May 26, 2022

How are Softer Skills still relevant for Data Leaders? Part 1: Questioning

By Paul Laughlin

On a couple of occasions I have been asked to share my experience of mentoring data & analytics leaders. To both dinner clubs & special interest groups, I have presented the themes that have emerged from over 250 hours of mentoring such clients. Without breaching mentor-client confidentiality, it has been fascinating to spot the common challenges & skills that have emerged.

To help me arrange my thoughts and curate the myriad of different human experiences, I used the structure of my 9-Step Model of Softer Skills. I’ve shared previously how this model summaries the softer skills that analysts need to have greater impact. Placing those people skills within the context of a recommended high-level workflow.

As I reviewed what I had learnt through my clients, I was surprised to see how well themes grouped within the categories of the model for analysts. Obviously the focus & scale of challenges for data leaders is different. But at core I believe the same 9 skills emerge as needed, just at a more advanced level. So in this series of blog posts I will share what I have identified. Grouped as promised using the categories within my Softer Skills Model.

Data Leaders need to take questioning to the next level

The first step within that 9-step model is Questioning. For analysts, that refers to the need to master Socratic Questioning skills in order to identify what is really needed. For data leaders, I saw this mindset emerge in the following familiar challenges…

1) Educating the C-Suite on the art of the possible

Most data & analytics leaders have identified the need for a focus on data literacy & education for their organisations. As with most cultural change it needs to be role modelled from the top. Data leaders often also identify that a purely Socratic Questioning approach to exploring executive work requests is insufficient. Neither strategy nor senior-level discussions can explore where is needed without a common language with regards to ‘the art of the possible’.

So, to supplement mastering questioning to surface what is needed behind what is requested, I recommend being an educator. Either internally or with the help of external parties, build a foundation for more helpful conversations through opening eyes. Enable your leadership team to dream, to envision the realistic & aspirational potential of data & analytics to do things differently.

2) Druming up suitable demand

Questioning to elicit the most important needs within the organisation should not just be reactive. Leaders of these functions have a responsibility to also be proactive. To get out and about within their organisation to help other leaders and teams recognise where data and analytics could help them. Learning & engaging with the challenges, risks & opportunities of the key business functions.

This will bring the added benefit of enhancing the data leaders reputation. This is both through improved commerciality (from increasing your domain knowledge & by joining the dots across what may be silo’d functions). Such proactivity, when done artfully, can also position the data leader as interested, helpful and someone who gets things done. All helpful steps towards being that ‘trusted advisor’.

3) Managing internal client expectations

At a data leader level you also have to master the skill of saying no or not yet. As you or your team succeed at drumming up suitable demand, you will inevitably reach the stage where you have too much work. This requires both ruthless prioritisation and effective stakeholder management.

Data & analytics leaders should consistently make clear what is pragmatic, what is not possible yet and bring to light the scale of challenges. Do not be tempted to always have a ‘can do attitude’ or ‘say yes & then work out how’. That way leads to over-promising and under-delivering. Rather such leaders need to deploy their commercial understanding & EQ skills in communicating both what is possible and what should come first. Neglect this skillset at your peril.

4) Challenging your team & others in the delivery chain

Effective leaders need to know how to push people to achieve their best, without coming across as aggressive or overly demanding. Their management of business expectations must be coupled with an ability to set and expect stretching goals of their team. Otherwise they will come across as protectionist, paternalistic and ultimately a weak leader who cannot be relied upon to deliver.

Rather, data & analytics leaders should build and excitement and pride in their teams. A culture of being a place to work where there will be plenty of opportunities to learn & grow, to do interesting work. But also a place where you are expected to be committed and to work together to ensure the whole team does not drop the ball. What has this got to do with questioning skills? Well the leaders are removed from the detail of the day to day work. They need to use effective questioning skills to identify where issues need to be addressed. To see behind excuses & develop the reputation of a leader who cannot be fooled by excuses or technical language as a smokescreen for mediocrity or lack of effort.

How have you mastered Questioning as a data leader?

I hope my observations ring true and you can relate to at least some of them. Ideally at least one might give you the nudge you need to focus on developing further in one of those areas.

But, now over to you dear reader. What is your experience of this challenge as a data & analytics leader? How have you mastered and deployed questioning skills in your role? How has such a capability served you well? When have you been tripped up and what did you learn from what went wrong? Please do share so we can all keep learning & growing as leaders.