The Unexpected Soft Skill Must-Have for Every CIO

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

If you’ve never heard murmurs like these, you’re either awesome or beyond the reach of rumor.

In a previous life, before I was a chief data officer (CDO), I was a screenwriter (that’s a common career, isn’t it?). As a screenwriter, he told stories to make movies. As CDO, he tells stories with data to demonstrate real business value before the rumor mill begins.

Incredibly, consistently delivering high business value is insufficient to prevent the value of your organization from being questioned. You need to be able to confidently shout it from the top of the mountain or at least calmly share it on executive calls.


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Effective storytelling echoes the data organization’s value proposition in the minds of key stakeholders and senior leaders, so it cannot be successfully or rationally challenged. Without stories, murmurs turn to doubts and could spiral into dissolution.

Finding the story in your data

A good story well told. That is the goal. A daunting task for some, but fear not, you don’t need screenwriting experience to figure out a good story. If you’re a strategic CDO, chances are your story elements are already on your shared drive. Of the seven key elements of a story, four are easily mapped to vision, strategy, roadmap, and the functions you currently lead.


The Corporate Strategic Plan provides the backdrop to the story against which all data and analytics activities must be aligned. If not, you’ll write in the wrong gender: Halloween 17, starring Mickey Mouse! (Actually, that would be fun to write; I’m going to make some calls.)


The Data Org Charter and Strategic Plan state the purpose of the organization and its motivations expressed through strategic objectives. They are the recurring ideas that will permeate your story.


The data organization operational plan contains the events of the story, including use cases, data initiatives, and deliverables, and the roadmap traces them over time.


Business value and the results generated by data and analytics are at the heart of his story. Executive teams and the business in general rarely want to hear a story other than that.

The other three elements are Conflict (I think you’ve met), characters (the data community), and point of viewwhere your organization is a thought partner empowered to reject misaligned and low-value applications or indentured servants for them.

Tell your data story well

Insist on meeting regularly with key stakeholders and senior executives to share your story; don’t take no for an answer. Just as important, don’t neglect line and middle managers who you’ll ask to echo your praise upwards. At a senior staff meeting, your insistence that your data organization is valuable to the business is far less convincing than the business executive exclaiming how valuable it is. Getting others to tell your story for you is a masterful art.

Here are some 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 the data and analytics.

Numbers over letters. Quantify business results. Quality over quantity works for airplane parts and award shows, but for us, the quantitative story trumps the qualitative.

Use configurations and payments. This is important. Tell them what you are going to accomplish, tell them what you are accomplishing, and then tell them what you have accomplished. The three-act structure is effective for multiple reasons:

  • Configurations create anticipation for results to which, once realized, positive reactions will intensify.
  • Regular checks increase stakeholder commitment, but sustained anticipation of future results cements it.
  • The rewards, the consistent delivery of results, give you credibility and trustworthiness more easily because you are perceived to keep your word (your settings).

Thrill. Enthusiasm and passion are contagious, as is the lack of them.

Make time. The investment pays for itself in the time saved to justify the data organization’s value propositions, which will be called into question in the absence of a story. Narrative is the organization of data that “plays offense” existentially.

Around the Campfire: Telling Your Data Story

The narrative is universal. Its purpose is to merge and propagate culture. It is CDO’s talented storyteller who lights the digital campfire and invites the tribe to hear stories woven into the fabric that unites them all: data.

Shayde Christian is Cloudera’s director of data and analytics..


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