What’s In A Name: Chief Data Officer

John Sahagian’s career parallels the development of data as a marketing and member-engagement tool at BCU.

John Sahagian describes himself as a data nerd at heart, and his 25-year career at BCU ($3.7B, Vernon Hills, IL) tracks the development of business intelligence as an emerging cross-silo discipline at today’s modern member-owned cooperative.

Sahagian was named BCU’s first chief data officer in July 2018, after seven years as vice president of marketing and business intelligence. In his previous role, he led the evolution of marketing from a provider of creative collateral to a multimedia growth engine. External and internal data were key parts of that process, and now, as chief data officer, Sahagian is charged with executing the credit union’s overall data and intelligence vision across strategies and systems.

Here, Sahagian shares more about the chief data officer role and its place in strategic thinking at BCU.

Why did BCU create this role?

John Sahagian: BCU has always been a data-hungry organization. We have a long history of leaders who are analytically minded and seek out information before making decisions. However, we’ve reached a point where the accelerating needs of our business and expectations of our members require us to take data and analytics to the next level. Getting to that next level won’t be possible without a clear enterprise strategy that’s driven by business priorities. Someone needs to wake up every day thinking about how data assets can make BCU more successful.

Did the credit union create this role for you?

JS: No. The creation of this role was driven specifically by the realization that our future success will be dependent on our ability to leverage data. To continue to compete, we need to be more efficient, more intelligent, more personal. That can’t happen unless data is trusted, understood, and accessible.

What are your areas of responsibility?

JS: I’m responsible for our member data ecosystem and strategy, for our Salesforce platform and its utilization across BCU, and for the support and development of our unauthenticated website.

What’s your daily routine?

JS: It’s all about focus, momentum, and measurement. My team is a modest size, but our aims and responsibilities are ambitious. There are multiple swim lanes in which we need to keep moving forward while keeping the big picture in mind and staying aligned with organizational priorities.

What made you a great fit for this job?

JS: That’s a great question that gets to the nature of the role itself. The chief data officer intentionally rolls up under business, not IT. It’s obviously a role that has a lot of technical components to it, but its North Star is the needs of our business.

My experience running key areas gave me a good understanding of where needs exist and how to realistically apply data and analytics. It also doesn’t hurt that I’m a data nerd at heart. Few things get me excited like uncovering a new insight or figuring out how to automate something.

You’ve been in the call center, loan sales, collections, and marketing. How have your experiences and transitions within the credit union come together in this new role?

JS: Throughout my career, I’ve been frequently tapped to modernize existing functions or stand up new ones. From indirect lending to private banking to outbound selling to marketing automation, I always loved the challenge of setting up a framework where little or nothing existed and proving it out.

Job titles say as much about the organization as they do the person. The “What’s In A Name” series on CreditUnions.com dives into notable, important, interesting, or just plain fun roles to find out what’s happening at the ground level and across the industry. Browse the whole series only on CreditUnions.com.

Much of the time, this involved introducing modern approaches or tools to move us along the maturity curve and raise the bar for success. This latest role is no different. If we do it right, the opportunities afforded today by the availability of data and the tools to distill and activate insights into business value are huge. We’re at the start of something big.

How do you define success in your job?

JS: Ultimately, my success is measured by the creation of business value. However, we don’t accomplish this alone. My team members are internal consultants. We work with business functions to understand where their greatest challenges are and then we help them solve those challenges with data, analytics, and data-driven engagement tools. Their success is our success.

We also ensure BCU is prepared for future business needs. So, showing clear progress down our roadmap for data modernization is also extremely important.

Who do you report to? Who reports to you?

JS: I report to our executive vice president, Tom Moore. Tom has the bulk of our member-facing functions. He is responsible for our branches, member service call center, online banking, corporate relations, business development, marketing, wealth management, and member development among other things.

I have four direct reports: a data and analytics director, a digital engagement manager, a CRM product manager, and a productivity systems manager.

How do you stay current with topics that fall under your role?

JS: I stay informed of key industry trends largely by reading great credit union publications such as Callahan’s. But in such a collaborative industry as ours, it’s also valuable to stay in touch with peers who are doing exciting things while tackling a lot of the same challenges. We’ve benefited immensely from learning about our peers’ successes and failures, and I hope we’ve helped them in return.

Especially in the technology space, it’s important to learn about trends outside credit unions. Research done by firms such as Gartner can be a great resource. I also find it valuable to participate in cross-industry groups and councils that we’re invited to participate in by our partners.

This interview has been edited and condensed. 


December 30, 2019

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