Is the CDAO a Tech Leader or a Business Leader? (5 Vital Questions for Every Data Leader)

Explore 5 "thought patterns" that differentiate tech-leaning leaders from business-leaning leaders.
Is the CDAO a Tech Leader or a Business Leader? (5 Vital Questions for Every Data Leader)

Aren’t we tech leaders and business leaders? Yes, but the role is evolving. Forbes compares the modern CDO role to the CEO and this LinkedIn blog intimates that we’ll be seeing more and more CDOs ascend to the CEO role. If the Board would agree, we would agree.

It might be prudent to gauge where we are on the tech-business leadership continuum to ensure we are drifting, quite intentionally, to the survival side of evolution.

I have noticed 5 thought patterns that differentiate tech-leaning leaders from business-leaning leaders. Perhaps those patterns could serve as the bookends for our continuum.

1. Where is your depth of field?

As tech leaders, we have the luxury of being laser-focused on departmental goals that are fully aligned with data strategy but as business leaders, our sphere of influence widens and our depth of field extends beyond the department. Our shared service organizations become characters in a larger drama so we cannot be content to merely meet quarterly objectives.

Many of us may not be directly accountable for achieving corporate objectives but we certainly are more than mere facilitators. As business leaders, our focus is on the business. We understand what they do, how they do it, and why they do it; not as deeply as they understand it but we are competent. How could we be effective thought partners without thought?

We align everything we do to meet the needs of the business and we provide data and analytics that achieve business goals. If we are great at it, we can even demonstrate how our outputs led to quantifiable business value such as bottom-line growth.

2. How do you define success?

Once upon a time, tech leaders measured success in outputs — what they delivered, when, for how much, and within what quality limits. That was appropriate but those are outputs. Those are the cars that left our factory. How far were drivers able to travel? What did they accomplish in our cars? That is how business leaders define success.

Here are two examples: The prescriptive churn analytics we delivered two quarters ago (output) accurately identified churn risk and led to a 6% increase in retention rate (outcome). Blindness from diabetic retinopathy is down 2% nationally (outcome) after implementing AI image recognition models (output).

3. What language do you speak most often?

Spark SQL? Java? How about top-line growth or EBITDA?! Those are the “and” and “the” in a business leader’s vocabulary, and all their data functions are fully aligned with achieving them. Every action taken in the data and analytics organization is aligned with corporate objectives.

14% top-line growth? How are we helping the field sell? What data and analytics do they need right now to meet those aggressive targets? 3% margin improvement? We need efficiency. Who better than the CDAO to locate and eliminate manual and redundant data management efforts to realize a portion of that efficiency?

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Is the CDAO a Tech Leader or a Business Leader? (5 Vital Questions for Every Data Leader)

4. Who would you rather spend time with?

Tech leaders love spending time in tech – either to solve problems, explore capabilities, or just for fun. Time with tech is very important to leaders who are accountable for shaping tech strategy. For many of us, time with tech is less stressful and more predictable than time with the C-Suite or key stakeholders, but that is where business leaders spend their time.

They understand they must earn and maintain engagement from those groups if they are going to maximize the outcomes their teams generate. Corporate direction can change like a shoal of fish, so they stay in the thick of it. I suppose we don’t have to prefer such relationships over shiny objects but we must prioritize them. Maybe the question should be: who do you acknowledge you need to spend more time with?

5. Where does it tickle?

It is great to celebrate outputs with our teams, give awards, and watch pride beam from individual contributors, but business leaders derive professional fulfillment from outcomes – the quantified business value that those outputs generate: increased lead generation, enhanced product performance, and improved customer experience.

It takes patience to watch those benefits materialize, to see travelers arrive safely in space, to reverse the effects of climate change, or to save lives.

As tech leaders we are proud to have implemented tons of empowering tech, but as business leaders we are waiting, watching, and measuring the “so what?!” of our outputs. Without the “so what” we won’t be heading to the boardroom, we’ll be going the way of the Dodo.

About the Author:

Shayde Christian is the Chief Data and Analytics Officer at Cloudera, where he guides data-driven cultural change to generate maximum value from data. Previously a principal consultant, Christian formulated data strategy for Fortune 500 clients and designed, constructed, or turned around failing enterprise information management.

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