It has become abundantly clear by now. Successful business adoption of Big Data and analytics initiatives is largely a function of overcoming cultural impediments. These “cultural” factors have been the principal barrier to deriving value from data and analytics investments for most large firms.
Among the principal impediments these firms have faced are challenges of organizational alignment, communication between business and technical constituencies, transformation of key business processes, governance and leadership of data initiatives, business sponsorship and assurance that technical investments can be linked to measureable business outcomes. For the most part, the barriers to success for Big Data initiatives are not about technology – they are due to business issues. These business issues commonly boil down to “people issues” and the ability to forge and sustain a shared understanding among diverse business constituencies.
Increasingly, women executives are being called upon to take the lead in overcoming these “cultural issues.” In doing so, women leaders are being asked to shape the critical business functions that are most necessary to ensuring business value from Big Data and analytics investments.
Women Executives in the Chief Data Officer Role
Where the leadership of women executives is becoming most visible is in shaping the nascent role of the Chief Data Officer. It has only been in very recent years that the role of Chief Data Officer (CDO) has emerged as an industry standard business function and a key C-executive position. Just five years ago, only 12% of surveyed firms reported the appointment of a Chief Data Officer, while by 2017 this number has grown to 55.9%. The heaviest concentration of CDO appointments have been in financial services and insurance. These are industries which tend to be heavily regulated, and where massive volumes of data are maintained and managed. Firms within these industries have also been most likely to develop mature data management processes and practices.
During the past few years, I have had the unique opportunity to participate in several programs that are focused on shaping the role of the Chief Data Officer, and have both witnessed and participated in helping shape and define this role. The CDO-focused programs have been characterized from the outset by the strong presence and leadership provided by women executives – many of whom have assumed the mantle of leadership in helping shape the CDO role and data management functions. In helping drive this charge, women executives are assuming the top corporate leadership positions for data at a growing number of the largest banks, financial services, and insurance firms. The active participation of women executives in shaping the future of data is reflected in the popular Twitter hashtag #womenindata.
Among the largest banks, Bank of America, JP Morgan, CitiGroup, Citizens Bank, KeyBank, M&T Bank, and PNC, among others, are notable in their appointment of women executives into Chief Data Officer roles in recent years. Among insurance companies, AIG and Farmers Insurance are among those that have appointed women into Chief Data Officer functions. General Electric (GE) recently named a woman executive to the role of Chief Data Officer. When one expands this list to include women who hold the role of Chief Analytics Officer or Heads of Big Data and Analytics Centers of Excellence, the list of women in data leadership positions is extensive.
‘Data Divas’ Are Leading the Charge
Clearly, “women in data” has become more than just a slogan. Women executives are playing an increasingly leading role driving the future of the Big Data revolution. Data leadership functions’ that are driven by women executives are becoming a growing reality for a range of organizations.
The London-based conference firm Corinium, has proven to be an early pioneer in providing a venue for Chief Data Officers to share their perspectives and learn from one another, and in showcasing women CDO’s in particular. As confirmation of the leadership position of women executives in the Chief Data Officer role, the Corinium New York conference kicks off with a “Data Divas” Networking Session.
The New York Financial Services CDO events are chaired by Allison Sagraves, Chief Data Officer of M&T Bank, based in Buffalo, NY. This year’s keynote panels and keynote sessions featured prominent women executives who occupy executive leadership responsibilities for data in their respective firms. The list includes M&T’s Sagraves, Denise Letcher, PNC CDO and EVP, Rise Zaiser, CDO of Sumitomo Mitsui Bank, Joan Dal Bianco, Head of the US Office of the Chief Data Officer and SVP of TD Bank, and Lori Bieda, Head of Bank of Montreal’s Head of Analytics Centre of Excellence. The keynote for the Corinium Chief Data Officer, Insurance program, held the following day, was Katie Meyers, Chief Data Officer for IT with Farmers Insurance.
A central theme of the Chief Data Officer conferences is the requirement for non-traditional skills and experience when it comes to leadership of corporate data initiatives. “The CDO is a change management leadership role” notes Ms. Sagraves from M&T, “The role requires a mix of business savvy, excellent communication and storytelling skills to engage the business, an ability to bridge technical and business domains, and collaboration skills as data is a team sport.”
