Transform Data Leadership: Core Skills for Chief Data Officers in 2024

Uncover the pivotal skills that chiefs of data should possess in 2024. Dive into academic prerequisites, governance challenges and emerging trends for CDOs.

Nathan Eddy, Freelance Writer

April 30, 2024

9 Min Read
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The role of chief data officer (CDO) has evolved to take on a position of primary importance and increased complexity as organizations become increasingly data driven. 

The chief data officer oversees a company's data strategy, ensuring data is managed effectively and securely and leads initiatives to harness data for informed decision-making across the organization. The aim is to maximize the value of data while mitigating risks. 

As the use of advanced data analytics, artificial intelligence, generative AI (GenAI), and machine learning (ML) become central elements of any CDO success strategy, expectations placed on CDOs continue to rise. 

They must acquire a diverse skill set to navigate complex challenges and drive transformative change.  

What Does a Chief Data Officer Do in 2024?

An effective chief data officer must embrace and harness the transformative impact of GenAI and emerging technologies and master new data management capabilities in an era where environmental, social, and governance (ESG) initiatives have taken hold. 

The CDO plays a crucial role in managing, analyzing, and leveraging data to support the organization's ESG goals and strategies. 

To navigate intensifying data complexities and deliver on AI's promise, successful CDOs must blend technological expertise with business acumen, change management skills, and foster data literacy across the organization. 

Related:Go Big or Go Home: The CDO/CDAO’s Guide to AI Leadership

The Evolution of Data Leadership

The chief data officer job has evolved rapidly just as trends and technologies for data management, AI and data infrastructure have transitioned in the AI age. 

"CDOs must be able to work across many different sectors of business today -- from IT, legal and cybersecurity to lines of business," says Krishna Subramanian, co-founder and COO of Komprise.  

She says chief data officers should understand the requirements of all workers for collaborating on and using data -- not just the data scientists and analysts who are working on AI and data analytics projects. 

In the modern landscape, CDOs shoulder many responsibilities that require technical expertise, business acumen, and leadership skills. 

Key Responsibilities of a Modern Chief Data Officer

Key priorities include leveraging real-time data for agile decision-making, and demonstrating how AI investments drive long-term business value. 

Subramanian says the task of managing, corralling and preparing data is an expensive one -- and CDOs will need to have the right skills and partnerships to execute data strategies cost efficiently. 

Related:Does Your Company Need A Chief Data Officer?

"They will need to surgically map data assets to business and marketplace strategy, to avoid waste and ensure great outcomes," she says.  

Additional responsibilities for a chief data officer include developing and implementing data strategies aligned with organizational objectives and establishing robust data governance frameworks to ensure data quality, privacy, and security. 

"CDOs must also work with security teams to lead efforts for fighting ransomware and cybersecurity threats across all business channels and IT infrastructure," Subramanian says.  

Top Skills for Transformative Data Leadership

Chief data officers require a blend of leadership and interpersonal skills to effectively steer their organizations through the complex landscape of data management and analytics. 

Key among these skills is strategic visioning to align data initiatives with business goals, the ability to articulate the value of data-driven decisions across various levels of the organization, and stakeholder management skills to navigate diverse interests and foster collaboration. 

A successful CDO must also be agile to stay responsive to technological and regulatory changes and be well versed in problem-solving to address the multifaceted challenges of data governance, quality, and security. 

Related:How to Get Your Failing Data Governance Initiatives Back on Track

"These leadership qualities are essential for CDOs to harness the strategic value of data while fostering an environment of trust and accountability," says Mikhail Kazdagli, head of AI at Symmetry Systems.  

Expertise in Analytics and Insight Generation

Chief data officers must have a deep understanding of analytics methodologies, including statistical analysis, predictive modeling, and data visualization. 

By leveraging advanced analytics techniques, CDOs can uncover valuable insights hidden within vast datasets, enabling informed decision-making and driving business innovation. 

"Any data leader needs to start with an assessment of all data in storage -- and most of this is unstructured," Subramanian says. 

She explains that without insights and metrics on unstructured data, it is difficult to leverage it for data initiatives benefiting the business -- whether for AI, big data analytics, or collaboration. 

Proficiency in Data Management Tools and Technologies

Proficiency in data intelligence tools and technologies, from relational database management systems (RDBMS) to business intelligence (BI) platforms is crucial for chief data officers due to the inherent complexity of data. 

Julie Smith, director of data and analytics at Alation, says data today is akin to an iceberg where the bulk of its mass -- and challenges -- lies unseen below the surface. 

"While the visible outcomes such as reports and dashboards represent the value derived from data, extensive data management and governance efforts are essential yet often overlooked components that enable these outcomes," she says. 

These foundational practices ensure data accuracy, accessibility, and security, underpinning the organization’s ability to effectively leverage data for decision-making.  

Bridging Business Acumen with Data Expertise

One of the key challenges faced by chief data officers is bridging the gap between technical expertise and business acumen. 

CDOs must possess a deep understanding of business dynamics, market trends, and customer needs to effectively translate data insights into actionable strategies. 

By aligning data initiatives with business objectives, chief data officers can drive meaningful impact and deliver tangible value to the organization. 

"CDOs are one of the senior decision-makers for data-related technology investments where they must prioritize productivity, speed and flexibility while staying within budget," says Helena Schwenk, vice president of chief data and analytics office at Exasol.  

