Technology The unexpected must-have soft skill for any chief data...

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


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

If you’ve never heard murmurs like this, you’re awesome or out of earshot of the rumor mill.

In a past life, before I was Chief Data Officer (CDO), I was a screenwriter (that’s a normal career path, right?). As a screenwriter, I told stories to get movies made. As a CDO, I tell stories with data to demonstrate real business value before the rumor mill gets going.

Incredibly, the consistent delivery of high business value is not enough to keep your organization’s value from being questioned. You should be able to confidently shout it from the mountaintops or at least calmly share it during executive calls.


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Effective storytelling reflects the data organization’s value proposition in the minds of key stakeholders and senior leaders so that it cannot be successfully or rationally challenged. Without stories, murmurs echo in doubt and can lead to dissolution.

Find 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 discover a good story. If you’re a strategic CDO, your story elements are probably already on your shared drive. Of the seven key elements of a story, four are easily mapped to the vision, strategy, roadmap, and functions you are currently leading.


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


The Data Org Charter and Strategic Plan explain the purpose of the organization and its motivations as expressed through strategic objectives. It’s the recurring ideas that will permeate your story.


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


The business value and results generated by data and analytics are at the heart of your story. Executive teams and the company as a whole rarely want to hear any other story than that.

The other three elements are Conflict (I believe you met), Characters (the data community), and Point of viewin which your organization is either a thinking partner authorized to reject ill-tailored and low-value requests or is contract workers to them.

Tell your data story well

Insist that you regularly meet with key stakeholders and senior executives to share your story — don’t take no for an answer. Equally important, don’t neglect middle and line managers who you will ask to repeat praise upwards. At a senior staff meeting, your insistence that your data organization is valuable to the company is far less convincing than the executive exclaiming how valuable they are. Getting others to tell your story for you is a masterpiece.

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

Stay on message. There is only one: the business results that have been or will be generated by data and analytics.

Numbers over letters. Quantify business results. Quality over quantity works for aircraft parts and awards, but for us, a quantitative story trumps a qualitative story.

Take advantage of setups and payouts. This is important. Tell them what you are going to achieve, tell them what you are achieving and then tell them what you have achieved. The three-company structure is effective for several reasons:

  • Constellations build anticipation of results to which, once realized, the positive reactions will be intensified.
  • Regular check-ins increase stakeholder engagement, but continued anticipation of future results reinforces this.
  • Payouts, the consistent delivery of results, will earn you credibility and trustworthiness faster because you are expected to keep your word (your settings).

Feeling excited. Enthusiasm and passion are contagious, as is the lack thereof.

Make time. The investment pays for itself in the time saved to justify the data organization’s value propositions, which will be questioned in the absence of a recourse. Storytelling is the data organization that plays existentially “offensive”.

Around the campfire: telling your data story

Storytelling is universal. The aim is to fuse and propagate culture. It is 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: facts.

Shayde Christian is Chief Data & Analytics Officer at Cloudera.

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