Choosing the right chief data officer

Three types of leaders predominate among today’s data and analytics executives. Companies that understand the interplay between a candidate’s leadership style and the organization’s level of data maturity will have an edge

Few roles are evolving more rapidly than that of today’s data and analytics leader. Across most industries, data and analytics are becoming central to operations, strategy, and competition. Increasingly, the role is located in the C-suite—45% of the 3,000 global companies studied by Forrester in 2015 had appointed chief data officers (CDOs), and 16% were planning to do so in the ensuing 12 months. (The study also found a high correlation between high-performing companies and those with CDOs.)

Research recently conducted by Heidrick & Struggles to examine the leadership profiles of senior data and analytics leaders, based primarily in North America and the United Kingdom, provides additional evidence of change. Of the 82 data and analytics executives we surveyed, 9 in 10 report that their role has changed more than once in scope or complexity over the past five years.

Broadly speaking, data and analytics evolve in organizations through three stages of maturity that we call Enable, Support, and Transform (Figure 1). Each stage calls for a distinct set of technical competencies, organizational capabilities, and leaders with relevant experience. As one CDO recently told us, “It’s the difference between creating analytics, delivering analytics, and leading analytics.”

Evolution through these three stages is neither inevitable nor always desirable. In some cases, the Enable or Support stage may be appropriate and sufficient for an organization for the foreseeable future; for other companies, advancing to the Transform stage could be the difference between winning in their industry or falling far behind.

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