As a longtime member of a group like this, which has leadership in its name, it’s always relevant to revisit the core principles of what leadership requires given the incredible pace of change we’re living through right now. 

I like to think about five planks in the data leadership platform.

  1. Understand current capabilities. You can’t lead unless you know what you’re leading with. So it’s essential to understand the data capabilities you have at your disposal and how to use them – your people, resources, and talent. You also need to understand the current state of your data culture and assess whether the mindset and momentum are there to make decisions with confidence. As Peter Drucker once observed, culture eats strategy for breakfast.
  2. Take a strategic mindset. Once you know what you have, determine how best to leverage these capabilities to answer your business challenges. As a data leader I’ve described myself as the chief bumblebee of my organization, connecting ideas and people to take advantage of current situations. I spend a lot of my day to day in one-on-one meetings, understanding business problems then cross-pollinating those ideas and making those connections between people’s skills and opportunities. Connecting capabilities to problems also helps you to expose any gaps in your organization. 
  3. Know when to say no. Add a good understanding of capabilities to a strategic mindset and you’re ready to make some choices. Some of these will be easy, others a lot tougher. We can probably think of a dozen data analytics projects without much effort, but does a quick win or a bigger strategic initiative make sense right now? Unfortunately, no one has infinite resources, so you have to figure out which business initiatives to prioritize over others. Figuring out the requests to say No to is just as important in strategy as what to take on. It’s a bit like asset allocation in finance, where you’ve ideally got a mix of short-term, midterm and long-term investments. I think about leadership as a kind of mantra: What I can do, where I can do it, what I should prioritize? You can ask this about your coming day or the coming quarter.
  4. Speak business and technology dialects. In my experience, those who most effectively lead with data are also the most exceptional communicators. Typically they bring the ability to translate each department’s challenge into a data solution, because they understand that people in organizations speak different dialects and bring different agendas. You can see the opposite of this in nearly any enterprise. Finance, Supply Chain and Sales can meet on forecasts, with everyone saying, “Great, this is what we need to do.” Two weeks later, back in the same room, everyone is on a completely different page.
    Data leadership requires the ability to baseline the current state of a department through a series of shared metrics, then align the organization around a set of KPIs that are put in place to create accountability. Data leaders know how to drive this accountability through transparency. Because the metrics are shared, in other words, everyone gets to see what their peers are doing and how it contributes. 
  5. Become a data storyteller. To bring each audience along with them on the journey, the best data leaders are the ones that can create and tell audience- specific stories. You may be presenting the same data to different people but using different narrative lines that resonate with their concerns. Good data storytelling is a kind of change management. The foundational blocks of a good data story are what’s happening, why does it matter, and what can we do about it? 


Data leaders wanted: all departments
Data leaders can come from anywhere, of course. You don’t have to have data in your title. You don’t have to be a chief data officer. You can be an analyst or a business user. Everyone should aspire to be a data leader, in my opinion, regardless of position. Why? If you believe as I do that data is the universal business language, then you want everyone to be a part of that story.