The skills and traits needed to deliver results as a Chief Data or Analytics Officer, according to two of the world’s top data-focused executives
Data leadership is evolving constantly. But with Harvard Business Review reporting that the average Chief Data Officer’s tenure is just 2.5 years, it’s clear that many of the executives who hold these positions aren’t meeting expectations in these notoriously demanding roles.
As Sarah Gadd, Head of Data and AI Solutions at investment banking giant Credit Suisse, says, the breadth of skills required to lead data-driven business transformations means it takes a very specific type of leader to thrive as a CDAO.
“What strikes me is that it’s almost like looking for the unicorn,” she says. “Maybe that’s why we’re so short-lived.”
This week on the Business of Data podcast, Gadd and Aleksandar Lazarevic PhD, VP of Advanced Analytics and Data Engineering at tools manufacturer Stanley Black & Decker, share their views about what it means to be a successful CDAO in 2022.
What it Means to be a CDAO
The responsibilities of a CDAO will vary depending on the type of company they work in. As Dr Lazarevic says, how an organization has used data historically will impact what kind of leader it needs.
Companies that have data and analytics in their DNA, such as Google, Amazon or Meta, are at the most mature end of the spectrum. Their data-driven business cultures mean that their data leaders can act as strategic advisors to other company executives.
Dr Lazarevic explains: “[The] role of the CDAO is not necessarily someone to lead a single organization and lead all the efforts across the whole company, but rather someone who is accountable for strategic initiatives where the company should invest in data, AI [or] machine learning.”
Companies in sectors such as financial services sit in the middle of the data maturity spectrum. They are used to using and storing data, but generally only as a by-product of other business processes. Data leaders in these companies need to promote awareness of data-driven ways of working and a culture of adopting them.
Finally, there is everyone else. While most enterprises aspire to becoming data-driven, many start their journeys with very low-quality data and a poor understanding of how to store and use it. Data leaders in these companies must start with the basics and hope to pivot their attention to digital transformation once they’ve laid the right foundations.
“Typically, in these companies, they don’t have data culture,” Dr Lazarevic says. “[The CDAO role is] much, much broader, and I think that’s why many companies fail to define [it well].”
Essential Skills All CDAOs Must Master
In 2022, a growing number of enterprises are looking to move beyond the initial phases of their data and analytics strategies to drive enterprise-wide business transformations. In these companies, data leadership roles are transitioning from technology-focused positions to ones that are business-facing and involved in steering the enterprise’s strategic goals.
Although this week’s podcast guests have very different academic backgrounds, they agree that the skills required for success in these roles are broader than those you might learn in any university course. As such, Gadd argues that the most important trait any CDAO must have is a genuine passion for data and analytics.
“The base level is my belief that you either have passion or you don’t,” Gadd says. “I certainly have PhD-level data scientists who are clear data leaders and do an amazing job mentoring. But I myself am a clear example of somebody who doesn’t have that paper behind them.”
Gadd argues that an executive who has this passion can learn the other skills they will need to be successful ‘on the job’. These include an understanding of data and analytics techniques, a deep knowledge of the business they work for and the ability to spot which approaches are best suited to the challenges their enterprise is facing.
Dr Lazarevic adds: “Probably the most important thing in my opinion is, [they must] be able to master the business dynamics and spread the word about the benefits of data and analytics, to evangelize about the benefits of data science to the whole company.”
Of course, executives who possess all these things are rare. But this is precisely what makes them so valuable. Aspiring CDAOs should consider how they might bolster their skills in each of these areas to prepare themselves for success when they get the role of their dreams.