Guild Contributor:

Abbi Agana, Macmillan Cancer Support

Abbi Agana, Macmillan Cancer Support

Chief Transformation Officer

I’m an eternal optimist, and I believe that we can be better – and that business can be better – for the people that we serve.

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Laura Bineviciute, Head of Community, Data Leaders

Abbi Agana, Chief Transformation Officer, Macmillan Cancer Support

Laura Bineviciute: Hello. Today I am joined by Abbi Agana, Chief Transformation Officer at Macmillan Cancer Support. Hello, Abbi.

Abbi Agana: Morning, Laura.

Laura Bineviciute: You’re one of the Data Leaders Advisory Board members. You’re also part of a steering committee for Guild 2024, focusing on evolving your leadership question. So we’ll delve more into that during the interview today, but perhaps we can start by understanding a little bit more your role and what data and analytics looks like at Macmillan.

Abbi Agana: Thanks, Laura. So I’ve been at Macmillan now for about three months. We have a new CEO. They are about to embark on a very exciting new strategy. So it stands to reason that they want to have a look at the, the core activity, so the operating model. So that’s where I come in, just to help them be more efficient and effective. And obviously data plays a key role in that. Laura, I’ve done this kind of work for a range of different organisations, but really pleased to be able to do this. Macmillan, it’s a much loved charity, very close to my heart, and it’s really been a joy to work with the exec and the board and the rest of the organisation to help design the new world, the role that data plays.

So how I position the work that I do is that it is essentially data-driven. So based on evidence, but also part of the new operating model is making sure that they can access that business-critical data so that they can continue to do the great work that they do in a very efficient way. And that’s everything from operational staff and the data that they collect around people living with cancer to the board, so that they get the right information and they understand how they’re doing against their performance indicators. So really, the job of work here is across the entire organisation, looking at some of the obstacles that stop people from being effective and efficient in their day jobs. But also part of that, part of my remit, of course, is putting data at the heart of that and using that data to make them more efficient, but also understanding the groups that they’re working with so that they can design new services and be on the front foot in terms of really supporting people living with cancer.

Laura Bineviciute: That’s very interesting. And I think you also bring into that role a very interesting background. I guess your career really spans very almost mission-driven organisations, NHS foundation trusts, local councils, housing associations. How does that combine with your also very business and operationally driven focus as well?

Abbi Agana: Well, I think the two things are really important. I think that there are a lot of communities, whether they’re hard to reach communities because they’re underserved, like in the housing sector, we know we have a crisis in terms of housing and a lot of people don’t have the property that they should have. And likewise with serving people with cancer, we’re not getting to all the groups and we want to get to all the groups that need our help in local authority, it’s very much the same thing, making sure that we’re serving populations.

I think that’s one of the things that I’m really proud of in my career, Laura, is that I seek to use my business acumen to help hard to reach groups. And that’s why I describe myself as being very values-driven and I think data has a huge role to play in that. Like, the more we understand these groups that we’re not necessarily accessing, the more we partner with them, the quicker and more responsive and more effective we can be to serve them. So you’re right to pick that up. That’s been a real thread in my 20 year career. And as you said, I spent a lot of time in the NHS. I was also a commissioner. And despite the many different job titles that I’ve had, it’s always been about optimising service and delivery to hard to reach groups.

Laura Bineviciute: If we look at the role of the CDO more broadly, because, of course the Data Leaders Guild is focused on CDO’s everywhere in the world and how their role is evolving. Together with the technology and obviously the rise of AI, the AI tsunami, as we named it last year, what do you think is the biggest opportunity for Chief Data Officers in the coming twelve months?

Abbi Agana: Well, I think it’s the business alignment and I think it’s also getting your head outside of the organisation. The world has moved on tremendously, both in the tech space, the AI space, but also in terms of the challenges, the economic challenges, which are global, the changes in demands from customers and users. As we see Gen Z into the market, you know, business just looks completely different and I think the CDO role needs to be reflective of that. And I think it’s a broader conversation, actually, around c-suite. So whilst we all enter c-suite with our respective specialisms and disciplines, the C suite is a strategic team in its own right. So a CDO needs to align their technical understanding and their technical knowledge of what’s happening internally and externally, with actually the mission and the strategic vision for the organisation. So really moving away from just being a specialist in data to actually the application of that based on what’s happening externally and internally, and where the organisation wants to position itself. So really stepping into that more strategic space. I would say it’s interesting because your answer covers a little bit.

Laura Bineviciute: What I wanted to talk about next is that expectation gap also between the business and what business believes the CDO can bring and what CDO’s believe they can bring to the business. How is that gap perceived from your perspective?And how can it be closed?

Abbi Agana: Yeah, it’s an interesting one. I think because of the nature of the title, it sounds very narrow. But I think, as I say, when we sit around the c-suite table, we almost need to take that narrow hat off and be business leaders, you know, senior business leaders. And I think sometimes if we’re not careful in the CDO role, we can get too caught up into kind of the minutiae. So looking at individual use cases, looking at optimising processes, which is all very valuable. But the c-suite table, it’s a broader remit. So I think it’s about repositioning and working more closely with your other c-suite colleagues to talk about actually how you will use your expertise to enable some of the things that we know that are good for the business and step away because it’s a relatively new role, isn’t it, Laura?