Bank of Montreal’s Lori Bieda echoes Ms. Sagraves observations, “Those heading up data and analytics teams are charged with the task of “sense-making.”. As heads of data and analytics teams you’re charged with connecting data dots and people, then corralling companies around a common cause – be it investment in a solution, the realization that you have a problem, or surfacing strategic opportunity resident in the data. Women have grown up in business as ‘consummate connectors’, and can help lead the data charge, working across the organization, communicating findings, and binding company and cause together.”
Bringing Collaboration to Data Leadership
The women executives on the CDO event panels shared a common perspective. Successful data leadership necessitates large measures of collaboration, persuasion, and flexibility, and a special willingness to listen and develop new approaches to traditional challenges. This becomes essential when the greatest challenges to business adoption of data result from cultural impediments, not technical roadblocks.
Lisa Wentworth is a former bank executive who served as a senior vice president and controller with Fleet/Bank of America, and now leads a data governance and change management practice for consultancy NewVantage Partners. Ms. Wentworth notes that “Overcoming the cultural impediments to data results and business value often requires what are sometimes characterized as ‘soft skills’. These are skills related to managing people and business processes. From my experience, women executives can often be effective in these roles because we have to be attuned to working relationships. ‘High EQ’ is as critical as high IQ to addressing these challenges. I think women executives can often be in a position to bring both high EQ and high IQ to bear to address the challenges of business adoption of data.”
Katie Meyers is the Chief Data Officer for IT at Farmers Insurance. Ms. Meyers observes “While I don’t generally single myself out as a ‘female’ leader, my experience would say that a few intrinsic characteristics foster successful senior leadership in the data domain. Intuition is the first trait that comes to mind. Good listening skills, another strength found in many women, adds to the ability to hone in on that right opportunity. Empathy and compassion are other core qualities critical to engaging and fostering the success of a data and analytics team. Being able to connect with technical and analytical resources at the level of the individual can improve the tailoring of job assignments, enhance effective feedback and coaching, and help identify personal growth opportunities – leading to the creation of high functioning, loyal and engaged data teams.”
A Breakout Role for Women Executives
Most financial services and insurance industry executives believe that the Chief Data Officer role needs to become stronger going forward, and positioned as a leadership function in driving innovation, establishing a data culture, and managing data as an enterprise asset. With nearly half of financial services and insurance executives believing that the primary role of the Chief Data Officer should be to drive innovation and establish a data culture, the role of the CDO is only likely to increase in corporate importance. For a generation of women that have grown up professionally during a time when data has risen in centrality and criticality, the opportunity to deliver on business value may prove to be a ticket “straight to the board room.”
Ms. Meyers of Farmers notes, “The role of chief data officer (CDO) is anchored in driving organizational change through data to power a more informed business. Driving collaboration – a traditional female strength – goes hand in hand with driving data progress. While we all generally accept that change is hard; dealing with data-driven change can be harder. Attempts by CDOs to drive data progress through traditional, top-down command or directive can often fall flat, whereas an inclination to building compromise and bringing everyone along can often prove successful. A CDO who structures a participatory approach, coupled with intent listening, can craft data endeavors both meaningful and impactful to all contributors, a true win-win for everyone.”
Ms. Sagraves sums up the need and the opportunity for women executives, “The Chief Data Officer is a breakout role for women. It’s a great opportunity to demonstrate our leadership and all that we bring to the table. We have the opportunity to help define the future because data is at the heart of most change in organizations, but the role is much more than data. It’s about driving change and delivering value with data. Most of us at this point have been pioneers of one kind or another, so it’s only natural that women are succeeding in this pioneering role.”
Randy Bean is an industry thought-leader and author, and CEO of NewVantage Partners, a strategic advisory and management consulting firm which he founded in 2001. He is a contributor to Forbes, Harvard Business Review, MIT Sloan Management Review, and The Wall Street Journal, and is Founder and Executive Director of the Big Data for Social Justice Foundation. You can follow him at @RandyBeanNVP.