How Data is Changing Successful Leadership

Guest Post by Nicola Osinake

Photo by Ross Findon on Unsplash 

‘Digital transformation’ describes anything from the recruitment of data scientists, purchasing a new software package or deploying emerging technology such as AI (Artificial Intelligence). Despite this myriad of interpretations there are two things in common. First: Data will be used and created. Second: Change is inevitable. 

To enable the majority of organisations to reap the advertised benefits from technology, changes are required. Whilst many spend significant effort convincing their workforce to adapt to this ‘digital transformation’. Rarely is the approach to leadership considered for change. So why is this a huge blind spot?  

As the founder of a training company, I routinely train auditors new to data analytics. But it struck me that despite the focus on upskilling the workforce in data literacy (the ability to understand, analyse and communicate using data), few leaders are putting themselves forward for the same education.  

So what is it about the traditional and often celebrated approach to leadership which is failing to work in the era of data?

Employees are rejecting command and control

Let’s pay respect to traditional management styles (sometimes described as old school). They have served many extremely well for a long time. The boss says ‘jump’ and employees say ‘how high?’. These leaders enjoy personal comfort with this approach. They have full control, everyone is following the rules and surprises are minimised. What are the downsides when it comes to data? 

Employing data literate employees usually brings new skills into the organisation. Skills strongly driven by problem solving and curiosity. These people and many from the younger generation thrive when they are given the flexibility to experiment and collaborate. The ability to drive real improvement is also viewed as a strong motivating factor for them. Some leaders, however, collectively through their words, actions and inaction set the expectation that: 

  • Challenge to the current approach is strongly rejected 
  • Any attempt to question ‘why’ something is occurring’ is swiftly suppressed 
  • Micro managing all elements of data work is the preference

It is organisations led in this way who will find it increasingly hard to retain, not only scarce data literate employees, but a changing workforce in general. This universal ‘command and control’ approach is the quickest way to demotivate fiercely passionate employees. Forcing them into silence and pushing them to make plans to exit your organisation. Let’s consider 3 leadership adjustments which should be considered to avoid this scenario?

Tolerate uncertainty and remain humble

The business environment is continuously changing. The problems organisations face are dynamic, uncertain and complex. Leaders often seek comfort in making ‘certain’ decisions where failure is unlikely. Data analysis, however, rarely provides this level of certainty. Data literate employees need the freedom to experiment and collaborate. Leaders’ high expectations cause increased pressure for new data hires to provide unequivocal output to guide them. Unless leaders become comfortable with ambiguity their business challenges will continue to grow unremedied.

To utilise the benefits of data expertise, leaders need to mirror aspects of the approach taken by their data literate workforce. This includes embracing experimentation, being comfortable with ambiguity and no longer fearing it.

Photo by Nick Fewings on Unsplash 

Suggested improvements are not a personal attack

Leaders who have been in charge for a long time or have extensive experience may find challenges difficult. Any calls for improvement which relate to business processes they were pivotal in creating, may be seen as a direct and personal attack on them as an individual. How does this dilemma impact a data literate workforce?

Data rarely provides all of the answers we seek. It requires a level of ambiguity leadership has to embrace. However, if it is analysed in the right way, it can provide powerful insight across a range of business areas. Those with the ability to analyse data may inadvertently uncover problems within the organisation itself. In a drive to support improvement, these individuals feel obliged to share their findings with leaders. It could be poor performance, inconsistency or even potential fraud. These individuals are so motivated that they even use the data to start developing solutions. 

A leader with the privilege to have such valuable talent in their ranks has two options. First: they could take personal offence and quickly suppress this knowledge. Second: they could use the insight to make things better. 

It is likely, many leaders aren’t even aware they are routinely taking the first option. However, by suppressing this valuable insight in a bid to protect your own ego is a wasted opportunity to improve.

Clark Tibbs on Unsplash

Retaining your data literate workforce

So what can leaders do to develop the qualities they need to enable their organisations  to utilise and retain their data literate workforce: 

  • Consider if your approach to leadership could do with an upgrade – are staff routinely leaving your organisation? Are you still operating a universal command and control approach? 
  • Actively seek input from a diverse range of individuals to guide your decisions – this is the best way to start filling those data and technology gaps
  • When change is recommended, tell your ego – ‘this is not about me! It is merely a new situation and something different is required’ 

We are now seeing an employee led recruitment market. It is hard enough for leaders to attract employees with data skills to join their organisation. Don’t waste the opportunity to successfully utilize these scarce skills. Be brave, challenge yourself and consider if your approach to leadership could benefit from an upgrade. 

Listen to the Be Data Lit podcast to hear more about data leadership.

Nicola Osinaike CIA / BEng is the founder and lead trainer at Audit Data Hub – delivering data analytics training for beginners. Using her jargon-free, fun, and engaging approach to teaching, she is helping those from a non-technical background begin to utilize data.

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