I know it’s been around for a while, but when you think of coos and CFO’s, everyone knows what they are. CDOs are still kind of finding their feet. So I think there’s a real responsibility on a CDO to articulate the value holistically. I think that’s the bit that’s missing as opposed to, I think where they started was banging the table about data, which is fantastic. But actually, what’s the bigger question and how does it align with some of the bigger challenges? You know, CDOs, we need to think about the things that keep CEO’s up at night and how data will support and address some of the problems that they’re thinking of. So just kind of broadening it, broadening the thinking of the CDO so it becomes much more of a macro conversation as opposed to a micro conversation.

Laura Bineviciute: Very interesting, because again, we got a little bit ahead of my next question, which is around the skills that CDO’s need to succeed. And if I understand correctly what you just said, it’s really around being able to have a business conversation that is very business-led and that is also just more holistic than just part of the business. Is there anything else that you want to clarify or add?

Abbi Agana: I think one of the other things, and this is not particular to CDOs, but it is particular to c-suite generally is that execution is everything. And so the application of that knowledge in a business context kind of moves the conversation from data or operations of finance and actually how it fits as a wider part of the puzzle. So I would definitely encourage CDOs to kind of do some of that learning around, actually, how do we run a business? That’s the first piece. How do we run a business? And then what role does data play in that? I’ve always used the phrase that data is the lifeblood of any organisation. So just as, you know, as humans, if we want to know what’s wrong with us, we’ll go and have a blood test, right? So in the context of an organisation, test your data, the marker of where your data quality is, how you’re using it, how it’s driving change, how it’s enabling you to be on the front foot for the people that you’re serving, will really answer the question in terms of where the CDO needs to do their work.

Laura Bineviciute: Why is it important for CDO’s and leaders that work with data to get together in a format that allows them to not only listen, but also talk? In this think tank idea, what do you think?

Abbi Agana: Oh, my goodness. You know, I’m a huge fan of the think tank. It just creates a safe space to talk about the challenges. And over the years that I’ve been involved with data leaders and yourself, it’s remarkable that regardless of the sector or the industry, we have the same challenges. And more and more the conversation moves away from data and about people, and it’s what are our capabilities in the business in terms of people’s understanding of data. So really opening up the conversation, talk about democratising data, how we can create greater data literacy, and I’ve seen the evolution of that thinking through the think tank.

And also it just acts as a support group, Laura, because we’re all facing so many challenges. As you said, I’ve worked in a variety of sectors, I was in a global commercial organisation up until last year, but the challenges are absolutely the same. And there’s a real piece around, actually, how do we open the doors? How do we get buy in from our colleagues, how do we show the value of data through other people’s work? So it’s not just a job for the CDOs. And that think tank really enables us to kind of, you know, put our armour down, if you like. We don’t have to be the experts in that space. We can share, we can learn.

I mean, how I came to Data Leaders in the first place, when I was director of data analytics and transformation, and I learned so much, honestly, I think it was watching one of your presentations that helped me understand how to democratise data and establish data governance organisationally and on that basis. It’s just constantly been a journey in terms of learning from other sectors, learning from other industries, and we all come away richer for those conversations. So we just feel better as well because we know that we’re not alone. That’s great.

Laura Bineviciute: It’s indeed something that comes up again and again. The idea of group therapy. That’s certainly a feedback that we receive quite on ongoing basis across all of our exchanges.

The very last question that I have is an idea that we borrowed from another well-known podcast, which is a question that has been posed by someone else in the community prior to this interview. And the question that is landing on your lap is, what inspires you to wake up and do your job every day?

Abbi Agana: Oh my goodness. Well, I’m an eternal optimist, and I believe that we can be better and that business can be better for the people that we serve. And it doesn’t matter the nature of the business. I think, you know, years ago, I made the decision to be more in the strategic change space and business transformation, because how I’m hardwired is that I don’t live well with problems. So I had to get myself on the side of actually being someone who’s going to change those problems and make a difference and the idea that we can move forward, albeit incrementally, because it’s not always revolution.

Sometimes it’s evolution inspires me. And I’ve seen it happen. You know, it doesn’t happen immediately, but I’ve seen the growth, I’ve seen the understanding, even the way that data has become a conversation for all sectors. It wasn’t like that, you know, five, six years ago. So I think we’re doing important work, and that inspires me. It inspires me to share knowledge, to constantly learn, which I think is a key for a senior leader. And just think about in these changing climates, and times are getting harder for groups, and the chasm between those who have and don’t have is becoming wider. And as I said at the outset, I’m a values-driven leader, so I want to make improvements, I want to make life better and make services better for people that we serve. So that’s what gets me out of bed. And usually at 03:00a.m. if I have some inspiration and I’m like, oh, I write it down. Oh, we could do this. We could try this. Because there’s no harm in trying things is that, you know, the whole concept of kind of failing fast, and both in my professional life and my personal life, I hold fast to the idea that we can be better and do better, and that’s what inspires me.

Laura Bineviciute: This is, in fact, very inspiring in itself, and I’m very, very happy that we have someone like you in our group. And, in fact, we need more people like you, not just at the Data Leaders Guild, but overall in the world. Thank you so much, Abbi. You’ve been absolutely fantastic, and I cannot wait to see you at the Data Leaders Guild think tank in June.

Abbi Agana: Thanks, Laura. I look forward to it.

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