It’s Not Just the Data, It’s Also the People: CDO Tips from the Data Radicals Podcast

By Anthony Zumpano

Published on August 24, 2022

A focus shot of a podcast microphone with everything in the background blurred out.

If you’re a newly minted chief data officer (CDO), congratulations! Your organization recognizes there’s value to be mined from your data — even if they don’t know how or even where to start mining — and they’ve anointed you as the tip of the spear (or the pickaxe, depending on your approach).

But a CDO does more than direct data deep-dives and administer analytics alchemy — that’s just the “D” in “CDO.” The “C” and the “O” demand a backbone for leadership and a stomach for change management, especially when the rest of the C-suite looks to you to instill in the organization that “data culture” they’d been reading about.

You’re obviously aware that executing a data culture takes more than flipping a switch, circulating a memo, or buying the latest platform. It also requires time, behavioral change, and most importantly, patience.

Throw in the fact that the CDO is still a relatively new (and often misunderstood, or not clearly defined) member of the C-suite, and “CDO” might stand for “challenged, discouraged, overwhelmed.”

Fortunately, during the first season of the Data Radicals podcast, host and Alation CEO Satyen Sangani spoke to some of the leading voices in data on how to build a data culture in an enterprise, surfacing several ways to manage expectations and achieve success in the CDO role.

Doing Data Diplomacy

Despite the amount of automation, machine learning, and artificial intelligence built into a data management platform, the most important asset in any data management ecosystem is the people. According to Peter Jackson, a six-time CDO and author of The Chief Data Officer’s Playbook, “human transformation is more expensive than the actual technological transformation.”

And that’s where a CDO should begin, says Jennifer Belissent, principal data strategist at Snowflake, who cites a CDO for whom the “D” has as much to do with diplomacy as with data. “, A big part of what he feels he does is diplomacy — being the bridge across different stakeholders,” she shares. “It’s negotiating to get access to data or prioritizing specific projects.”

But even before you reach the project stage, you’ll need to lay the foundation for a data culture. Belissent notes that several CDOs launched “data literacy listening tours” to set expectations and showcase the value of, and the role everyone has, with the organization’s data. The goal? “Communicate what we do, get people excited, and build a broader community.”

Paola Saibene, principal at Teknion Data Solutions, suggests a grassroots approach. “Bottom-up works better than top-down,” points out Saibene, who’s served as CTO for the state of Hawaii. “Have educational gamification plus exercises for folks in lower management, with performance indicators tied to improving the health of the data, or find ways of actually increasing literacy without having to watch another compliance webinar.”

Whatever your methods, make data literacy as fun and engaging as possible.

Tell a Good (Data) Story

They say the numbers don’t lie, but a CDO knows that data actually doesn’t speak for itself. In the same vein, the importance of data isn’t going to be self-evident to colleagues who don’t work with data the way you do.

Ironically, some Data Radicals, like Caroline Carruthers, the other co-author of The Chief Data Officer’s Playbook, feel the best way to instill a data culture is not to talk about data at all — at least at first. “Relax your stakeholders!” Caroline suggests. “Take them out for coffee and cake. Get to know them as people and ask them about what they’re trying to do, what hopes they’ve got for their departments for the future.”

Cole Nussbaumer Knaflic, founder and CEO of Storytelling with Data, adds that people will pay more attention to your data and what you do with it “if you can talk to them in ways that make them want to keep participating and be part of that discussion.” That means telling stories about data in ways that even non-experts would appreciate and understand.

Jackson agrees. “Don’t talk about regression and anomalies and clustering and data science,” he argues. “And don’t talk about data governance. Put it in stories that they can understand, and then they will buy in more to what you are talking about.”

Bob Seiner — the guru of data governance, management and strategy — stresses that these are stories where any and everyone at the organization can be the hero. “If you can’t get people to understand the role that they play and where they need to have a more data-oriented culture, you’re going to have a very difficult time achieving that level of culture.”

The Future of the CDO

It’s an exciting time to be a CDO, a role that will continue to evolve and become increasingly important, regardless of the size or industry of any organization using data.

“The CDO is increasingly reporting to the CEO and the chief executive in an organization,” Belissent says. “That reflects more of the strategic view of data — and of data as a strategic asset — and has the CDO really driving that effort within the organization.”

That effort has accelerated thanks to the increasingly public-facing role of data in our everyday lives. “Organizations now are understanding just how crucial good quality data is, having quick data that you can use quickly, having data you truly understand, increasing data literacy,” Jackson says, noting that the COVID pandemic brought global awareness to the urgency of quickly and accurately interpreting data: “We’ve all become more data literate.”

This circles back to the importance of initiating a data culture by getting buy-in from every rung on the corporate ladder. As Seiner sees it, have stakeholders consider:

  • What they currently can and can’t do with their data

  • What they wish they could do with their data

“Get people in the organization to give you that artillery to use instead of trying to make it up yourself,” Seiner recommends.

That way, you’re not alone. Just as the best decisions are derived from as much accurate data as possible, so will your CDO tenure be more successful by maximizing stakeholder advocacy and support.

  • Doing Data Diplomacy
  • Tell a Good (Data) Story
  • The Future of the CDO
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