Data Leaders: It is Not Who You Report To, but Who You Report To

Ryan den Rooijen
Ryan den Rooijen

Alright data friends, let us conduct a little survey. Who here reports to the Chief Financial Officer? Or the Chief Information Officer? Maybe even the Chief Operating Officer? Surely not the Chief Executive Officer? Lucky you. Spare a thought for poor folks who report to someone other than a member of the executive committee. How ever do they manage to drive business change? Few topics in our community can quite incite a debate like reporting lines. That said, is this really the key question we should be obsessing about?

Where do you sit in the organisation? You will be judged by your answer! Photo by Thomas Hawk.

We live in a time when organisations are trying to build data capabilities that are more than a box checking exercise. How to structure a team so that it is not only able to effectively analyse data, but can also use these analyses to drive business value? Should it be part of the finance tool set that the business leverages, or a part of the IT service catalogue? Given the effort companies invest in building and evolving their single view of the customer, perhaps the most prudent decision is to have marketing look after the data scientists.

The reality is that in “non-tech companies” data is a business function (read: companies where analytics is not embedded into the majority of roles). It is neither a strategy nor a technology, but instead a capability to be leveraged by all. Most importantly, it is certainly not a cost control or risk management function like data functions used to be—when they primarily focused on governance. This is not to say that this cannot be one of the outputs of a data team, but to ensure that organisations correctly assess their teams’ potential.

The reality is reporting lines do not matter as much as people think. Whether under a CEO, COO, CIO, CFO, or even a Transformation Director, what is important is that the data team has the remit to empower and challenge the business as a whole. This requires a data leader’s manager to have their back. Whether promoting relationships with the rest of the business, or providing air cover when the data team is shaking up legacy processes and mindsets, they need to be as committed to driving impact with analytics as the team is. This has nothing to do with their title and everything to do with personality.

Is your manager helping you build bridges to the rest of the organisation? Photo by Tom Blackwell.

Humans are very good at simplifying complex situations until the lack of nuance renders any resulting judgement useless. The discussion about reporting lines risks us falling prey to the same shortsighted impulses. At best it is only a weak proxy for organisational impact. At worst it can become a self-fulfilling prophecy, with teams arguing that their lack of traction in the business can be attributed to their sub-optimal reporting lines. Instead of wasting energy on this discussion, it is far better to ensure data leaders get the support and buy-in they need from their manager to be truly successful.

— Ryan

People & Culture

Ryan den Rooijen

Chief Strategy Officer of Appsbroker CTS, the leading Google-dedicated consultancy. Formerly Chief Ecom & Data Officer.