Becoming a Data Leader

No one will argue against the statement “data is important.” The proper use of data can make you and your organization very successful. Being aware of the areas that need to be improved and the areas that your customers love is a good thing. If you ignore the signal in your data, you risk seeing your operations and your products wither away before your eyes.

Data can be your ally and it is now widely recognized as the most important asset that any organization, public or private, possesses. However, we need more leaders with the ability to shepherd the good and virtuous process of executing on a data mission.

So how do you become a data leader?

When I say data leader, I am not referring to having the title of chief data officer, chief data scientist, chief data evangelist, chief data strategist, etc. I am talking about cultivating and developing the traits that enable you to function in that capacity for your team.

As someone who had the honor of being amongst the first wave of chief data executives in the federal government, and who achieved success in the role, I want to share the lessons learned that will get you on the path to being a data leader.

1. Influence

Current expectations are that a chief data executive should be a technologist, a developer (scoping, implementing, and transitioning data products and services), a steward (for improving data quality), an evangelist (for data sharing and novel data business model generation), and a strategic visionary (for the organization’s data assets).

It is impossible for a single person to be all these things and accomplish them all in a standard work week. Thus, it becomes critically important that as a leader you are excellent at “managing by influence” . This means that you have developed relationships, where you can guide and work with other teams to execute on a common data mission – even though some team members do not report to you.

Influence is the cornerstone of the collaborations that are necessary to achieve escape velocity, i.e. the rapid stream of quick wins needed to build excitement and buy-in, and then to have long-term success and sustain it.

2. Integrity

Building alliances is key to successful executing on your data mission. Generally, you cannot do it alone and your team cannot do it alone. You have to develop connections with the other parties that play a part in the mission’s execution.

In order for these alliances to be meaningful, your colleagues must have trust in you with regards to your words and moral compass as well as values. A data leader whose actions and/or words are not grounded in integrity and cannot be relied upon will have a hard time achieving and maintaining the relationships necessary for any sort of success.

It is time to start demonstrating those values and building your reputation.

3. Competence

In this context, competence refers to “having sufficient skill, knowledge and experience to perform the job”, i.e. being properly qualified. The common set of skills that are required to be a data leader include knowledge of the business and mission, knowledge of computer science, data science, or both, and knowledge of product definition and delivery. A competent data leader is a rare mix of technical guru, businessperson, marketer and adept executive  — someone able to communicate in all spheres and that can easily translate between each.

For some, it may be time to adjust your personal learning plans to include a few competence requirements for data leadership.


Even though many speak of the rise of the chief data officer and the suite of chief data executives, many organizations and employees are still struggling to understand what these chief data executives do, where they fit into the organization, what their essential skills should be, what these executives are responsible for, who they should report to, and how to measure their impact. I am confident that this will get sorted in due time.

However, the untapped and unrecognized gem in this entire scenario is the realization that these chief data executives are harbingers of what is to come – a future where every team has at least one data leader who is performing the duties of a chief data executive at the local level.

Tyrone Grandison is part of the GovLoop Featured Contributor program, where we feature articles by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Contributor posts, click here.

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Mr. LaShun Perry

Hello Dr. Gradison,

I enjoyed reading your blog today! This sentence resonated with me. “It is time to start demonstrating those values and building your reputation.” How does one do this successfully when they don’t have a Doctor’s Degree? In addition, How does one attain the skills and talent to become a technical guru, businessperson, marketer and adept executive  — someone able to communicate in all spheres and that can easily translate between each.

Thank you for your time and effort.

Mr. La Shun Perry

Dr Tyrone Grandison

Hi La Shun,

You don’t need a Bachelors, Masters or Doctorate to do this. Getting the skills and talents to be a technical guru, businessperson, marketer and adept executive involves crafting your work objectives and your learning plan such that you acquire the knowledge you need and you have the opportunity to apply it.

For example, doing a Pluralsight course on Online Marketing is a good thing to do if you don’t have prior sales and marketing experience. Ensuring that you understand the fundamentals of Computer Science and Data Science through Coursera, or a myriad of other online sources, is more possible and accessible today.

It is often the case for multinational companies that they rotate their senior execs across functions and locations in order for them to pick up new skills and use them. They do this to ensure that their senior execs have the skills and experience to be better leaders.

This is the same thing that we have to do for ourselves. Learn new skills, find ways to apply them, learn the lessons, and sharpen yourself.

Hope this helps.


Avatar photo Nicole Blake Johnson

Thanks for the great insights! I like how you defined what a competent data leader looks like. In talking with CIOs I find this same rare mix is required. I too am looking forward to seeing how agencies truly take advantage of these unique skills to better serve the public and internal customers.