I’ve been fortunate to have held several Chief Data & Analytics Officer roles and to work at the epicenter of the CDO’s role definition as well as its continued evolution. The role of the CDO was essentially born in the financial services industry, and over the years gained traction in consumer products, manufacturing, telecommunications, and finally in high-tech companies.  

Highly regulated industries were early adopters of the CDO, which required establishing data governance and data management frameworks, systems, and processes to meet the breadth and depth of data risk and enforceable regulatory compliance. This all came with the threat of very steep non-compliance penalties that could impact the reputation of the world’s Globally Significant Financial Institutions (GSIFIs), of which there are 13.  

The fast followers were traditional consumer products companies, because the insights derived from the massive volumes of consumer data were seen as a way to improve competitive edge, by knowing the customer. The role of the CDO, while supported conceptually, remained misunderstood in execution. Frankly, a CDO’s role could be scoped slightly different within and across industry verticals and companies. In some organizations the CDO was seen as a disruptive agent of change and transformation. Many organizations acknowledged the “need for a CDO,” but often delayed initial commitment given the lack of clarity around how to adopt this “disruptive” C-Level role into the structures and rhythms of the business. 

Many of the laggards had high hopes of learning from others’ growing pains to transform but quickly realized the first few iterations of the CDO roles were like “snowflakes,” and that disparity and disruption inspired the need to build community and structure to enable early adopter data executives, leaders and professionals to establish and execute the data agenda within their respective companies and industries. 

The laggard technology company?

Does it seem counterintuitive to you that tech companies have been most averse to the role of a CDO? To the outsider yes, but not if you’ve worked for a few. Tech giants are largely organized around two defining functions: 1) Engineering and 2) everyone else in the company. The center of gravity rests with large engineering groups that build products and systems, and who have rapidly grown to appreciate the role data plays as their teams continue to coalesce around product insights in combination with other data assets of the company – its customers, employees, and third parties – which are now seen as the enabler of organizational success. 

Of course, the product does have a role to play, but not to the exclusion of listening to what your customers are actually telling you. If you want to improve customer experience, to gather better intelligence around your ecosystem, or to enhance any service, it’s all got to start with governed foundational data. This data provides actionable, trusted insights that eventually enable the foundations for predictions and enablement of scalable AI. For many tech companies, it’s the engineering process that makes it great, and not the insight that comes out of it. Now we see these engineering and data teams joining forces to move faster and with greater precision.

2.4 years: is that all we get?

Does tech drag down the average tenure of the CDO to its current sorry state of just over two years? In part, perhaps. But here are a few scenarios I’ve seen play out across organizational types:

Scenario A:

  1. The company is excited about the agenda and the possibilities of a senior data leader.
  2. The CDO arrives and a push-and-pull begins. The organizational support he or she assumed was there begins to sound more like, “Hey, I hired you. Now go make magic happen.” Marketing or Sales calls on the CDO to enable a list of outcomes, which misses an opportunity to innovate together. 
  3. IT begins to feel competitive with the CDO, which can lead to the new executive casting around to find a place in their organization where they can partner and deliver value with peers successfully.

Scenario B:

  1. The CDO arrives in an organization ripe for transformational change. They turn up the innovation while pulling the levers to meet short-term needs of peers and stakeholders.
  2. Pockets of resistance emerge in parts of the company that are only ready for operational change. Although the CDO has been given free reign, organizational dynamics surface that almost behave like the dark digital twin of this autonomy. 
  3. The CDO gets burned out unless they have the stick-to-itiveness to say, “No matter how bad this gets, we’re going to win. We may not win every time, but we’re going to win.”

Even in scenarios when the CDO is bringing something net new that gets people excited, it can be a constant battle. This is one of the biggest CDO challenges because it’s a new role compared to most of the C-Suite. A CDO may find themself having the same conversation three times in a row with the CIO, the CFO, and the Chief Digital Officer. They may be positioned as the last chair in the boardroom, there to check the box rather than raise a flag. In one company I had a buck-stops-here moment when I had to stand up and say, “Hey guys, the books don’t close at this company without my team. We do not give a number to the street until I certify that number.” Part of the CDO role is to make sure people know that you’re core to how the business works and functions. 

Five ways to make the CDO role your own

Here are a few best practices I’d recommend for the new CDO.

  1. Become a student of the business. There’s very little a CDO can say or do without being able to affirm in business terms to their peers and leaders that they understand the way the company runs. Simply put, as a CDO you must be able to understand and articulate the rhythms of the business. So gather the corporate knowledge, educate yourself on the company’s business model(s), go deep and build product knowledge, consistently build a lexicon that demonstrates business acumen of the sales, marketing, engineering and finance processes, and commit to “knowing” how everything works.

    This means you have to get out of your comfort zone and talk to a lot of people at every level across the company in order to build your understanding of the culture. Don’t settle for believing the first thing you hear about how things work. This will allow you to pivot in any conversation and then isolate issues because you are now empowered to offer input that is based on the facts. The bottom line is that you should be able to say, “I see the business and how it operates end-to-end from a data-centric perspective. Just as our CFO tracks the numbers, I track the lifecycle of data in a company.”

