So, you want to hire a Chief Data Officer (CDO)?
In my title on LinkedIn, I call myself a “Fractional CDO” because that’s what I do. I help organizations fill gaps between people or functions. I support many new CDOs as they get their wits about them, because it’s a big job. There are several articles that lament the lack of clear CDO responsibilities and increasingly short tenures, yet we are still hiring them. So, before you run out and hire yourself a brand new CDO let’s break some of this down and see if we can reduce some of the chaos, won’t that be fun?
What DOES a CDO do, anyway?
Recently I read a job description for a CDO that included coding. Hands on the keyboard writing SQL jobs. I’m trying to find a nice way to say, “Don’t do that”. A CDO is a strategic, executive-level hire (hence the “Chief” part—which I don’t love but that’s a different post) if they ever wrote code, it’s been years, why in the world would you put that in the job description? I’ve been convinced that it’s to keep the salary down. You get what you pay for.
CDOs lead teams, they create a vision for data driven culture, they inspire the art of the possible, they fight the good fight for data management. They build something that lasts long beyond their tenure. They do not write code.
“Reporting to the Chief Operating Officer, the Chief Data Officer is responsible for managing large, complex, and highly visible programs to make data a competitive differentiator for the firm across the enterprise. The major focus for this position will be on developing and implementing the strategy for enterprise data – from ingestion to governance and quality, ensuring access to accurate and timely data, including customer, internal, transactional, market and other enterprise data sets.”
“The primary purpose of this position is to plan, design, coordinate, and direct reporting of various data and information used in assessing organizational effectiveness and strategic planning. The Chief Data Officer is responsible for development and dissemination of analytical data related to programs; master planning data; outcomes; enrollment trends; and required internal and state/federal external reports. Collects, analyzes, and compiles internal and external data and information to support decision making. Leads the research, analysis, interpretation, and explanation of internal data and information to assist in the development and monitoring of plans and goals. Oversees and guides the development and maintenance of internal dashboards used for monitoring enrollment, outcomes, and assessment.”
Hiring a CDO and then having them report to a CIO or CTO is not cool either. To drive value through data they should have a seat at the table, not behind the person at the table. Ideally a CDO reports to the COO or even CEO. In some cases, it’s cool to have the CDO report to a CFO or CAO. Geez there are a lot of CxO jobs, aren’t there? The thing to keep in mind is that a CDO can only be effective when they have the autonomy to operate and the authority to decide. The more people they have between them and the executive level leadership the more their ability to operate and decide is limited. If data is important enough to your organization that you decided a CDO role was warranted don’t limit them.
Let’s tackle the big topic that most organizations struggle with, what the CDO is actually responsible for, and specifically, how do you split the team that is deeply technical (i.e., data platforms) and more business focused (i.e., analysts). This question has been around much longer than the CDO role itself. Once data, reporting, analytics, business intelligence, whatever you want to call it, became a strategic advantage, organizations were confused as to what it was and how it split between technology and business. Ready for the big shocker? It doesn’t naturally fit anywhere based on how our organizations tend to organize themselves. If you separate out your technical leadership and all your “tech-heavy” roles and put them in the basement (you know you do) what do you do with those technical roles when you hire a CDO? The CTO/CIO has responsibility for those functions today.
The CDO must have broad accountability for the functions that have direct impact on her ability to provide value to the organization. That means that there will likely be some very tech-heavy roles in her team. There will also be business-oriented roles on her team. Providing value through data requires both.
I have so much to say about clarity. But the thing I will say about clarity in this context is that if you don’t know how to determine success for your CDO role, nothing else matters. Data functions can be large, abstract, cross-functional, expensive, and risk laden. For those reasons an executive level role is the right choice.
But if you can’t give the person boundaries, tell them what success looks like, align them well in the organization or give them the budget and autonomy they need to be successful no brilliant data person will be successful.
As with most things you should start with why you think you need a CDO. If you see chaos reign over your data and analytics teams it might be a sign. If you’re throwing money at the problem but not getting commensurate value that might also be a sign. Either way, take the time to understand why you want to hire this role, decide the right reporting structure, give them some clear boundaries and some money but then let them do their job. If you really knew what it took to be a CDO you probably would have solved these problems by now. One last nugget for you, if you’re not sure but you think a CDO would be helpful, try a fractional CDO (like yours truly). We can help you create a smoother path for a permanent position. You get to try it on and if you don’t like it, you just don’t proceed with hiring someone. Seems like a win/win to me.