Confessions of a Data Steward: All I Really Need to Know, I learned in Kindergarten

ART03x - image - EDAs practitioners of Data Governance know very well, the Data Steward is a pivotal role in successfully implementing Data Governance programs in enterprises. Throughout my career, I held various ‘data stewardship’ roles such as data domain steward, coordinating data steward, and the ‘super steward’ of them all, the data governance officer. Of course, the role wasn’t always called ‘data steward,’ but I was responsible for delivering what a data steward should. I confess that it was not always easy being a data steward, but it was a rewarding and worthwhile experience over a period of time. Sometime during that time, I came across Mr. Fulghum’s book, and I came away with many golden nuggets that I directly took from that book and used quite successfully in doing my job.  It is amazing how Mr. Fulghum’s insights are so applicable to so many parts of our lives.

To get grounded on who a Data Steward is, I’d like to rely on Mr. Robert S. Seiner of KIK Consulting and the publisher of this publication, TDAN.com. Mr. Seiner defines a Data Steward as one who defines, produces, or uses data, and has a defined level of accountability for assuring quality in the definition, production, or usage of that data. In my own words, a data steward is one who maintains agreed upon data definitions and formats, identifies data quality issues, and ensures that business users adhere to specific enterprise data standards.

Early in his book, Robert Fulghum states that “Most of what I really need to know about how to live, and what to do, and how to be, I learned in kindergarten. Wisdom was not at the top of the graduate school mountain, but there in the sand box at nursery school.” How true that is! I see that we confuse and confound ourselves with what Data Governance is about and how various people in a data governance should go about doing their duties. Here is my attempt to simplify what a data steward should do based on my own experiences and also in Mr. Fulghum’s words. I represented the quotes from Mr. Fulghum’s book in italics and quotation marks.

“Share everything.”

I learned that Data stewardship is about trust and transparency. I have worked with people who hoarded ‘information’ so they could be seen as valuable in the organization. But whenever I shared information widely but wisely, i.e, adhering to data privacy guidelines and keeping in mind ‘business need-to-know,’ I have become more successful in my data steward role.  So it may not be about sharing everything, but sharing wisely.

“Play fair.”

I represented business units while I was a data steward. There was pressure at times to show loyalty to my business unit even when some data owners were not adhering to data policies, but I consistently kept larger enterprise needs in mind and played fair by enforcing enterprise data standards and policies. Sure, there were short-term tensions, but ‘playing fair’ paid off not only personally but also for the business unit in the long term.

“Clean up your own mess.”

Sometime ago when I was consulting for a state government, I inadvertently ran a tool that messed up names and addresses and I took off on a pre-planned vacation. Can you imagine my embarrassment when I found out about my mistake? I came back from my vacation and corrected the issue. They still are my clients, and we still remember that incident.

“Say you are sorry when you hurt somebody.”

A data steward’s role could be part facilitator and part owner depending on the situation. When the rubber meets the road and when you are responsible for deadlines, etc., more than likely you’ll ruffle some feathers and rub people the wrong way. There were times when I hurt people with my words under deadline pressure. I was truly sorry in those cases and my sincere apologies went a long way in building bridges for the long term.

Now let’s get onto some other quotes from the book which go beyond kindergarten.

“You may never have proof of your importance but you are more important than you think. There are always those who couldn’t do without you. The rub is that you don’t always know who.”

I found out about this in an interesting way. I worked as a coordinating data steward for some time but never felt appreciated for my effort (that’s another story). A few months after I left that group, the executive sponsor of that data management initiative approached me to come back because of the mounting number of unresolved data issues.

“It doesn’t matter what you say you believe – it only matters what you do.”

Another way to say this is that your actions speak louder than your words and it is very true in the case of a data steward. It didn’t matter how many times I presented about the importance of data quality and adhering to data standards; but when I actually sat down with data owners and corrected the issues first-hand, it always drove home the point.

 “Anything not worth doing is worth not doing well.”

Many times, I found my job, as a data steward, is to educate people not only on what to do but also what NOT to do. Employees keep doing things that either don’t add value or get in the way of things actually adding value. It’s a delicate task to tell them not to do these things as there is a risk that they may interpret that their jobs may be eliminated if they don’t do what they are doing. I have actually used the book to guide people to stop doing things that are not well-prepared of doing.

“Ignorance and power and pride are a deadly mixture, you know.”

In my opinion, this actually is aimed at the executives who either don’t believe in the importance of data governance or only give lip service to it. There were a few occasions where I encountered such executives and the data management initiatives in those cases never really had the intended effect of the original goals.

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I can keep going, but you get the picture. Data stewards play a very important role in Data Governance, but they should not think about data stewardship as a very complicated job. As Mr. Fulghum states, “Wisdom was not at the top of the graduate school mountain, but there in the sand box at nursery school.”  One doesn’t need certifications or additional schooling to be a great Data Steward. All they need to do is share wisdom, play fair, be passionate about what they do, and communicate with their actions.


(*Note: Copyright for ‘All I really need to Know, I learned in Kindergarten’, a very popular book written by Mr. Robert Fulghum, is owned by Mr. Robert Fulghum and his publisher *)

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About Ramesh Dontha

Ramesh Dontha is Managing Partner at Digital Transformation Pro (www.DigitalTransformationPro.Com), a management consulting company focusing on Data Strategy, Data Governance, Data Quality and related Data management practices. For more than 15 years, Ramesh has put together successful strategies and implementation plans to meet/exceed business objectives and deliver business value . His personal passion is to demystify the intricacies of data governance and data management and make them applicable to business strategies and objectives. Ramesh can either be reached on LinkedIn or via email: rkdontha AT DigitalTransformationPro.com

  • Judi Okapal

    These observations are spot on. There will always be individuals who need coaching away from these bad habits, but the real challenge is when the culture of a team or company promotes these behaviors. I have found that bad experiences with past projects or past leadership can greatly impair a team’s ability to open up, trust, take responsibility and collaborate. Shifting away from this cultural defense mode takes time, hard work, and patience.

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