Chief Data Officer. CDO. The title sounds quite glamorous, conjuring up images of highly-respected, world-changing tech executives in fancy corner offices. In reality, it’s a tough, sometimes thankless role.
CDOs often start their tenure being welcomed as heroes swooping in to solve a long list of organisational data problems. Unfortunately, high expectations and lack of clarity around what success looks like make it difficult for newly-appointed data leaders to make a lasting impact. More often than not, they end up feeling more like a beleaguered ship captain trying to steer a steady course through stormy seas, than a victorious hero.
What’s going on? Why is it so hard for CDOs to succeed, with many lasting less than two and a half years before being unceremoniously replaced?
Executive teams want results fast, and without tangible proof that data strategies and investments are making a difference, they often have to move onto the next thing, and sometimes the next CDO.
But it doesn’t have to be that way. Data investment drives tremendous business value. If you can figure out how to prove that value, you can transform the success of your business — and your own success as a data leader.
Keep reading to find out more about why demonstrating value is such a critical (and difficult) task, and explore some practical ways CDOs can accomplish it successfully.
A closer look at why demonstrating value is critical for CDO success
On one level, it’s simple and rather obvious common sense to say CDOs need to prove the value of their work. Of course they do. After all, everyone has to prove their value if they want to go on working.
Well, yes, but there’s more to it than that. Because data underpins almost all business decisions, a good CDO can significantly impact the current results and the future trajectory of the organisations they serve. When the CDO struggles to demonstrate value, the whole organisation suffers. The reverse is true as well — when the CDO succeeds, the positive results are felt by the entire business.
Proving the value of your work is both a massive responsibility and an enormous opportunity for personal and organisational success, and it’s vital to grasp its importance. To further emphasize the point we’re making, let’s contrast the individual and organisational outcomes that result when CDOs struggle to prove value vs. when they are successful.
Consequences for CDOs who manage to prove value vs those who struggle to
There are several good reasons so many CDOs struggle to prove the value of the work they do: too many problems, not enough resources, shifting expectations, lack of authority, analysis paralysis, technology distractions, tactical vs. strategic thinking …
We could go on listing the reasons why it’s so difficult for CDOs to prove value, but it’s more beneficial to shift our focus to consequences. The below contrasts what happens when CDOs struggle to prove value and are fighting for space to operate, versus when they’ve proven value and can drive real results:
How CDOs can prove value and affect business results
We’ve explored the problem and made clear the urgency of proving the value of your work as a CDO.
Fortunately, you can take some practical steps to make sure your work adds value to the business — and that the business knows it. Whether you’re a new CDO looking to start on the front foot or an established leader looking to increase your impact, the approach outlined below will serve you well.
1. Understand your data landscape
As the CDO, it’s absolutely essential to understand your organisation’s data landscape. That means getting to know the technical details, the people and processes involved in managing your data, and, perhaps most importantly, the use cases and customer outcomes your data supports, and how it drives value for your organisation.
Your goal should be to develop a thorough understanding of the current state of your data and the desired future state so you can identify and focus on solving the most pressing data problems.
2. Frame all problems, solutions, and success metrics in a business context
It’s your job to create a compelling case for action to solve your organisation’s data problems. The best way to do that is to establish a firm connection between the problems you want to solve and key business objectives.
Data problems are business problems, data solutions should address business pain points and support specific business objectives, and data success is measured by better business results.
Sticking with this approach frames your work in the broader business context and gives you the language to communicate the value of what you’re doing to others in the organisation.
To speak in the language of the business, ask yourself a small number of important questions:
- What are the strategic imperatives of the CEO and the board?
- What are the critical metrics that are being used to measure strategic success?
- How can I frame data solutions and their success in those, or adjacent, metrics? (e.g. number of new customers or reduced cost of goods sold).
3. Build a differentiated, prioritised data strategy
The next step is to take what you’ve learned and work with the business to create a detailed data strategy and roadmap. An effective data strategy, agreed with the business, provides CDOs with something they have always wanted, the right to say no to business demands and the license to operate.
Define what needs to be done, and articulate the costs and business benefits of executing your strategy. Don’t forget to include, and emphasize, the costs of inaction and lack of data investment in your assessment.
Include both short-term practical initiatives and long-term goals such as building a robust data culture, as well as clear definitions of what “success” looks like. These definitions will become your scorecard, so it’s vital you make them measurable and feasible. You should also make sure your plans are prioritised based on the value they deliver.
Above all, resist the temptation to develop your strategy in isolation and then attempt to sell it to others. That will get you nowhere fast, while collaborating with the business and focusing on value will build goodwill and increase your likelihood of success.
4. Start at the start
Want to demonstrate the value of your work? Implement the strategy you’ve developed.
Do your best to avoid distractions in the form of exciting technology, enticing but low-value “low hanging fruit,” and suggestions from well-meaning but misguided colleagues (even very senior ones). With every suggestion you take on, it becomes harder and harder to say no to the next.
Stick to the course you’ve laid out, and do only the things you know will lead to long-lasting business value. Trust us, the results will speak for themselves.
5. Track & report progress
Once you start executing your action plan, it’s imperative that you regularly track and report progress. This serves two purposes.
First, it gives you the data you need to measure your own success and course-correct if needed.
Second, tracking progress supplies you with the hard facts you need to prove the value of your work and make the case for more time, resources, money, and energy to be spent on even more valuable data projects.