Data leaders have always been as much about people and business leadership as they have been about technology. Today, a data leader is expected to understand business issues and solutions, people issues, and drive results from the organization through the application of data and technology.
It’s a challenging role, which is why the average tenure for a CDO is so short. According to various surveys, the typical CDO spends only between two and two-and-a-half years in a role.
The skills needed to be a successful data leader are as varied as the role itself, so it can be difficult to narrow down the skills that leaders should focus on developing. In our conversations with industry leaders on the Data-Driven Leaders podcast, we’ve identified three surprising skills that set successful data leaders apart from the rest.
Data leader skill #1 – Empathy
Today, data leaders are expected to do more than just manage data. They must understand how to extract insights from data, create and implement a data strategy, and identify opportunities for innovation. But even more important than technical expertise are soft skills — like empathy, communication, collaboration, and culture management — which make data leaders successful in the business.
Rupinder Dhillon, Head of Enterprise Data Office at Sobeys, describes the unique role that data leaders often play in their organization:
I’ve talked to other data leaders, and we often talk about how our role sometimes feels like the company counselor, right?
Because you get to hear and see very different perspectives because data touches every single part of the organization, and every part of the organization has different challenges and opportunities.
And, because it is so people-driven and it ties all of your processes together, you really have to take a nuanced approach to each and every part of the organization, how you are dealing with them.
But you really get to see what motivates people… you do have to understand what their motivation is, so that you know how to approach it and how to approach a particular person, leader, or different part of the organization. – How to Create a Successful Data Strategy
Data leader skill #2: Curiosity
Curiosity drives innovation, which is why it’s a critical skill for any good leader.
Data leaders need to be curious about people’s problems and about how things work so they can identify opportunities for improvement. Being curious also helps them lead by example, encouraging curiosity among others on their team.
David Lloyd, CDO at Ceridian, shared his thoughts:
Curiosity about data, that’s what I would look for when I’m hiring. Is that person curious about how this data gets used, how it comes together, and how it can be used in the future? – Using Data to Fuel Your Company’s Performance
Rupinder Dhillon echoed his sentiments:
People always ask, “What are the skills that are important in data?” You can talk about technical skills and business skills, but the two that I think are the most important are curiosity and creativity.
And I think it’s through those two things that opportunities are uncovered, and it’s up to us as data leaders and technology leaders to provide… access to the data that pushes and prioritizes those two things. – How to Create a Successful Data Strategy
Data leader skill #3: Storytelling
Data leaders need to be able to tell stories with data.
Data storytelling is the skill of weaving together narratives that involve insights from data, resulting in compelling stories for any audience. The ability to tell such stories is especially important for data leaders because it allows them to communicate the importance and value of their work, which can be complex and difficult for others to understand.
David Dadoun, Head of Data at Bombardier Recreational Products, uses a cooking analogy to explain how data pipelines work:
One of the big things that the data leader needs to be able to do is to educate… So I use a lot of analogies, a lot of metaphors, a lot of stories to explain what data teams do and how do they do it and where are they going and what the strategies are.
When I’m presenting to my executives, I’ll use stories to explain it. I put together something that I called ‘The Data Kitchen’ and ultimately it describes how an individual makes a recipe and makes their meal. And I take that whole chain of events from the farmer planting the seed, and growing the potato to it appearing on a shelf in a store, and then the individual coming in and bringing it to their house.
And I map that back to the flow of data and how somebody is going to be creating a record inside their ERP, and it’s going to flow into the warehouse and then it’s going to somebody who’s going to come and check that data out, then build their report.
If I present to people who are not data folks or technical folks, everything about the architecture of your data warehouse, the platforms, layers, engineering, you lose them, you lose their understanding.
And it is completely normal, it’s not their world. The same way they would lose me if they started to describe some engineering concept that I’ve never heard about. – Data is Not a Project
Nurture these skills for business success
Successful data leaders are as comfortable working with spreadsheets as they are with a crowd. They need to be empathetic to the challenges faced by other leaders and have the communication skills and vision to develop strategies for the betterment of their organizations.
Data leaders must be curious and inquisitive, always looking for ways to leverage the data that they are working with.
They must also be great storytellers, as they are often involved in bringing the insights derived from their data to the broader organization.
These skills have never been more vital to business success and are not limited to data leadership.