Five qualities to look for in an analytics leader
I wrote recently about a dysfunctional leadership style: what I lightly referred to (for better or worse) as a platoon dynamic. Reasonably enough, some people asked me what a good working pattern would look like. In particular, several asked about leadership for analytics teams or analytics initiatives. Are there any special concerns or qualities we should look out for in a analytic leader?
Thinking about the teamwork, the answer is probably No. Factors such as communication styles, role definition, problem-solving strategies and conflict resolution techniques all have their part to play, but the analytics team may not be so very different from others, although later I will have a little to say about motivation.
Here are five skills which I think are often overlooked, but to my mind they are critical for successful analytics leaders.
1. Broad spectrum business knowledge
Yes, data analytics is a multi-disciplinary role in itself. Data analysts must have good knowledge of computer science, statistics, data modelling and current business intelligence practices. But they also need practical experience in applying those fields. The messiness of most corporate data has to be seen to be believed!
However, to be an effective leader for the business, not just an effective analyst, it is at least a benefit - if not an essential requirement - to have a range of experience across different kinds of products, customers and services. An analytics leader should be able to bring outside perspectives into the mix: very often the most insightful analysis is one which looks at a problem from a new frame of reference. Ultimately having some cross-industry knowledge alongside extensive familiarity within one’s own field is best.
Look for a wide range of experience, in analytics, in business and in life - and the ability to bring that experience to bear on issues as they occur.
2. Making the strategic connection
An analytic leader connects their insights from data to corporate strategy by understanding the goals and objectives of a company or organization. This can include researching current trends in the industry and assessing competitive strategies. With this information they can identify areas where changes could be made that would benefit both short-term growth as well as long-term outcomes for an organization’s success. It’s not enough for the analytics leader to analyse; they must also advise.
Look for an ability to set analysis in the context of strategy.
3. Analytic articulacy
Of course, all leaders require good communication skills in order to inform, motivate and persuade their teams. The analytics leader requires excellent communication skills of a particular kind. They need to interpret complex insights from analysis for stakeholders within the organization or company who will not share their expertise.
In addition to the common needs for leadership communication, look for presentation skills, a flair for data visualization and the ability to articulate technical details in a way that is relevant to the business.
4. Focus on realistic value
Book and articles about analytics all too often base their advice on lightbulb moments when a single insight made a real difference. You will probably have heard the urban legend about beer and diapers. Or the more shocking (and shockingly true) story about Target predicting a girl’s pregnancy.
The result of these over-hyped examples is that people tend to look for a single high-value insight as an indicator of good analytics. But most important insights are only discovered in the long term and have incremental value rather than a breakthrough effect.
Look for a commitment to continuous incremental improvement, rather than chasing a lightbulb moment.
5. Motivating analytic teams
There’s a clichéd view of analytically minded people and teams: that they are introverted or socially awkward. It’s a ridiculous view, but surprisingly common. However, analysts will analyze, and they may well be more skeptical and surgical in their criticisms of strategy and plans. People with analytic skills typically require clear objectives and well-defined goals for motivation; they are, after all, analytical. Broadly scoped, over-excited goals are unlikely to go down well.
Like other teams, analysts also need to feel their efforts are recognized, encouraging them to stay engaged in the work they do. But tie this recognition back to the focus on realistic value and the strategic connection.
Look for an ability to work with the teams’ analytic skills and to promote those skills as a core value of the business. Avoid a tendency to work around issues or to shield a team from the wider organization.
A question about the right reporting structure
Where does your CIO sit in the organization? The title evolved in the late 1990s and early 2000s as organizations began to focus more on information technology and the need for a position dedicated to managing it. This role was created to bridge that gap between business and technology, ensuring that IT initiatives were aligned with business objectives. But the CIO rarely had a top-level seat at the table, despite the title. They often reported into the CFO, because IT was seen as a cost-centre to be managed rather than as a centre of value.
In the 2010’s we saw more CIOs with a genuine top-level standing, but sadly I can see the trend reversing. IT has achieved a lot - so much that they may be taken for granted and the work commodified. Cloud computing did not solve the problem of growing IT costs - in many cases migration to the cloud has increased expenditure. Once again, I see CIOs reporting into CFOs.
As you can tell, I would prefer to see CIOs as top-level executives and analytics leaders reporting into them. But I’m open to all perspectives. What do you think?
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