The One Key Skill of the CDO

If your Chief Data Officer is good at nothing else, they have to be good at this  |  October 27th, 2016

An image of the cover of Understanding the Chief Data Officer, Second Edition

The two most frequently asked questions I’ve gotten over the last year as I have spoken to people about the role of the CDO are:

  • How can I become one?
  • What skills should I look for when I hire one?

Over the last year, as I prepared an updated and expanded second edition of the report, “Understanding the Chief Data Officer,” I conducted a series of ongoing interviews with CDOs in a variety of industries and I kept these questions in mind. I asked the folks I interviewed — each of whom took a different career path, with backgrounds in everything from computer science to law — what they thought the ideal career path for a CDO is. And, to a person, each one was of the opinion that the best career path to becoming a CDO is [whatever one they themselves happened to take].

At first, this seems slightly humorous. But what I take away from those answers in aggregate is that there is no such thing as the ideal career path to being a CDO. Each person I interviewed has been highly successful in their role. They have each made the most of the skills in which they have deep expertise, have learned some others on the job, and have surrounded and allied themselves with knowledgable team members and colleagues.

As I wrote in the report, “the ideal candidate has a mix of technical chops and business savvy, with the political skills to work well with others in all parts of the organization and the requisite experience to work at the executive level. If this sounds a little bit like a mythical creature to you, well, you’re not far off.” If you can’t find all four of these qualifications together (and you probably can’t), then what should you strive for?

Over and over in this second round of interviews, I heard from CDOs whose main tactic was to hold conversation after conversation with members of their organizations. The willingness to put in a lot of face time, and their ability to listen — really listen — to the needs of the different business units, and to then devise ways to meet those needs by using data as a strategic asset, strikes me as way more important than anything else.

John Steinbeck wrote: “If a story is not about the hearer, he [or she] will not listen.” Great CDOs have learned how to use what they hear from others in their organization, and turn it around to help them tell the story of where their business is headed and how data will help them to get there. They do this in a way that is about each individual project manager, department head, data steward, business unit owner, and so on, such that the story may be heard and received. And then they build out capabilities with data in a way that solves the real and immediate business problems their colleagues have, while creating building blocks for the enterprise as a whole.

Sure, everyone would like to find — or be — the unicorn with deep technical chops, business savvy, political skills, and executive-level experience. But short of that, the ability to listen to and collaborate with others in such a way that their skills become your assets and their challenges become your opportunities, and to bring to bear on those challenges strategic thinking about the future of the organization and its data, is the most important skill a CDO can possess.

To read a copy of the full report and learn more about the job description, challenges, and reporting structure of the CDO, download it here.