A Roadmap For Data Leaders

Data is a critical value driver, but data leaders frequently have to spearhead initiatives with limited authority and resources. They craft initiatives, prove a project’s value, and gain scale while contending with skepticism, siloed organizations, and time-worn routines.

I’ve written and spoken a lot about leading without authority, and I gathered the following keen insights on how to do it from accomplished CDOs at a recent roundtable sponsored by the Data Leadership Collaborative.

Invest in relationships

Data leaders spend a lot of time investing in data aggregation and analysis, technology, talent, and training. Investing in relationships also has to be a critical leadership priority—the CDOs in the roundtable were emphatic on this point.

Leadership is not the top-down dictate that it’s often misperceived to be. It is about connecting with colleagues, developing and executing a shared vision, establishing common goals and success metrics, and achieving strategic goals—which I call “co-elevation.” And co-elevation determines the quality and longevity of successful business relationships.

For data leaders, this means understanding the priorities, needs, fears, and day-to-day work lives of business unit leaders so that business benefits and data strategy are tightly aligned. “It’s not about what one team or another can or can’t do. It’s talking about how you move forward and grow together,” said an expert in the tech industry.

NFL Chief Data and Analytics Officer Paul Ballew similarly emphasized that there is no substitute for one-on-one conversations. “Don’t underestimate the amount of time involved in getting to know other business leaders personally and their business issues…to educate them, and identify shared wins.” Such common understandings create the foundation for shared business interests, mutual respect, and cooperation—what I call “radical interdependency.”

In short, data leaders need rich, human-centered relationships that they can rely on—especially when climbing steep hills or when the going gets rough. Build strong relationships before they are needed.

manage up

Every data leader gets asked tough questions about their initiatives, particularly about executive-level buy-in. To this point, Ballew underscored the importance of getting old-fashioned face time to build a relationship with the CEO.

Heidi Lanford, CDO at Fitch Group and a member of the Data Leadership Collaborative’s advisory board, has written about how she meets with her CEO twice monthly to discuss priorities, brainstorm ideas, and work on ways to communicate the data strategy so it’s broadly understood. Building a relationship with the CEO is especially critical for CDOs that are external hires, she noted.

In our dialogue, Sreeram Potukuchi, Republic Services’ Director of Enterprise Data, identified several helpful rules of thumb for engaging with different C-suite players.

  • CFOs tend to be relatively black and white in their thinking. Be prepared to detail how your data initiatives will reduce costs, impact quarterly profits and losses, and mitigate risks as well as when the firm will see a return on its investment.
  • CMOs are typically more willing to try new things and reach for the sky. A data leader that excites the marketing team may be able to get more resources than expected, as possibilities are more compelling to marketers than exact numbers.
  • COOs welcome practical help. Data leaders can appeal to them by providing actionable and timely data and insights and tools for automating tasks and getting things done faster and more reliably. Teamwork is key.
  • The CEO and the board are most interested in the big picture: Focus on how your data initiatives are going to drive organizational transformation and create long-term value—for stakeholders inside and outside the firm.

Novartis’s Global Head of Data and AI Strategy and Operations Ravi Prasad added a note of caution: CDOs need to demonstrate value for a data initiative early on. “The CEO’s level of patience is a big differentiator of whether or not the data organization will be successful.” In expectation of this, Prasad’s own team created a simple mobile app that benchmarked the firm’s standing on data maturity, and then they put it into the hands of the CEO. “That started building awareness that people are working on these initiatives and the data piece doesn’t get lost.”

One discussant similarly recommended that data leaders use the board of directors to leverage program integration and legitimacy. Board meetings, for example, create an incentive for different organizations in the company to engage on your data strategy. Referring back to the importance of relationships, he added: “The board is like a golden ticket: If you can build a board relationship, it’s something that can enhance your other relationships across the organization.”

Tell stories of urgency and celebration

The trope is that “the data speaks for itself,” but to obtain buy-in, data leaders need to do the speaking—and they need to tell good stories while doing it For example, Ballew emphasized the need to paint data as a hot commodity: “You’re selling, you’re evangelizing all the time…The CDO needs to understand what data’s sex appeal is.” Progressive Insurance’s Data and Analytics Business Leader Pawan Divakarla spoke of creating a “reverence for data”: “We need it, we use it, and it is a key ingredient of success.”

This fear of missing out also increases organizational appetite for risk taking and investments in make-or-break situations. Potukuchi recalls the rallying power of risk during the first Covid lockdown: Fear of breakdowns in operations and customer service drove transformational data projects to be executed within weeks and months that in other times would likely have taken years.

Timing the element of fear also has a role in risk management, as Prasad notes:Early on in the journey, I usually focus more on risk because the opportunity is not yet defined. We could secure a good amount of funding for some big data initiatives by demonstrating the fundamental risk of doing nothing.”

At the opposite end of the spectrum, celebration must also be part of the storytelling to keep people engage and avoid burnout—especially during long-haul transformational campaigns that data leaders are engaged in. Great leaders regularly celebrate their teams, mission, and near-term wins. For example, Prasad notes that showcasing the successes of data initiatives is critical to getting other parts of the organization excited about what’s possible if they invest in and partner with data leaders. Good stories are great for talent recruitment too.

Swing for the fences

One thing that has stood out to me in my years of work on leadership is how powerful it is to go big.

Put together a reputable data team that has critical mass, break through and build meaningful relationships with busy peers, and make yourself into a resource that other leaders want to team with. Approach the C-suite and the board and evangelize for transformational projects, because they aren’t interested in the small stuff, and talk about data in compelling ways and sell it for what it is: a make-or-break foundation for the business . Finally, as Ballew says, serve as a North Star that people look up to and aim for.

That’s leading, even when you don’t have a lot of authority.

New Technology Era

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