Want to be a data leader? Here are 8 attributes you’ll need

This article explores the eight attributes that every data leader needs in order to succeed in today’s increasingly digital world.

1. Be everywhere

Data leaders must have an innate desire to work cross-functionally across the business.

All departments within organisations today create data that needs to be analysed and interpreted correctly. Data leaders must be able to be visible and effective throughout every part of the business.

To do that, they must remove the mindset of ‘robbing Peter to pay Paul’. Instead of viewing it as a channel conflict, the focus should be on conversion.

“Everyone in the entire business is playing for the same team and needs to be unified in driving the customer to transact, regardless of the optimal path or data stream that will make that happen,” says Cassie Lancellotti-Young, general partner at software investors Primary Venture Partners. “Managing a cross-functional taskforce will help make sure all departments’ technology is aligned for this purpose.”

>See also: 3 ways to place data at the centre of corporate culture, according to Jeff Bezos

They must also be versatile in their own skill set – able to understand business, analytics and engineering. Knowing data is one thing, but knowing how it can create business value is what sets true data leaders apart from the rest.

“Data leaders need the same hybrid combination of skills to be able to navigate the data barriers, the temptations of new, shiny propositions, and the impact to the business,” says Tim Barker, CEO of digital mental health Kooth.

2. Look at the big picture

Data is worth nothing if it’s not informing decision-making, which requires somebody to put it into a relevant context for the business.

To identify context, data must be applied to the circumstances at any given point in time for all of those who need it.

This involves embedding necessary tools and applications, such as business intelligence (BI), into the most popular applications used by all employees. That way, data finds them – not the other way around.

“By doing this, employees can do their best work with optimal information anytime, anywhere and on any device,” says Brian Gentile, chairman of the board at cloud data vendor Matillion, “to help them make those all important business decisions that may impact on the organisation’s future.”

Many data crunchers succumb to the pressure of hitting this month’s numbers, which ignores the bigger picture and can negatively impact the longer-term customer experience.

A true data leader will show an institutional commitment to balancing quick, lightweight testing with longer-term longitudinal studies.

“Some of the most efficient strategies can prove to be less valuable in the long term,” says Lancellotti-Young, “while other strategies may have higher upfront costs but a strong, long tail.

“Working with data, you need to have a bigger-picture mentality of the whole business – short-term efforts simply will not cut it.”

3. Democratise the data

The success of a modern business hinges on the extent to which employees can access and add value to the data they collect. Too many businesses treat data as a source of knowledge and power, with only the privileged few having access to the really useful data.

Data leaders place real-time information at workers’ fingertips, putting them in a position to explore and come up with disruptive ideas that can be worked back into the business’s wider strategy.

“This agile, fluid approach is crucial to ensuring that the organisation continues to evolve ahead of market needs, rather than falling behind an innovation cycle that is becoming increasingly difficult to keep pace with,” says Neil Sholay, vice-president business value, strategic clients group at Oracle EMEA.

Such an approach also involves a shift in mindset from the belief that data analytics should sit in the IT department, removed from the needs of the business. As the dependency of data for decision-making rises, and tools become easier to use, employees outside the IT department should have internal data at their fingertips.

“Data leaders should empower the workforce, rather than keep data in an IT department silo,” says Hugh Cox, chief information officer at Huro Data Technologies. “With this, those who are traditionally responsible for the data programme within an organisation will have more time to use their expertise on what matters – strategy.”

4. Educate the workforce

Data leaders must take on the role of educator to build employee interest in the value of information and encourage the learning of a wider skill set.

They should constantly work towards a stage where all employees possess the basic analytics skills needed to thrive in this data-driven economy.

It’s only when organisations are armed with both analytics technologies and data mindsets that they can genuinely improve the speed and quality of decision-making.

“More than ever, data leaders today must create educational opportunities to expand the analytical skill set in the organisation,” says Gentile.

Without proper buy-in from other areas of the business, support for data-driven projects often ranks as a lower priority – particularly in tough economic climates.

