The consultant and writer Randy Bean has noted on many occasions that the Chief Data Officer can be a thankless role. That’s in part because it can be defined as up to seven different jobs, which is obviously too many for one person.

As the role has evolved over the past decade, I have seen CDO’s move from Defense into Offense tasks. 

  • Being on defense means you’re more like a Chief Data Architect, and you’re expected to keep the data as clean and as high-quality as possible, easy to access, with powerful tools to put it to use. No data breaches and strong data governance. You build the machine, step back and let people go to work. You’re probably more likely to have a technologist background.
  • Being on offense means you’re more like a Chief Analytics Officer. You’re all about extracting value from data for the benefit of the company, but less about making data easily accessible to everyone. You’re more likely to have a business and analytics background.

To succeed today, I think you’ve got to be able to play a little offense and a little defense. Being flexible is key because the CDO is a relatively new role, and as such it can feel disruptive. It’s not like there wasn't a data warehouse or reams of data at my current company before I joined.

Following in the CFO’s Footsteps

To anticipate the evolution of the CDO, it’s helpful to look at how other C-suite roles have come to be. You might be surprised to know that the CFO didn't actually emerge until the 1980s. This rise coincided with regulatory bodies like the SEC and the Federal Accounting Standards Board as well as changing corporate reporting and accounting requirements. At that time, it definitely was a risk management (defense) role that was elevated to the C-suite. 
Look at the CFO today, though. They’re working with the head of sales on renewal strategies, and with the chief strategy office on market share, penetration, and growth goals. They’re driving the acquisitions of other companies. That's a big offense play, and it offers a guide to today’s CDO, especially those who feel they’re still stuck playing purely defense.

Although a balance of offensive and defensive moves is important, I’m an advocate for measuring your growth based on the differences you’ve made for your company at the end of each year. Not just that you built a data warehouse or procured some licenses, but that you can point to people actually changing the decisions they make based on the information they can access and put to use. That’s the best way to become a full-fledged member of the C-suite, and not just an organizational ‘tuck-in’ in where the Chief Data Officer is stuffed in some far corner of the org chart.   

Want to Create Impact as a CDO? Follow These 5 Steps

In my last role I was responsible for providing data that teams used to operate the business better. That included HR, financial, marketing, sales, and internal operational data. As a modern CDO, you should look at yourself as responsible for harnessing all the company's data to enable the company to perform better. Here are five ways to do that.

  1. Look for warning signs before you sign on. If the job is defined as all defense, or if it appears that your role will be tucked into some other organization, consider continuing your search. You don’t want to find yourself working for a company that only act when they miss revenue targets or the stock price falls. 
  2. Once on board, find the forward-thinking, progressive change agents that you can hang your hat on and be joined at the hip with to make positive change happen in the organization. These are the people who can “feel the pinch” as I like to say, that sense of urgency about doing something different with their data culture. 
  3. Report in as high up in the organization as possible. In my current role I report to the COO/CFO and I meet with the CEO every other week. I’m part of the senior leadership team of 13 people in the firm, because getting data right is really important to them.  
  4. Leverage the person you’re reporting to. By that I mean, draw on whatever persuasiveness and influence they have with the rest of the company to build your organization. 
  5. Plan and build business cases. Make progress a little bit at a time. Look for opportunities to have a role in product building and enabling more data for product creation. That way you have an impact in the solutions side of our business, not just the technical side.

So how will the CDO role evolve? The good news is that part of the answer is in your hands.