In an era of increasing data regulation and privacy concerns, chief data officers must navigate complex data governance and compliance challenges, including compliance with regulatory requirements such as GDPR and CCPA, establishing data privacy policies, and implementing robust security measures to safeguard sensitive information. 

Everything starts with developing a framework for continuously managing and understanding data. 

CDOs must know what data risks are present, who are the top owners, whether it is being stored compliantly, and implement guardrails for sensitive or proprietary data. 

Adding Business Value Through Data-Driven Decisions

Ultimately, the role of the chief data officer is not just about managing data but leveraging it to drive business value. Through the creation of key performance indicators (KPIs) and metrics, the CDO establishes measurable benchmarks to track progress towards organizational goals. 

These metrics not only serve as indicators of performance but also enable the organization to demonstrate its commitment to efficiency, innovation, and competitiveness. 

CDOs must also leverage data to assess the viability of business and investment goals, identifying key data sources to help weigh risk and using quantitative and qualitative measurements to support the viability of business initiatives.  

Leadership and Interpersonal Skills for Chief Data Officers

The chief data officer is tasked not only with unlocking the value of data but explaining the importance of data as the lifeblood of the company across all levels.  

They must be effective storytellers who can interpret data in such a way that business stakeholders take notice. 

An effective CDO pairs storytelling with the supporting data and makes it easy to share insights with stakeholders and get their buy-in. 

For instance, how effective a CDO is in getting departmental buy-in might boil down to the ongoing department "showback reports" they can produce. 

"Credibility and integrity are two other important traits in addition to effective communication skills, as it is crucial for the CDO to gain the trust of their peers," Subramanian says.  

Communicating Data's Narrative to Stakeholders

To garner support for data initiatives and drive organizational buy-in, chief data officers must be able to communicate complex data concepts in a clear and compelling manner to diverse stakeholders, including executives, business leaders, and technical teams. 

"CDOs have to serve as a bridge between the tech and operational aspects of the organization as they work to drive business value and increase data literacy and awareness," says Schwenk. 

This requires articulating the value of data-driven insights, which CDOs can impart through engaging storytelling techniques using metaphors and analogies and cultivate and convey enthusiasm by embodying genuine passion in their storytelling. 

By continuously refining their ability to convey complex concepts in engaging ways, they solidify their role as chief technical storytellers.  

Cultivating a Data-Centric Organizational Culture

To foster a data-centric culture within the organization, chief data officers must lead by example and champion the importance of data literacy and empowerment

This involves providing training and resources to equip employees with the skills and knowledge needed to leverage data effectively in their roles and educating the workforce on the upstream and downstream impacts of poor data quality, highlighting how it ripples throughout the organization.  

Smith says championing data literacy goes above traditional boundaries, involving a concerted effort to elevate the organizational capacity for data comprehension, utilization, and management. 

"Training and nurturing talent requires embedding a profound understanding of data's pivotal role in decision-making processes," she says. "The CDO is instrumental in fostering and strengthening a data culture by methodically advancing these foundational tenets." 

Continuous Learning: Staying Ahead in a Dynamic Field

Schwenk says continuous learning is essential for chief data officers, who must actively engage with community and professional networks, participate in industry events and conferences, and pursue ongoing education and certification opportunities to enhance their skills and expertise.  

"Engaging with community and professional networks is crucial for CDOs to stay ahead of industry developments, share knowledge, and collaborate with peers," she says.  

Joining professional associations and online communities focused on data leadership also provides opportunities to network with other CDOs, share experiences, and hear fresh perspectives.  

Engaging with Community and Professional Networks

"Engaging with other leaders also gives CDOs the chance to benchmark data practices and share best practices," Schwenk says.  

Building relationships with academic institutions and research organizations can also provide valuable insights into emerging trends and technologies. 

By participating in community forums, professional associations, and online platforms, chief data officers can exchange knowledge, share insights, and build meaningful connections with fellow data leaders. 

In addition, publishing articles or co-authoring research papers on relevant data trends and best practices can help establish expertise and thought leadership within the broader community. 

Chief data officers must stay abreast of new developments and proactively adapt their strategies and initiatives to remain relevant and effective in their roles. 

"There can be a significant impact on a CDO’s role with respect to data governance for AI and in particular, GenAI," Subramanian says. 

She says CDOs should keep track of the emerging regulatory environments around AI and data and ensure there is a data governance model to track the security, privacy, lineage, ownership and governance (SPLOG) around data for AI. 

Conclusion: Continuous Development for Chief Data Officers

CDOs can ensure continuous development by fostering a culture of learning and innovation within their organizations, encouraging ongoing education, and staying engaged with the latest industry trends and technologies. 

"By investing in training programs, workshops, and certifications for themselves and their teams, CDOs can maintain a high level of expertise in data management and analytics," Kazdagli says. 

He says continuous development is crucial because it enables chief data officers and their organizations to adapt to rapidly evolving technological landscapes and regulatory environments, ensuring that they remain competitive and compliant. 

"This approach not only enhances the organization's data capabilities but also attracts and retains top talent by demonstrating a commitment to professional growth and innovation," he says.  

About the Author(s)

Nathan Eddy

Freelance Writer

Nathan Eddy is a freelance writer for InformationWeek. He has written for Popular Mechanics, Sales & Marketing Management Magazine, FierceMarkets, and CRN, among others. In 2012 he made his first documentary film, The Absent Column. He currently lives in Berlin.

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