter

Last Published: Aug 05, 2021 |
Susan Wilson
Susan Wilson

GVP North America Solutions Leader 

In this era of data-driven business initiatives, many chief data officers (CDO) are focused on driving new revenue opportunities, increasing efficiencies, and reducing costs as much as minimizing risk and ensuring compliance. Data governance and data management strategies often center on delivering greater value to the business. But even the best-designed strategy may fail if line-of-business (LOB) heads and other stakeholders don’t buy into it. So how can you accomplish that?

Over the past several weeks, I’ve been working with leaders of data strategy across the world to understand where they succeed and where they struggle with implementing their data governance and data management programs. What sets the leaders apart from their peers is their passion for data and their organization—they have a vision of what they’re looking to achieve. And they’re great at being able to articulate that vision in simple-to-understand terminology. They know enough about the pain points, goals, and objectives of the various LOBs that they can speak to the “What’s in it for me?” (WIIFM) to anyone in their organization.

I’m also noticing that the successful data leaders have a great way of building relationships across LOBs. Not everyone in an organization will understand a data strategy; some might actually feel it’s a threat. Or, some might just say, “I’ve got way too much on my plate. I cannot take this on. You’re just one more project asking for an allocation of resources—why should I spend time with you?” Possessing the diplomatic skills to create a human connection with stakeholders can help gain a more receptive audience for your program.

Empowering the Business to Drive Value

The leaders that I’ve been working with not only are strategic thinkers; they also know how to practically implement their ideas. They’re not doctrinaire about their approach, either. They don’t say things like, “Thou shalt catalog EVERYTHING and have a glossary term and data quality rules for EVERYTHING.” They’re really practical in the way they present information to their LOB stakeholders and others across the organization.

These leaders consider the value that the data strategy brings to the organization and the value that it brings to the people who are looking to adopt this new way of working. I’ve seen some people come out with what’s almost a textbook data strategy playbook, without thinking through the cultural aspects. Leaders, on the other hand, ask themselves, “What are the business goals and objectives, and who am I speaking to? What’s their mindset? How do I get them to be motivated to this new way of working?”

A great example of this leadership approach is New York Life. In one of our Data Empowerment Experts Webinar Series segments, Blake Andrews, Corporate Vice President, talks about how his mission of data governance is to drive better business outcomes through better data. The company ties this back to each part of their data governance framework of business outcomes, capabilities, and levers. Leaders like Blake Andrews have a good feel for the pulse of the team that they’re working with—and they don’t focus on a single script. It’s not a nail with a hammer every time.

Rather than coming in with your own agenda, you need to develop multiple tactics and approaches. What is the business goal and objective? What is this team challenged with? And what are the capabilities that can best serve us mutually? The rewards can be significant. In a recent interview with Blake, he stated, “One of the most rewarding comments our team has received was when a business analyst told us a few months ago that they were able to complete the analysis on a system in a matter of days that would have otherwise taken between four and six weeks.Hearing those anecdotes are ultimately the success that you’re looking for because they tie back to efficiency and effectiveness.”

The Importance of Persistence and Having a Plan!

Persistence is a key trait of successful leaders—they don’t get demotivated too easily. Whereas some people retreat back to their caves after failed attempts to collaborate with the organization, choosing to focus only on internal marketing or just a few pilots, I find that leaders who are persistent have a seat at the strategic table with their peers, have a strategy, and have a roadmap. They’re constantly thinking through how their capabilities could be used across the organization. They’re not easily defeated when something doesn’t go right.

Persistence is important because the failure rate of data strategies and data governance teams is high; you’re building in a function that you’re not consolidating under one person, one business function. You’re often using a distributed leadership and organization model, which takes hard work to set the right expectations and have ongoing communications. On a regular basis, you have to give different people the WIIFM, the goals and objectives, that apply to their particular situation, and try to drive adoption and change in a way that fits with how each team works.You also might be doing so with a couple of new people every cycle because people may change jobs, lose interest, or get distracted by another project.

Leaders that thrive have a strategy, have a roadmap, and have persistence. It is a given that your roadmap will change due to changing economic conditions, corporate priorities, and numerous other factors. The leaders that thrive are ones that give their team a sense of what the journey looks like and also give them confidence that there’s a plan and that the current state isn’t always the future state. They communicate the change and how it will impact their roadmap.

They also have strong cross-functional leadership teams that help them to apply the appropriate levers for priorities and investments. A great example of using the executive team to direct the program was discussed in a recent Data Empowerment Experts Webinar Series segment with Invesco. Rick Turnock, Global Head of Enterprise Data Services at Invesco, stated, “We established an executive data council with cross-functional senior leadership that has ultimate responsibility for data-centered decision-making, including prioritization initiatives, resources, and funding. We balanced our long-term strategic initiatives with quick wins, such as tackling existing data inefficiencies or quality issues, that could be delivered to demonstrate value and generate traction. For us, developing a strong communication and change management plan is crucial for the success of a data governance program to drive new ways of working.”

Recruiting Communities

Leaders also know how to recruit great change agents and communities in all of the business functions that they’re working for. In fact, I would highly recommend that CDOs find somebody who’s struggling with the big problem that they’re going to solve for and make them a champion.

Approach it as if you were setting up shop as a business—what do you want? You want market share, you want customers, you want testimonials, you want to be able to demonstrate that you’ve got products, services, and people to solve their data challenges. The more customer testimonials, the more products on your shelf, and the more people that you’ve got with expertise, the more your team is sought after.

The Data Empowerment Experts Webinar Series segment with UNC Health describes how they’ve deployed their program to communities, which I love as a way to “meet users where they are at.” Here’s how Rachini Moosavi, Executive Director of Analytical Services and Data Governance, and Sonya Jordan, Enterprise Analytics Manager, Data Governance, of UNC describe their approach for deploying to their community: “Our health system has embraced a community-model for analytics. Community-model means we are neither decentralized nor centralized in the analytics organization. We leverage the great talent we have embedded in operational/clinical areas, as well as centralized analytics talent in IT and Enterprise Analytics, to address the data-centric needs of the organization. Our new focus on community involves the creation of The Analytics Community Planning Committee, Neighborhoods for domain and tool-specific interest groups, and establishing greater developer accessibility to the EDW and data governance tools. We also have aligned analytics prioritization and investments through a single intake queue and a defined analytics governance model.”

Next Steps

I’ve been inspired to hear these stories from our CDOs directly and as part of our Data Empowerment Experts Webinar Series. No matter what industry you are in, no matter what part of the world you live in, CDOs are learning a lot from each other as we deal with similar challenges and experiences. To find inspiration and learn more about how leaders execute a winning data strategy, watch our on-demand Data Empowerment Experts Webinar Series.

First Published: Jul 06, 2020