Peter Baxter, vice-president, head of B2B EU at Logitech, adds, “Having the communication skills necessary to effectively convey the true business value of data analysis, in order to capture the imagination and support of decision-makers throughout the business, is crucial to establishing a successful data-driven business.”

>See also: Building a workforce for the digital economy

5. Put the customer first

Data just for data’s sake serves little purpose. Data leaders must extract value to compete in a world where customer experience is king.

When data analytics is part of a wider digital approach across the business, customers can be viewed from a number of different angles at once – rather than with regard to just a single behaviour. “This allows them to truly tap into the uniqueness of each person they serve and develop new, engaging services to match,” says Sholay.

Today’s empowered customers expect an omnichannel experience, and helping to meet these expectations falls within the remit of the data leader.

Great data leaders put customers at the very heart of their vision for the future. They think strategically about optimising the digital landscape to improve the customer experience, drive growth and increase revenue.

“As likely to have a background in change management as in e-commerce or engineering, a customer-centric data leader must have the passion and ability to transform attitudes and behaviours to create a business with customers in its DNA,” says James Brayshaw, strategy consultant at Winshaw.

6. Think strategically

The best data leaders will be able to pinpoint exactly what data is valuable and can be used to make informed decisions about the business.

According to research by Rosslyn Data Technologies, 71 per cent of corporate leaders recognise the financial importance of data, yet only 11% believe that it is currently generating business value.

“This is because not enough attention is paid towards the overall data strategy,” says Cox. “Instead, funds are being poured into big data projects that are simply not fit for purpose.”

Cindy Fedell, regional CIO at Northwestern Ontario Hospitals, says data leaders must ensure that a strategic approach is takento decision-making across the organisation.

In healthcare bodies such as the NHS, stakeholders not only encompass a hospital, for example, but each and every patient. Strategy is often dictated by the government, but it is up to the data leader to translate that wider strategy to the ground level information systems.

“You must have vision to be able to do that successfully,” says Fedell. “You have to both understand the base technology and correlate that with the vision for information across all stakeholder groups.”

7. Go horizontal, not vertical

Removing departmental silos is one of the most important tasks that a data leader must complete before value and insight can be achieved. Doing this requires the mastering of a horizontal approach.

All too often, individual data sources have been viewed as exclusive to particular segments of the business. That data lives within specific tools, and is often leveraged by only one team.

“Just as great business leaders break down organisational silos in order to drive collaboration and productivity across the business, data leaders should be focused on breaking down data silos in order to deliver actionable insight on multiple fronts,” says Raja Mukerji, co-founder of ExtraHop Networks.

On the technical side, it’s important to make data available to people who need it across the business, but this has to be done in a controlled and managed way.

By centralising the storage and management of data sources, strategic meetings will no longer shift to arguments around the sources of data and whose numbers are correct.

>See also: CEOs show how to be true data leaders

On the business side, working with data from multiple teams involves understanding what sources of data those functions have created on their own or use on a regular basis. This may throw up instances where teams have external data providers or cloud services in place for their own specific aims.

“Bringing this data in and making use of it as part of wider planning and decision processes can help them see where it can aid their ambitions for the future,” says Southard Jones, senior vice-president and general manager, CRM analytics at Salesforce.

8. Start small

Too many organisations have invested in expensive big data tools but not seen the ROI they expected. This is down to the tools not integrating properly with different data sources and a lack of usable interfaces, making human interaction very difficult.

In reality, data analytics is a journey that a data leader must plan, and it is important to get the basics right before moving on to bigger projects.

“There is a mountain of data, both internally and externally, and it can be tempting to jump straight in by analysing both,” says Cox. “But a data leader will master the former before moving on to the latter.”

Robert Coleman, regional CTO at Broadcom Software, adds, “A data leader must act as the catalyst for change by sponsoring initiatives that encompass all employees and help to address a real business problem that will provide immediate business value.”


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Ben Rossi

Ben was Vitesse Media's editorial director, leading content creation and editorial strategy across all Vitesse products, including its market-leading B2B and consumer magazines, websites, research and...