I would be shocked if anyone reading this article had never seen a conductor, that constant, reassuring presence in front of a playing orchestra, somehow creating order out of the potential chaos of up to 100 musicians, not to mention a soloist or two. They look impressive, but what are they actually doing up there?

Among other things, they signal for the music to start, they keep the tempo, they interpret and react to the music in real-time, they teach and rehearse before and after performances, and they offer moral support and leadership. If you’re a Chief Data Officer, this all may sound like your current CDO roles and responsibilities. I like to think of these five qualities in relation to my job. How?

  1. Chief Data Officers get things started: Onstage, one of the conductor’s most important jobs is drawing the orchestra’s attention to him or her as the  performance begins. The same is true in a data organization. To me, the chief data officer's role is to get people collaborating, to create fluidity in the way programs run, and to help colleagues work in unison and in parallel. You can’t start down the path toward a thriving data culture without someone organizing efforts from the top.
  2. We set and maintain the organizational tempo. Left to their own devices, an orchestra will fall out of cadence as one dominant section or player exerts an outsized influence. Like a conductor, a CDO plays a critical role to set the right pace for change, at the executive level as well as the organizational one. 
    And speaking of the overall organization, if you’ve ever been part of a crowd clapping along to music you may have noticed that people will tend toward clapping faster and faster without a leader. There’s actually a name for this phenomenon: size-dependent error-induced frequency increase. Similarly, if you’re a data leader in an organization, part of a CDO’s roles and responsibilities is to ensure that initiatives don’t get ahead of themselves or get bogged down. From a software perspective I think that a chief data officer should be on point for acting as the data glue across the company and address questions that set and maintain tempo. For example: How do you optimize your data across business units? How do you ensure that business strategies actually come to life through the data in a proactive manner?
  3. We react to change in real time. If someone in an orchestra flubs or falls flat, a conductor pulls everyone back together again. I think about CDOs as having a real-time agenda that responds to change in two directions: offense and defense. You draw on the role you need depending on what’s happening in the business at the moment. 
    At times, the chief data officer’s role needs to focus more on offense, executing on data monetization and digital transformation, becoming a cross-connective tissue for the business units as you move together to execute strategies. At other times the situation may call for defense, focusing on access control, your ethical posture around data handling and usage, or auditability to support things like regulations or compliance. By moving between offense and defense as conditions change, you enable business growth versus inhibiting it.
  4. We teach and rehearse. Conductors don’t just work with professional musicians, but also with amateur players and youth orchestras. The CDO teaches as well, helping to drive data literacy and a stronger data culture. As music literacy is to a smoothly running orchestra, data literacy is to a nimble, fast-moving company that makes data-informed decisions.  At the same time you’re mentoring, you’re also rehearsing new strategies, planning for the business, checking how your growth ladders look and deciding what data you need to capture that growth. These activities should be moving at the same time and in parallel with one another.
  5. We offer moral support and leadership. Just as orchestras have separate sections – strings, woodwinds, percussion, and brass – enterprises have many departments with different needs. One thing they all need, though, is support and leadership. We need to think about the various ways that data is used by different personas to perform different functions within the company. And we have to figure out how to support the employees within each one of these functions to be able to do their jobs more effectively. As a leader, you need to provide business unit peers with support and direction. Otherwise, there's no big data mindset or link between data trust and monetization.  

The conductor is sometimes referred to as “the silent musician.” They don’t make music themselves, but they use the entire assembly of players to create one unified sound. I like to think of the CDO role in the same way: we are here to help guide the entire organization to have one unified view of data, a strong culture of data, and the right workflows for data supported by the right data technology. That to me sounds like beautiful music.