The journey of developing vital Soft Skills in analytical leaders
Given the focus of my business, a book entitled “Soft Skills Hard Results” was always going to get my attention. Once I picked it up and read the subtitle, “A practical guide to people skills for analytical leaders”, I knew I had to read this one.
The book in question is by Anne Taylor. She is a qualified executive coach with a background in senior leadership within global corporations. Her experience comes both from her personal story (she is very open) and her experience with senior clients around the world.
My motivation for sharing this book review comes from both having read this book & sharing my views at an excellent business book club. After that event, I realised that I had perhaps been too critical. There are flaws in this book, which I will come to, but it also has much to offer. I think the key to benefitting from the author’s approach is how you read it and with whom. So, this post aims to help you get the most out of this book. So you can benefit from the lessons that Anne has learnt the hard way.
Why is such a book on Soft Skills relevant for Analytical Leaders?
A number of fellow guests at that book club event mentioned that they appreciated how this book started. There is a section entitled ‘Note to Reader‘ that covers why this subject is relevant for the reader, now & how the book should help. Next, the author really focuses on an analytical audience. She walks through an estimate of the cost of neglecting Soft (People) Skills development for such leaders. This is well done & comes to a figure that should catch any executive’s attention. Sadly, it is also the last time in the book that the contents explicitly focusses on analytical leaders. Too much reads as simply for a general leadership audience.
But that should not put off the reader if they are a leader in the world of data & analytics. The contents of this book are still relevant to their challenges. I know that because of the work that I do day to day with such leaders and their teams.
Seven years ago I took a punt that I would find enough businesses out there like those I knew; where a focus on developing the leaders & softer skills in their analysts would give them the best ROI. Seven years on and I have never been short of clients. I’ve had the pleasure of working with organisations large & small. In each of them, I see the difference a focus on the #PeopleSideOfData is making in their business. During that time I have consistently seen very technically able analytics leaders benefit from developing their softer skills.
What to expect from this book – the ingredients
Anne structures her book around the four parts of her model of human interactions (which will be familiar to students of Gestalt coaching). Part 1 focuses the reader on their inner world. It is all about becoming more self-aware. Part 2 shifts the reader’s focus to others. Being more present to notice & engage more effectively with stakeholders; getting to know them better. Part 3 is clearly influenced by both Gestalt and Psychosynthesis schools of coaching. It focuses on what emerges between the reader & others. Covering authenticity, adapting your style to suit others & courageous vulnerability. Part 4 is a more personal focus on values. She shares the benefits of a gratitude practice & living a life of no regrets.
One of the positives of this content is how much is covered in a relatively short book. In under 200 pages, Anne touches on a lot of the best practices in this field. Any executives who have been on personal or leadership development courses will find material that is familiar. Anne complements this amount of theory with personal experiences & case studies from clients. It is all structured into 10 principles that are relevant for all leaders (including analytical ones). Plus, each chapter ends with a challenge & exercises for personal reflection.
So far, so good. Where this book runs into trouble is the volume of what has been included at a high level. It feels a bit like the mistake I always make as a trainer when creating a new training course. I try to stuff in too much content. Likewise, this book can read a bit like a bullet point summary of all relevant theory. Which can at times feel a bit like a whirlwind tour without having fully grasped or explored any one subject. I fear that will not work well for analytics leaders with their attention to detail. The exercises too are overwhelming in terms of the questions asked. Sitting down with such a list can feel like an interrogation with the ‘tyranny of choice‘ effect putting off some readers from completing the exercises.
How can you get the most out of this book?
On reflection, I realised a lot of what drove the problems I experienced above was the way I was reading this book. As part of my annual personal development plan, I aimed to read this book within 3 weeks. Such a deadline did not lend itself to 10 exercises intended to be completed over at least a week each. My more rapid reading also meant I was not pausing to reflect as often as would help with this book.
To overcome the potential twin problems of superficiality and information overload, I recommend going more slowly. Allow yourself time to stop and reflect each time you have been presented with a new principle. Identify those models, advice or others resources that sound relevant. Then use the bibliography provided to springboard more detailed study & learning. For the challenge at the end of each chapter, take at least a week to complete that and book in time to reflect afterwards. For those reflections times, don’t worry about the question overload in the book, select 1-3 questions that resonate with you and reflect on those.
Beyond that advice, I suspect that Anne is right to end this book by explaining more about her work as a coach. It would help leaders reading this book to work through it together with a coach or mentor. I can see how mentoring could really help as a safe reflective space to clarify insights and commit to actions at each stage. Go slow to go faster. Given that advice, I do actually recommend this book for analytical leaders. Those who are willing to go on such a voyage of self-discovery. But only if you are willing to take 10-12 months to work through the material in this book, complete the challenges & reflect with your mentor.
What is helping you develop Soft Skills as an Analytics leader
I mentioned above that I train & mentor leaders of data & analytics teams. As I’ve outlined in this post, Anne’s book could also be a resource to support such work (even with an internal mentor). What else works for you?
Given almost every data leader I know recognises the need to develop such skills, how are you doing so? Are you working with a mentor or coach? Is a different book or online resource helping you? Are you protecting time in your diary for reflection? Please share what has worked for you, so we can all grow into the data leaders we aspire to be. I look forward to hearing from you & thank you for this book, Anne.