What makes a CDO?

As a relatively new position, the role of a Chief Data Officer (CDO) is still evolving. During our recent research project – “Rise of the data force” – we were lucky enough to gain a unique insight into the role from CDOs and senior business executives themselves and, as a result, have been able to build a picture of how the role is taking shape within a number of blue chip multinationals. With the role still being a hot-topic, this is the opportune moment for me to touch on a few specific points I found particularly interesting when we explored the key attributes a successful CDO should have.

A look into the make-up of a CDO

At the broadest level, a CDO is focussed on using data to drive value across their business. So, let’s dive into what that means for the skills, background and responsibilities required, as they’re not what you may initially imagine…


According to the report, “CDOs are being recruited from a variety of industry backgrounds and not necessarily for their knowledge of a particular industry, but for their individual skills.” An interesting statement, and possibly a surprising one, as many would assume an IT background would be essential. However, whilst an appreciation of technology remains a must, an in-depth knowledge isn’t imperative. In fact, we discovered that the role is more about leadership, making a C-level background more relevant in order to have the clout needed to affect change and make strategic decisions.

Key skills

Aside from regulatory experience, which you may expect, being a “change agent, innovator and evangelist of data” means that strong communication skills feature highly on the list of desirable skills, in sharp contrast to technical skills and architecture.

Given that data leaders are expected to deliver on a range of priorities, from data governance structures, to driving cultural and business change within their organisation, it makes sense to me that having a diverse range of business-focussed skills is more relevant to a role that requires collaboration with all areas of the business. Mike Ettling (President, HR line of Business at SAP) put this best, explaining how “the role isn’t a classic profile. You need a lot of different disciplines to act this type of role.”

Here’s a useful breakdown of what we found to be a CDO’s key skills:

Main responsibilities

Data has and continues to become increasingly integral to the way organisations operate and as a result, CDO’s responsibilities span across multiple areas. It makes sense therefore that 70% of CDOs report directly to the Chief Executive of their business and it is unsurprising that the role carries numerous responsibilities

According to our research, the three core pillars of a CDO’s responsibilities are; data governance, the alignment of company information with regulatory/ethical policies and driving the use of data to further the strategic aims of the business. However, there has to be a balance. Emanuela Aureli from our research partner (Spencer Stuart) states, “The role of the CDO is exciting. It is evolving fast and varies according to the nature and requirements of the organisation.”

Amongst others, Spencer Stuart also highlighted these as key responsibilities:

  • Establish a data strategy in alignment with the overall company strategy.
  • Develop a roadmap to create solutions that will drive measurable competitive advantage.
  • Ensure data quality and security across the organisation, including external data sources.

I find the final point particularly relevant for organisations facing business model disruption, where the need to drive innovation is key in executing their responsibilities, the CDO needs to have a vision. When recruiting the role, consider this view from Mike Ettling of SAP, who told us it’s about finding “the smart guys, the guys who know how to think and architecture stuff and put them in the role.”

Establishing a permanent place on the board

The anatomy of a CDO is clearly evolving as businesses look to reap the benefits of data. Whilst there are many necessary skills, there is equally a number of differing focus areas dependant on an organisation or sector’s particular requirements. What is paramount to a data leader role is being able to deliver measurable outcomes for the business and it’s that which will ensure that the role remains to be a valued, permanent senior management position in the long-term.