Guest blog: CDO Summer School – A look back

chief data officer guest blog

What makes a learning experience useful, pivotal or even, to use an 80’s expression, paradigm-shifting? In other words, what makes learning groundbreaking enough to make you rethink how you do things?

Join me for a look back at the 2020 class of #CDOSummerSchool.

As I take my first train after 6 months in lockdown, it occurs to me that a great learning experience takes you on a journey – from where you are now to where you’re meant to be. A place where you thrive, are inspired and are part of a community of like-minded peers.

For me, CDO Summer School was one of a number of learning experiences in lockdown that did more than reaffirm what I already knew. It helped me see a bigger picture. It also helped me grow.

The six-week Chief Data Officer Summer School led by Caroline Carruthers and Peter Jackson was run in collaboration with Collibra. Every year, a group of around 500 data leaders get the chance to learn, connect and discuss what we do best – help organizations thrive by delivering value from data.

I was a reluctant attendee at first. I was and still am incredibly busy at work. However, I’m so pleased I made time to join Caroline, Peter and the data leaders’ community.

Here’s what’s changed for me.

Week one, I realized that a chief data officer must Know Thyself. Caroline and Peter focused on the person, the chief data officer or CDO. This person could come from a variety of roles, but credibility to lead on data is essential. It’s not enough to know the ins and outs of data, you’ll also need to know the ins and outs of the role. Are you a first-generation chief data officer focused more on the foundations? A second-generation CDO focused more on delivering value, or even third-generation focused on accelerating delivery in the digital age? Read my previous guest post – Which generation of Chief Data Officer are you? for more details on this.

By week two, I was inspired and fired up. I’d written a recap which helped me reflect. I’d done my homework which helped me prepare and I’d made new friends which helped expand my thinking. Summer School was now something I looked forward to on a Thursday and reflections were something I adored about the weekend. To make all this easier, I took notes, grabbed screenshots and picked up interesting points from the community to follow up. As head of data at a UK central government department, my role as Chief Data Officer is shared and collaboration is crucial for us to succeed.

At work, we’d just gone through a Data Maturity Assessment with Carruthers & Jackson, so I thought week two, How data savvy is your organization? would be interesting but not that informative. Again, I was proven wrong. I gained a deeper understanding of the nuances and benefits of assessing your current position. Hearing about other people’s experiences helped me put some barriers into perspective. More importantly, I came up with an effective strategy to re-energize the interest around the assessment and keep it relevant. So, thanks week two, you were pretty useful after all!

Week three was the halfway point where we covered a topic close to my heart: How can you (and data) make an impact right from the start?. I’ve worked with data for over 20 years, so I’ve been through a few skirmishes when it comes to making data valuable and valued. As a reformed developer, I sometimes know the why and the what needs to be done but not necessarily how to do it effectively. A lot of my learning has focused on how, so this was a great week for me. I came away excited and motivated by the techniques. I was eager to test them out and impressed by what worked well in my organization. Of course, practice makes perfect, or if you’re pedantic, perfect practice makes perfect. I keep trying and reflecting on what works when and why.

At the halfway point I was delighted to share another guest post: Median, Midway, We’re Halfway There #CDOSummerSchool about my experience so far. We’re halfway through this ‘look back,’ so I hope you’re still with me for the second half!

By now some themes were emerging really clearly for me. A CDO is a leader who specializes in data. At the minimum, they might manage a product, run a service or lead a team. But to be effective they must also manage change – of people, processes and places – with empathy, creativity and courage. As a leader, I now had a North Star – a direction to follow even after Summer School is a distant memory. None of this is new thinking. I’ve been exploring leadership and compassion in high-performing teams as part of my mission around data, design and culture. What’s new is the confidence that my musings were on the right track. What’s new is exactly how to loop them together into something cohesive and effective.

So the practical lessons in week four really hit home. How do you manage data strategy in business as usual and the hype cycle? was all about strategy so I can deliver as a chief data officer without burning myself out. We continued the practical lessons on strategy by asking How much is hoarding data costing your business? in week five. We also got a demonstration of the Collibra Platform for Data Intelligence. Seeing just how much the tool has changed in the decade since my last demo prompted me to survey the platforms that support data governance. I’m impressed by the push away from spreadsheets and written documents. You should absolutely take a look at what these platforms can do for you.

Sadly, all good things come to an end. As summer segued into autumn, I was learning about building teams that round me out as a chief data officer so I can focus on my strengths. In How do you build the team to lead your data revolution? we once again touched on leadership and creating psychological safety, with Executive Coach Hilary McLellan.

A high-performing team is something every organization aims for and the secret to this team? Psychological safety. Having worked in a high-performing team, I completely understood Caroline’s statement of “it just works.” Mostly friction-free, effective, efficient, camaraderie teamed with a delivery focus might seem like a dream, but it is possible.

My Thursdays were once again free, but I missed the buzz of learning, reflecting and writing. So, the final get-together was an opportunity to write one last recap. Oh Hey, It’s Graduation Day! covers how yet again our hosts proved me wrong. It was more than just a congratulatory occasion. We heard from industry experts and were nudged that final bit further on our journeys to becoming the most effective chief data officers.

And even now as I sit with my summer school “swag,” I can’t help but think how fortunate I was to keep being wrong. Every week I was challenged and learnt something new. Every week I met quite a few people on the same journey, and I had the most brilliant help solving wicked, knotty problems around data. Thanks again to the hosts and class of 2020 CDO Summer School, I’ve never been happier to be proven wrong!

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