To Conquer Your Data Mountain, Take Small Steps (and don’t look up)

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James Bell

General Manager, Robinson Ryan

There is something to be said for time away from screens – it renews our focus and thinking. As we near the end of the first quarter of the year, many leaders will start the process of reviewing progress toward the planned milestones created in the freshness of the new year. Invariably, as leaders, we’ll review analytics and metrics, looking for key insights about our people and our performance. Adding to the pressure of leading through what continues to be described as challenging times, many leaders now have the added pressure of additional board scrutiny about data risk management.

But here’s the thing – we’ve overcooked data. Made it too complex. Wrapped our data problems in jargon and insider terms that have made data seem bigger and more complicated than it should be. And, technology has muddied the waters, blinding us to what really matters.

Data is just the stuff that is created when people do their work. It’s the natural output of your customers and stakeholders interacting with your organisation.

When charting a course for the year ahead, most leaders will prioritise their people and think about what they need for the year ahead to be successful. But how many will include data in these conversations? It is a missed opportunity, and a great way to demonstrate great leadership skills and empathy. People want to be engaged by and in their work. If you want your people to buy into data and strategy, you can successfully connect the dots in your data story and take your people on the data journey. With nearly 90% of companies reporting increased spending on data and analytics, we all need to be weaving data into key conversations with our people to pinpoint where they are supported or let down by data.

This all directly correlates with the sense of connection of your people to your organisational mission, vision, and values. Not to mention employee well-being and engagement. Execs have recognised they need to up their EQ skills to be better leaders for their people. But, if you’re truly trying to understand your people and the ways of work, you can’t just skim the surface of how the work is done and the data outcomes. Most people don’t want to or need to know how data flows through a CRM, and is mastered according to the data model. They just want to feel that at the end of the day they have done a good job. Perhaps even made a positive difference.

At times on my data journey, I’ve found myself thinking it all sounds a bit too big and complex. Client data problems have been described as paralysing. Where do you start when you’re trying to conquer a mountain? You can look to the peak and start letting doubts and questions creep in. Or you can plan your journey and make it as simple as taking the first step. Often the key is asking a simple question that makes it seem doable. How can we take three data sources and make them two? Or one?

There are similarities in how leadership has evolved over the past 20 years, and where I see data leadership going. We’ve moved from leadership as a trait, to leadership as a skill that should be acquired, strengthened, and nurtured. We’ve moved from one leader to everyone being a leader.

Where once knowledge was trapped at the top of the corporate hierarchy, now it is shared and accessible by all. We’ve cut through management and MBA jargon and noise and gone back to basics – leadership is about caring for people and helping them do the work that supports the organisation achieve its goals.

Data has become too hard, too esoteric and too big. Let’s cut through the noise. Let’s lose the data jargon which makes it seem like data is some specialised wizardry that happens when technology doesn’t deliver expected outcomes. Let’s stop focusing on the tools alone and in isolation. Take a step back and freshen our perspective and see our people and their ways of working in a new light. Data management is just a way for us to make better decisions about the types of experiences we want to make for our people, teams, organisations, customers, clients, or stakeholders. Data is just a way to be better about putting people at the heart of what your organisation does.

Give people the right tools [and data], set them up for success and then get the hell out of their way. This leadership style can unlock people’s potential and allow them to flourish and thrive in unanticipated ways. After all, data management isn’t rocket science – it’s generally about being sensible.

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