Much has been written about the need for technical skills in data functions. More recently, competencies misleadingly described as soft skills (business acumen, communication, project management, etc.) have received a lot of recognition, too. These things are important, but I’ve yet to see one of the most critical elements of success – making sure you have the right inputs – get the attention it deserves.

The right inputs: The foundation of effective data leadership
Every leader needs the right inputs to succeed. Otherwise, they risk working in a vacuum. For a data leader, this means understanding your business environment - things like high-level company goals, market dynamics, and internal operational culture. A data leader without these inputs puts their whole function on the back foot, but the right inputs ensure their function delivers initiatives that matter.

It’s up to you as a data leader to get hands-on with the core strategy of the business. You need to build a breadth of visibility across the company that’s not limited to particular roles or teams, or filtered to topics strictly related to data. You can use this visibility to connect the dots, prioritize effectively and make sure that your team’s work is not only technically solid but will really move the needle. 

Positioning for success
It’s not easy to secure the right inputs. The first step is positioning yourself within your company so you have a clear line of sight into its high-level goals and operations. This positioning is not just hierarchical. It involves building relationships, trust, and most importantly a reputation for contributing real value – not only as an individual but as the leader of a team. 

This is very hard to do without a leadership culture that values and facilitates the flow of information to the data function. Regular, direct communication between data leaders and company leadership is vitally important, as is plenty of day-to-day collaboration between data and other teams. At Tines, our product is a workflow automation platform that connects tools across your tech stack, and our culture is a reflection of that. We’re big believers in the idea that you need to get people and systems talking to each other in order to do your best work.

Speaking up and reaching out
A data leader needs to push for the data function’s role in ‘big picture’ discussions, making sure that it’s not seen as a service provider but as a strategic partner. A senior data leader should aspire to function in many ways like a Chief Strategy Officer, particularly in organizations where that role does not exist. You must claim your seat at the table alongside other senior management, gaining first-hand insights into strategic decisions and plans. It’s also really important to avoid being a passive bystander; you should offer your perspective and leverage your broad visibility to add value to these discussions.

Investing time in building contacts across the organization is well worth the effort, to gain a complete view of its operations and challenges. To quote a former colleague, data leadership is a contact sport. These more informal networks often serve as your most vital sources of input, helping you to adjust your work to the real needs of the business due to a breadth of visibility matched by few other roles in the organization. 

The right inputs drive success
Your success as a data leader hinges on the quality of the inputs you receive. These inputs are the foundation upon which effective data strategies are built, allowing you to prioritize initiatives that align with business objectives. By focusing on securing the right inputs, you can ensure your function becomes a key driver of strategic innovation and competitive advantage for the whole organization.