The unexpected must-have soft skill for every chief data officer


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“My CDO has a lot of resources, but I don’t get much out of them. I’m not sure what value they really provide.”

If you’ve never heard murmurs like these, you’re either awesome or beyond earshot of the rumor mill.

In a previous life, before I was a chief data officer (CDO), I was a screenwriter (that’s a common career path, right?). As a screenwriter, I told stories to get films made. As a CDO, I tell stories with data to demonstrate real business value before the rumor mill starts.

Incredibly, the consistent delivery of high business value is insufficient to prevent the questioning of your organization’s value. You must be able to confidently shout it from the mountaintops or, at the very least, calmly share it on executive calls.

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Effective storytelling echoes the data organization’s value proposition in key stakeholders’ and senior leaders’ minds so it can’t be successfully or rationally challenged. Without stories, murmurs reverberate into doubt and could spiral to disbandment.

Finding the story in your data

A good story well told. That’s the goal. A daunting task for some, but fear not, no screenwriting experience is necessary to uncover a good story. If you’re a strategic CDO, your story elements are likely already on your shared drive. Of a story’s seven key elements, four easily map to the vision, strategy, roadmap and functions you currently lead.

Setting

The Corporate Strategic Plan provides the backdrop for the story in which all data and analytics activities must be aligned. If not, you’ll write in the wrong genre: Halloween 17, starring Mickey Mouse! (Actually, that would be fun to write; I’m going to make some calls.)

Theme

The Data Org Charter and Strategic Plan declare the purpose of the organization and its motivations as expressed through strategic objectives. They’re the recurring ideas that will pervade your story.

Plot

The Data Org Operating Plan contains the story events, including use cases, data initiatives and deliverables, and the Roadmap plots them in time.

Resolution

The business value and outcomes generated by data and analytics are the substance of your story. Executive teams and the business at large seldom want to hear any other story but that.

The other three elements are Conflict (I believe you’ve met), Characters (the data community), and Point of View, in which your organization is either a thought partner empowered to reject misaligned and low-value requests or indentured servants to them.

Telling your data story well

Insist on meeting with key stakeholders and senior executives regularly to share your story — don’t take no for an answer. Equally important, don’t neglect middle and line managers whom you will ask to echo praise upward. In a senior staff meeting, your insistence that your data organization is valuable to the business is far less compelling than the business executive exclaiming how valuable they are. Getting others to tell your story for you is a master craft.

Here are a few tips to help you tell stories well:

Stay on message. There’s only one: the business outcomes that have or will be generated by data and analytics.

Numbers over letters. Quantify business outcomes. Quality over quantity works for airplane parts and award shows, but for us, quantitative story out-compels qualitative story.

Employ setups and payoffs. This is important. Tell them what you’re going to accomplish, tell them what you’re accomplishing, then tell them what you’ve accomplished. The three-act structure is effective for multiple reasons:

  • Setups build anticipation for outcomes to which, once realized, the positive reactions will be intensified.
  • Regular check-ins increase stakeholder engagement, but sustained anticipation for future outcomes cements it.
  • Payoffs, the consistent delivery of outcomes, earn you credibility and reliability more readily because you’re perceived as delivering on your word (your setups).

Be excited. Enthusiasm and passion are infectious, as are the lack of them.

Make time. The investment pays for itself in the time avoided to justify the data organization’s value propositions, which will be doubted in the absence of a story. Storytelling is the data organization “playing offense” existentially.

Around the campfire: Telling your data story

Storytelling is universal. Its purpose is to coalesce and propagate culture. It’s the gifted CDO storyteller who ignites the digital campfire and invites the tribe to hear stories woven from the fabric that binds them all together: data.

Shayde Christian is chief data & analytics officer at Cloudera.

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