How Difficult Is It Leading In The Time Of Big Data?

Most company leaders don't have technical knowledge, they just need to lead


We have seen Marissa Mayer forfeit her bonus at Yahoo thanks to the reaction of the company to the huge data hack that exposed the details of more than 1 billion users. It was one of the worst examples of data security in history and the reaction to it was equally terrible, so it seems like the least she should do. Instead of simply giving up her bonus, she has instead asked the board to distribute it amongst the staff at Yahoo, which is perhaps the sign of a good leader in many people’s eyes.

This has highlighted something that is an increasingly important amongst leaders today - that leadership and leading data roles have more or less the exact same remit.

The rise of big data has seen companies holding the information of millions of customers and users, with even historical institutions like banks and insurance companies quickly becoming the guardians of some of the most sensitive and important data in the world. It has meant that people who are likely to have been in leadership positions for decades are now forced to be data leaders.

When we look at the data hack at Yahoo, the person who was directly responsible was not Meyer or recently departed General Counsel Ronald Bell, it was instead their CDO and data security team.

Of course, one of the most damaging elements of the hack was the slow speed at which the company reacted. This could have been down to Mayer, but in a post about the hack she claimed that she was not made aware of it until only a few days before the rest of the world did. This shows that firstly those directly responsible for the protection of data either did not know (and are not too good at their job) or tried to hide it (either being too scared to broach the subject or deliberately trying to cover it up) neither of which show poor data leadership, but poor leadership in general.

When it comes to company CEOs, very few are likely to have any kind of technical knowledge of data management, simply because to know it, you generally need to have come up through more of the technical side of the business, something which traditional companies have not tended to put into leadership positions. If we take Brian T. Moynihan, current CEO of Bank of America, he started as a lawyer and a banker, a natural leadership path that has led him to become CEO of one of the most important companies in the US. He has had almost no experience with the technical side of data security or database management. Yet, Bank of America hold some of the most sensitive data for their customers.

It therefore doesn’t come down to knowing how to deal with data as a leader, but instead how to lead a company full of people who are the best at what they do. This is what he has done, relying on people like Doug Hague and Ned Carroll, both data leaders within the company, to deal with the technical elements of the business that he is unlikely to completely understand himself.

The issue that Mayer and the Yahoo executives had is that they were either unapproachable when something bad happened within their data department or the people who they had working in the department were not willing to declare their mistake. The issues that existed were therefore more about the environment of the company in both the reporting lines and HR elements. If there are weaknesses in either they can cause chaos, regardless of whether this is a data issue or one caused by any other department.

It shows that high level leadership when it comes to data is no different to high level leadership for PR, finance, or any other department. It is about creating the right environment, being approachable, and hiring the right people for the job. So make sure the guys who control your data are the best you can get, have a load of relevant experience, and have the guts to admit their mistakes. If you don’t you are likely to find that it won’t just be the data department suffering. 

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