    Here's an example: every company I’ve worked for has had to provide a common customer definition, one understood by the employees, their systems and most importantly their customers. Typically every system, process, and team has a different customer definition, data attribution, and poor data management around the customer hierarchies and their affiliates. But in order to serve the customer in a consistent manner you need to have one common definition of a customer, a foundational platform that manages customer data, a common process for curation of customer accounts and commitment from organization to keep this data clean, current and accurate. The way you do that is by publishing Customer Data Score Cards to hold those people with the power to curate customer data accountable. As a CDO, with a deep knowledge of the customer and the business, you can credibly establish that need for consistent visibility and make it happen. 
  2. Deliver real value. Once you learn the patterns of your organization and make your voice heard, turn your attention to innovation. The secret is “ABI,” always be innovating. Even if you can’t publicly operate and innovate at the same time, my advice is to quietly figure out how to “transform and innovate” in parallel without making it too public until the time is right to introduce your innovation. When colleagues realize that you’re doing more than being a squeaky wheel, you will be rewarded accordingly when you ask for more money and headcount. It’s important to remember that just because you have a “C” in your title doesn’t mean you get carte blanche. It means you’ve earned the right to prove yourself to your peers and the organization. And the only way you do that is by becoming a student of the business (see above) and then delivering real value. That’s a function of knowing what your organization values and learning to strike that value while the iron is hot.
  3. Scrap what’s not working. It’s not uncommon for the CDO and the data group to have a strong partnership with Marketing. What we often see when we empower the Marketing organization with insights is that they will present the recommendations to deliver business results, only to have the Sales organization reject it all. For Example, Marketing will deliver recommendations to Sales on prospective accounts – aka marketing leads, which show up in the CRM systems – in order to convert those leads to be worked by the Sales Rep. Sales has to accept that lead from Marketing, after which it becomes a “Sales Accepted Lead.” This is a very typical business process, enabling marketing to effectively track their programs and contribution to sales. 

    However, what usually happens is that Sales will review and reject, then go the CRM and create their own leads and track them to closure. This pattern gets tracked by the CDO, and becomes the point where the CDO must be the mediator at the table, reveal any confirmation bias, and take people on the journey until they become “believers” and follow the rules so the entire team wins. This includes presenting results to demonstrate value to the business by following the processes. This keeps the customer data accurate. From there one can deliver “Algorithmic” solutions on “Trusted Data” that automate the processes, giving more time back Sales to handle customer-facing issues and elevating the role of Marketing to scale on its capabilities. Lastly, all this activity builds confidence in the role and function of the Chief Data Office and Officer. Bottom line: the data don’t lie, and neither should you!
  4. Root out Shadow Data. Build your technical systems acumen by building an Enterprise Data Architecture that includes all systems and integrations, including the gaps you are proposing to close.  This opens the door to eliminate “Shadow Data”, which has been the bane of CIO/CTO organizations for many years. Doing this builds trust in the partnership with Enterprise IT, which you will need as a CDO, but I suggest that you do it using the mantra that your goal is to have one view of the customer.

    Explain that with so many versions of customer data – aka, “shadows of the customer” – the company loses. Your enterprise data architecture is the roadmap to drive unity and alignment. In 2023, even in organizations where the data capability is appreciated and the desire is there to scale and integrate, shadow data functions continue to emerge, primarily based on “lack of speed and need.” The business may decide they can’t wait for you, because their asks are not being prioritized by IT, so they start building “data fiefdoms” in their own departments. Be the Data Cop and stop this immediately. What they’re missing is that they’ll need to worry about integrating later. That’s a problem and a vicious cycle you don’t want to maintain. Don’t get trapped into serving many masters. Be the master and serve one data agenda. The way get there is simple – form partnerships with those that can be your trusted partners, especially by embedding team members in the business units. This means they show up at all the staff meetings of your partners as if they were part of their organization. You are empowered to remain informed and you can quickly identify shadow data groups, highlight the risks, foster a culture of transparency, prioritize needs, increase collaboration, establish clear policies, and be a key influencer of prioritization during the budgeting lifecycles. Most importantly, by rooting out shadow data you’re showing your commitment to moving FAST (First Accurate Secure Trusted) data. This is why a CDO exists, so you should make it your number one standard and deliver on that promise.
  5. Have the AI conversation. Boards and C-Suites are saying it loud and clear: we don’t have enough understanding of the power of AI and therefore we don’t trust it to serve our best interest, so help me get there. This is where CDOs must step up and be the voice of partnership with the Engineering and Technology leaders. CDO’s should be clearly landing this message to the organization: “We can have a healthy fear of the technology, but we also can control how we adopt AI to best serve our customers responsibly.”

    This is the ideal time to partner with your peers to create AI adoption guidelines, governance structures, principles, and business priorities for how to engage with AI organizationally. Moreover, as a CDO it’s your job to make Audit and Legal your best friends. Trust me, it pays dividends to do so.  By shaping all AI initiatives into the construct of whatever opportunities on the table your company may be facing from a regulatory perspective gives you license and runway to try, fail, and adjust to get this right as you move AI capabilities into production.

    One last piece of advice. Don’t pick the hardest problem to solve. Find the low-hanging fruit that you can successfully deliver and then scale. Remember: AI should be a race to be right rather than first.”

As a closing note, I’d encourage you to remember that as data professionals, we see data differently. We see it as a continuous lifecycle from its inception to its connections. We see how it transforms as it moves through various systems to serve and deliver on business use cases. We must not be afraid to publish the results of our efforts back to the business, which reaffirms the value and impact we’ve created as a result of the partnerships. Success as a CDO is a function of bringing this unique perspective to your enterprise and demonstrating how it can create business impact and competitive advantage. My advice to CDOs is, Act like a CFO, deliver like a COO, and show up like the CEO. You’ll be glad you did.