The plight of CDOs: Beating the transformation deadline

Why turnover among chief data officers is so high and what can be done about it.
May 5, 2022

It turns out data-driven digital transformation is tougher than anyone predicted. 

The degree of difficulty is reflected in the high turnover among chief digital officers (CDO), the C-suite executives typically tasked with overseeing digital transformation at companies today. Recently, a Harvard Business Review article noted that the average tenure of a CDO is less than 2.5 years.

With less than three years to bring about major change within a company, many CDOs discover very early in the process that they can’t do it on their own. They find that they need help.

Digital transformation is more like a digital metamorphosis

The term digital transformation is probably a misnomer.  It doesn’t capture the scope. In relative terms, the goals that CDOs are expected to achieve are more akin to a digital metamorphosis. 

The trouble for CDOs begins almost from their first day. Often, they find that management’s expectations about what it takes to bring about data-driven digital transformation are unrealistic. 

Sometimes a CDO discovers that their role is ill-defined, too few resources are provided, and too little support from leadership is forthcoming. Sometimes transformation efforts are derailed when the bills for new technology come due. It’s common for CDOs to find themselves stymied by a cost sensitivity among important leaders that can limit success. 

Other times, a CDO collides with a company’s culture. They may find skepticism about data analytics among managers as well as the rank and file. Long-time employees may question whether they can trust outcomes produced by new data systems and balk at implementing them.

Typically, the biggest foe is inertia

More often, the biggest foe is simple apathy and inertia. People get used to performing tasks the way they’ve always performed them. Some simply can’t be bothered. Any CDO who finds themselves confronted by any of these problems can quickly feel besieged and overwhelmed. 

A newly hired CDO must think strategically from the outset. 

No. 1: They must avoid trying to do too much too early. The temptation for new hires is to prove themselves with one grand data triumph. 

But this approach poses many risks if the project is delayed. In such a situation, a CDO could find themselves many months into the job without anything to show for it. Setbacks like that provide the naysayers much ammunition.  

Start small and scale fast 

A better way for CDOs to establish themselves and win essential support from leadership is to target and achieve less ambitious but important business goals. They also mustn’t be shy about promoting their successes internally in a way similar to how marketing departments have justified their budgets for years: by illustrating success with the right metrics. 

A big part of building a steady drumbeat of wins means forgoing a do-it-yourself strategy. The modern data stack (MDS) provides the means to marshall critical tools and solutions that eliminate much of the in-house building chores.

The MDS is made up of the best-of-breed cloud technologies that are modular but provide a unified platform that can process massive volumes of data reliably. Components include an automated data pipeline or data integration solution; a cloud-based destination, such as a data warehouse, data lake or lakehouse; and a data transformation layer that builds, tests and runs SQL-based data models. 

By employing these tools and solutions effectively, CDOs can lay down a foundation on which to drive an efficient and reliable data and analytics strategy that improves future business outcomes and spurs innovation.  

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