Asha Saxena, Founder & CEO, Women Leaders In Data & AI (WLDA)

Asha Saxena, Founder & CEO, Women Leaders In Data & AI (WLDA)

If your venture-backed startup or Fortune 1000 company is like most, you’re likely grappling with opportunities and challenges arising from the endless amounts of data (often siloed) your business generates, collects, and analyzes. As a result of these enormous volumes of data, Chief Data Officers (CDOs) are becoming increasingly common in the C-suite — and this opens up a unique opportunity for women in data and analytics roles. 

And as I am writing this article to celebrate the Women's History Month of March, there has been some progress in companies seeing the value in this role. According to a Forbes article published last year, there is now a CDO in almost two-thirds (65%) of companies — a huge jump since 2012 (12%). Although there is still a pretty major IT industry gender talent gap, depending on what survey you read, Exasol and The Savannah Group surveyed over 250 CDO executives and the gender statistics breakdown was 73% male and 26% were female. Which is slightly higher than data scientist jobs according to data from Zippia. 

According to Sara Hennesey from Deloitte, “The growing prominence of female CDOs hinges on multiple factors. The CDO must balance a range of potentially conflicting issues, the greatest among them a cultural resistance to embracing data-driven strategy and operation.” In this, their responsibilities cross data management, business strategy, and regulatory adherence. She also noted that “even as executives may appreciate the rich value inherent in Big Data, an effective, comprehensive data strategy requires the participation of all organizational units and leaders. This requires change, which can be notoriously hard to implement across an organization.” 

One of the many reasons I founded Women Leaders in Data and AI (WLDA), a private networking group for F 1000 women tech executives, was to create a platform to connect, support, and develop impactful relationships with other C-suite leaders. As well as encourage a career path that leads to the boardroom, women in data fields can seek out the work experiences and knowledge they need to capture greater levels of authority and success.  And it makes me happy that two founding WLDA members (Besa Bauta, Chief Data and Analytics Officer, State of Texas, Department of Family and Protective Services, and Julia Bardmesser, SVP, Head of Data, Architecture and Salesforce Development at Voya Financial) made CDO Magazine’s 2021 List of Global Data Power Women

The CDO understands the processes and drivers behind success based on data— making them distinct from the CIO. They provide a central point of responsibility and accountability for business clarity, efficiency, and performance and play an increasingly important role in shaping and influencing the strategic direction of a company.

An article published in the UC Berkeley Executive Education Program pointed out that the Covid-19 pandemic event of the last 2 years has forced organizations “to rethink, re-strategize, or abandon business models. As organizations rushed to take stock of the situation, one decision stood out as an impending future-proof strategy — the need for digital transformation.” 

According to Gartner, Inc.’s sixth annual Chief Data Officer (CDO) survey, 72% of data and analytics (D&A) leaders with digital initiatives are either leading or heavily involved in their organization’s digital transformation initiatives. 

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Here are four ways C-suite-level decisions can benefit from CDOs transitioning forward in the new hybrid post-pandemic world: 

1. Turning Data into a Business Asset

A CDO can transform your business by turning data into an asset. You must already be collecting a huge amount of data, but if it’s not managed well, it won’t be of much value to you. A CDO turns your data into an asset by helping your business utilize it in various forms. They can help you use the data in staying ahead of the competition, driving revenue, optimizing business processes, and reducing the cost of operation. A CDO helps you extract all possible important insights and information from data to be utilized for your business growth and prosperity.

2. Business-Led Data-Driven Strategy

Business performance will witness multi-level growth in the post-pandemic world when digital strategy aligns with business goals. A recent Forbes Technology Council article points out that “it’s time that the data strategy formulators (the CIO/CTO) bring in their CDOs to collaborate on a cross-functional charter that clearly defines priorities, measurement criteria, and outcomes.”

CDOs must understand investment synergies across short- and long-term initiatives. Business stakeholders think short-term gains, so CDOs must establish regular cadences about short-term achievements while drawing a clear road map for long-term initiatives toward the organization’s data-driven agenda. CDOs must draw rationally from both time-tested legacy technologies and modern technologies to ensure inclusivity and future-readiness, starting with a clear connection to business strategy with tangible examples of how data analytics can drive business outcomes (top line, bottom line, cash, stewardship). Once the goals are agreed upon, the CDO can help to build data assets, management approaches for them, and management skills to ensure that the unit can achieve the goals.  An outcome of that process is a data platform to ingest, transform, and harmonize data to serve business unit prioritized use cases, and a democratized data environment using data services and business intelligence toolsets. 

3. Establish Scalable Data /Analytics Products to Accelerate Time to Value for Business Units

A recent Harvard Business Review article mentions that Guy Peri, a Chief Data and Analytics Officer at Procter & Gamble helped to develop such products which are key to showing value from data assets and analytical capabilities. Part of Mr. Peri’s process is to attract and retain the best talents across data science, AI engineering, and data management. The article states that “he tries to ensure they are working on the biggest challenges, have access to the latest tools and technologies to exercise their craft, and that they feel valued and part of a larger community of data/analytic professionals.”  Selecting a few high-value use cases for analytics and AI, and partnering with business leaders to understand their data and analytics needs and select and achieve initiatives, is particularly critical. 

4. The CDO Should Be Recognized as a True C-Level Executive

Positioning CDOs as C-level executives is crucial. As data is supposedly “owned” by the business rather than IT, CDOs are often handicapped in the hierarchy, are made to report to other C-level executives, and are branded purely as technology leaders.

The CDO should be empowered to positively influence the defense and offense play, consistently emphasizing data as a business priority. They should be equipped to drive business-IT key performance indicator (KPI) alignment via direct reporting to the CEO, subject to the organization’s context.

The Forbes article contributor gives some tips on how CDOs can market their value to the: 

Board: Build conviction through governance and growth value propositions and outline organizational preparedness for compliance.

• Functional Leadership: Educate them on how data and insights will enable business growth with sustained market differentiation and collaborate to drive data literacy.

• End-User Communities: Develop trust to convert them into advocacy groups that socialize success stories.