Life as a CDO – establishing purpose in a whole new world

Data & Analytics

Photo of Bradley Hopkins

Bradley Hopkins

Head of Data and Analytics, Telstra Purple EMEA LinkedIn

Starting a new job is never easy, although what if the role never even existed within the organisation in the first place and none of your co-workers know what you do?

Oh, and it’s a C-suite position.

That’s the reality for Chief Data Officers (CDOs), who are often tasked with leading transformational change within an organisation, despite a lack of familiarity and purpose around their role from key stakeholders and senior leadership.

The CDO has been around for a while now, yet according to analyst house Gartner, “the Chief Data Officer role is still new, untested, and amorphous.” Many new CDOs find themselves within organisations that have never had one before, which makes breaking through barriers and communicating strategy more difficult.

This is one of the topics that was being discussed at Telstra Purple’s most recent ‘new-in-role’ roundtable discussion for freshly appointed CDOs. These events are put on for CDOs that have been in their role for less than a year, inspiring an open and honest discourse about important challenges under Chatham house rules.

It’s not all about the tools

laptop open on sofa showing data and charts

While sounds like a cliché, data is – or should be – the lifeblood of many organisations. As such, it’s important that CDOs implement the right technology toolsets that suit the needs of the business. However, tools are only one part of the equation.

“Don’t think that tools will solve your problems. It’s people,” one attendee said. “You need to start with engaging with the people. Some are very tech-savvy, but the organisation’s legacy environment has inhibited them. You need to find these people. These are your data champions.”

When CDOs are new, engaging a wide range of employees is important for establishing their presence. These need to be meaningful conversations that work priorities back to the needs of the organisation, aligning the CDOs activities to business objectives and KPIs.

This process involves engaging with the organisation’s various stakeholders and business units, to assess their major data-related pain points and whether any of these can be alleviated relatively quickly and easily. This is what the group referred to as reaching for the “low hanging fruit.”

“I’ve been in my role for 3 months and I’ve been focused on looking for that low hanging fruit,” another attendee adds. “I’ve been asking people “What are your blockers?” People in the business know what their constraints are, and you need to get to the crux of their problems.

“Then, get your Agile team to create your Minimum Viable Product (MVP) and start using it to get some quick results. These results will give you ammunition to drive the data governance.”

Avoiding imposter syndrome

Group sitting in a circle in an office

As a relatively new role in general, it’s common for CDOs to suffer from imposter syndrome and a general lack of confidence.  While this is normal, CDOs need to remember that they possess a unique set of valuable skills and the organisation brought them on for a purpose.

“9/10 you’ll know more than they do (about data),” one attendee said. “Always speak up. You’re hired as the specialist. You have to believe in yourself and remove imposter syndrome.”

It’s worth noting that it will take time to execute on many of the initiatives that CDOs orchestrate, so it’s important to communicate that to senior leadership as to avoid additional pressure and unrealistic expectations. This will help with alleviating imposter syndrome, as CDOs can clearly communicate purpose and how their strategies are likely to deliver over time.

“You have to walk into the room and have confidence,” an attendee noted. “Credibility is key. A lot of our initiatives will not deliver overnight. We’ll often be asking for investment that will take a while to deliver results and there’s a lot of pressure when you’re in a cost driven environment.

“We need to give (stakeholders) the understanding that they know their part of the business best and build trust. Then let them know what we can bring.”

Ultimately, it can be tough for new CDOs to establish themselves within organisations and demonstrate how they can drive value. However, if they focus on having meaningful engagements with stakeholders, alleviating pain points, and discussions based on business value rather than just tech, they’re likely to settle in with a little more ease.

Based on these discussions, there are three tangible steps that new CDOs can take to help establish strategy and get their voices heard. These are;

  • Start to engage with a range of stakeholders through a ‘bottom-up’ approach, listening carefully to their major pain points.
  • Through these engagements, establish any quick-fixes that can demonstrate your value as a CDO ‘i.e. find the low-hanging fruit’.
  • Start thinking primarily in business terms and craft a data-driven approach that addresses business needs through technological investment.


If you are a new CDO and found any of these ideas inspiring, consider enrolling in one of our upcoming New In Role Virtual Roundtables, sponsored by Telstra Purple. Sign up here

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