The top 6 attributes of a data leader

We’re in the defining decade of data. Data underpins the technologies transforming how we work, communicate, socialize and buy. 

If you want to take part in the revolution, you need to become—or hire—a data leader. 

But what does that even mean? What sets data leaders apart from the average data-aware professional? And how can we become data leaders?

We asked six established data leaders for their advice on what characterizes data leadership—here’s what we learned:

1. Data leaders encourage collaboration

JoAnn Stonier, Chief Data Officer, Mastercard

For JoAnn Stonier, CDO at Mastercard, the role of data leaders is to enable businesses to tackle real-world challenges. “That means they have to understand their business—not only where it is today, but where it's going,” Stonier says.

Modern data leaders structure their teams to collaborate with lines of business, embedding analytics everywhere. Domain expertise combined with low-code analytics tools have changed the game. Analysts are no longer order takers—they’re business partners. 

Crucially, Stonier says modern data leaders are characterized by how they view the relationship between the organization’s data and the people who use it. 

“At the end of the day, data really impacts individuals. You need to understand that you need individual-centric design principles around data. That what you do impacts people,” she says. “If you understand how impactful your product, solution, or service is (both positive and negative), it makes for better design decisions along the way.” 

Hear more of Stonier’s thoughts on applying human-centric design principles to data problems.

2. Data leaders champion innovation  

Sully McConnell, Head of Insurance, Snowflake, former CDO The Hartford

At the time of this interview, Sully McConnell was the CDO of The Hartford—a purpose-driven insurance firm with a 200-year-old legacy. Championing innovation is something McConnell knows well.

“The pace of change in our field is crazy,” he says. “With so much change, you have to keep abreast of it and understand what the most innovative companies are doing in this space.” 

Modern data leaders champion new ways of working. They put new paradigms like data mesh to work, think beyond their data, and leverage external data using modern data sharing instead of legacy file transfer protocol (FTP). They know time is money, and speed to insight is synonymous with success.  

For McConnell, the role of the data leader is to identify how innovation can help solve organizational challenges, and then lead a comprehensive program of change. This might involve buying in skills from the marketplace, partnering with best-in-breed vendors, and/or upskilling your existing workers. 

Like many data innovation champions, McConnell has since moved into a new role. We look forward to catching up about his new position with Snowflake in the future. In the meantime, you can hear more from McConnell on data infrastructure innovation.

3. Data leaders use data to tell stories 

Scott Peck, Senior Director of the Data & Analytics, PwC

Scott Peck, PwC’s Data and Analytics Managing Director, believes that the role of the data leader is to move beyond reporting into data storytelling. He teaches every data analyst on his team how to tell a great story. 

“We bring everyone into the room and we say, ‘We want you to learn to storytell and get to the point and focus—one graph can be more impactful than 20 graphs.” 

For Peck and his team, this means dropping static dashboards. Dashboards don’t give you the kind of actionable insights you need to tell compelling business stories with data. Plus, as he points out, “Businesses are changing so rapidly that you’re constantly in a rework mode with dashboards.” 

Modern data leaders like Peck don’t simply pass on information. Instead, they make sure everyone in the organization has access to the data they need to arrive at insights that drive action. They help the business move from being simply data-aware to becoming data-driven business.  

 Learn more about Peck’s perspective on data storytelling at PwC.

4. Data leaders reject the “Us vs. Them” mentality 

Deeksha Singh, Director of Data and Analytics at Unilever
Vandana Khanna, Senior Executive at Johnson & Johnson, former Director Digital Finance Transformation at Unilever

All organizations on the leading edge of data and analytics have cultures that celebrate excellence, trust, and necessary risk-taking. There are no dividing lines between IT and Business or Data and Business. There’s just one team with access to the same data, using insights to deliver results aligned with the company mission. For Deeksha Singh and Vandana Khanna, a major component of this process is to focus on data literacy

“It’s about raising the floor and bringing people along, in terms of both making them data literate and aware of things coming their way—rather than just giving them a surprise blow to their heads to say that we’re changing tomorrow,” Singh explains.  

To accomplish this, data leaders must also understand that change starts with an inspiring vision. If you want to help users become more data literate and break old habits like falling back on Excel sheets and static reports, you need to inspire them with the art of the possible. Once your team understands that data can empower them to make better data-driven decisions more quickly, you’ll have the buy-in to create a truly data-driven culture. 

Khanna has since taken a position at Johnson & Johnson, and we look forward to catching up with her to discuss her work in this new role. However, you can still listen to Singh and Khanna explain how they demystified data at Unilever in this episode of The Data Chief.

5. Data leaders advocate data in the boardroom 

Heidi Lanford, Chief Data Officer, Fitch Group

Today’s data leaders are no longer playing defense and guarding the keys to the data kingdom. These leaders are on the offense—no matter how rough the waters. They’re personalizing customer experiences while ensuring privacy and innovating products and services. They have moved from protecting data to monetizing data. Everything comes down to propelling the business forward. 

As CDO at Fitch Group, Lanford’s role is to advocate for data at a strategic level. She recommends that data leaders collaborate with other business leaders to build consensus. She sees it as her responsibility as a data leader to communicate the organization’s data needs and technology requirements. 

“Explain in plain language what it means for a data policy or a new data platform to actually come to life. Because otherwise, it’s just techno-speak, and they don’t understand it,” she says.

Hear more from Lanford on how CDOs can build effective partnerships with their executive colleagues.

6. Data leaders use data for good

John Hughes, Chief Strategy Officer, The Modern Milkman

Today’s data leaders aren’t just using data to make better business decisions or respond to market changes more quickly, they’re trying to change the world. John Hughes is a great example of this kind of transformational data leadership. Hughes’ business, UK-based grocery delivery company The Modern Milkman, aims to revolutionize plastic consumption in the UK. The company offers an environmentally friendly alternative to supermarkets by providing locally sourced fresh produce to customers without any single-use plastics. 

Hughes and his team invested nearly a quarter of their original funding in building a modern data analytics stack. This decision has enabled them to compete in an incredibly price-sensitive and logistically complex market by giving them the data they need to market more intelligently, forecast operational gaps, and quantify their environmental impact. 

In particular, they have been able to translate generalized data—such as how many bottles they’ve saved from the landfill—into personalized insights for each customer. Creating this symbiotic relationship between their customers, their company, and the good of the planet is enabled by helpful, accessible and data reliability

“Perhaps the thing I'm proudest of isn't anything to do with the commercial journey. It's much more about communicating the impact the customer has.”

Hear how more from Hughes on how his team is using data to save our oceans.

Join the ranks of modern data leaders 

Today’s data leaders are stepping up and using data to drive change in their organizations and in society at large. No longer acting as gatekeepers, today’s change-makers are securing C-suite buy-in to build a data-driven culture

That means that they’re putting information in the hands of the front-line workers that need it, and they are advocating for a data-led strategy—and securing the right analytics stack to make change happen. They’re embracing innovative new technologies and empowering their teams to use data to tell stories and make an impact. 

Tune in to The Data Chief podcast to hear from more inspiring innovators like the ones featured here.