Five things a CEO can expect from his CDO

Jason Foster is CEO of Cynosour and author of Data Means Business.

Chief executive officers are increasingly turning to chief data officers to help them extract value from their data. A CDO is someone who takes overall responsibility for cutting through the noise and delivering impact. Expectations can be sky high, though, so what should a CEO really expect from his CDO, and how does this align with what’s important to him?

As someone who works closely with CEOs and CDOs, there are five things I think every CEO should expect from their CDO:

1. A focus on business value

CEOs are focused on improving the organization they lead, including improved customer experience, financial viability, profitability, engagement, employee success, operational effectiveness and ultimate return for shareholders and stakeholders.

Therefore, the CEO can expect his CDO to align with those results and ensure that everything he does is aimed at influencing them. If the primary focus is on customer retention, then the CDO should focus on this as a priority. If the focus is on reducing core operating costs to scale profitability, then the CDO must align the organization around this objective.

In many cases, however, CDOs invest heavily in capacity building with no connection to these overall results. This can be a huge and costly mistake – a route that leads to big investments and big promises, but with no ultimate value.

What is needed is a forensic identification of problems that data can solve, such as improving operational inefficiencies, or identification of opportunities that data can support, such as improvements in customer experience. This enables the CDO to bundle initiatives around these objectives and to have insight into the work carried out and the expected results.

2. High performing teams

CEOs know that great organizations are built by talented, highly motivated and engaged people. They will want to know that their CDO is building a high-performing team capable of delivering on its promise.

To do this, the CDO must recruit and develop talent, from inside or outside the organization, with the skills and culture needed to scale the data strategy across the company. CDOs must also ensure that these employees are organized to ensure success. Which teams they are on, how they interact with each other, the skills needed at different stages of maturity and clarity about how the work is done quickly and nimblely are essential factors to consider.

In addition, the fluency of the people within the organization to use data and insights will make or break the company’s ability to deliver results. Therefore, the CEO should expect clarity on how the CDO will help build the overall data IQ of the organization in terms of a broad understanding of how to obtain, use, understand and make decisions based on data.

3. Clarity of Direction

CEOs care about the future just as much, if not more, than they care about the present. So it is also important to provide clarity on the medium to long-term direction, as this represents an ambitious but achievable future state to work towards.

As a CDO, it is important to clarify where the organization stands now, where you want to go and what needs to be improved to achieve that future state. The combination of what needs to be worked on now to meet today’s demands and what needs to be worked on to sustain what is to come are both important to the CEO.

The CDO should paint a picture of the future state. This means having a vision of how the business will operate, how it will operate, and what it will look like when it is at a high level of data maturity. This vision gives the CEO and the wider organization clarity about where the data strategy is heading and in which direction. It will tell a story about how things will be different, positively, versus how they are now.

4. Innovative ways of working

Organizations must innovate. Losing customer interest or being overtaken or beaten by the competition will play a role in motivating innovation. CEOs are kept up at night by a lack of innovation and standing still for too long.

This means that it is up to the CDO to proactively and pragmatically innovate, not just deliver what others are doing or have done before. Real innovation and improvement of the way things are done, the application of technology and the solutions that are built are central.

Research and development should be embedded in the strategy and day-to-day work of the overall data roadmap. That means never standing still, always looking ahead and challenging assumptions about what is possible. This is an investment in the future, and CEOs will want to know that the work done not only improves today, but also paves the way for continuous improvement in the future.

5. A culture of decision-making with data

Decision making is at the heart of building successful and sustainable organizations. CEOs make a number of decisions, some about strategic priorities, some about conflict, and some about changes of direction or day-to-day operations. They want smart choices to be made. Data supports this.

The CEO needs his CDO to build an organization with a culture that uses data to drive decision-making. To do this, they need to educate and train people. They will need to enable, encourage and democratize data-driven decision-making capabilities at the heart of the organization.

They will have to be creative about how technology is used and get it into the hands of people right down to the edge of the business. And they will need to help the board of directors demonstrate leadership by exemplifying what good data-driven decision-making looks like.

Right expectations, high reward

As a CEO, you need to consider these five things when shaping the role of the CDO for your organization. As a CDO, you should consider whether you are sufficiently focused on supporting your CEO in the ways described. The CDO is an exciting position with exciting opportunities. It is a role that cuts across the structure, politics, strategy and operations of an organization. That comes with great responsibility, and expectations have never been higher. Business Council is the leading growth and networking organization for entrepreneurs and leaders. Am I eligible?

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