Securing Buy-In
June 13, 2022

How are Softer Skills still relevant for Data Leaders? Part 3: Buy-In

By Paul Laughlin

This post continues our series exploring how the Softer Skills needed by analysts also help data leaders, this time looking at the buy-in step. What does it mean for data leaders to secure buy-in? What else, beyond the stakeholder management skills developed by analysts do their leaders need to master?

In this post, I will share the themes I’ve noticed while coaching data leaders. Listening to all types of data, analytics, data science & insight leaders has revealed certain common themes. Consistent issues that arise. Familiar challenges & concerns. Plus, time and again I have seen such leaders benefit from certain mindsets and time to think about these things.

So, building on our second post in this series that focussed on planning skills, let’s turn our attention to gaining buy-in. What are some of the people skills & planning that can help data leaders with this challenge? How can data leaders move beyond being reactive to planning a campaign of greater influence in their organisations?

Becoming more aware, intentional & flexible

Below I list four aspects of what I have seen help some data leaders achieve greater success with securing buy-in and investment. None of this happens by accident. Leaders who sustain their influence do so by focussing on such aspects. Raising their self-awareness, planning who and how to influence senior leaders, plus flexing their style to achieve that. As you read the four recommended approaches below, I recommend that you have in mind the senior stakeholders whom you’d like to influence. What would such an approach look like for you when working with them?

First, know thyself

The first journey for many leaders seeking to develop their influence is an inner one. Before they focus on understanding and persuading others, they need to know themselves better. A key aspect of both emotional intelligence and leadership development generally is improving self-awareness. A number of approaches can help here. Psychometric tools can help, especially with the assistance of a coach or mentor.

I recommend using tools like Strength Finders or others grounded in Positive Psychology to clarify your strengths. This can helpfully be supplemented by a deeper understanding of how others perceive you. Here a tool like the Integrated Leadership Model can provide a powerful audit when used as a 360-degree feedback survey. Understanding your own mental toughness & developing that capability can also empower your approach to securing buy-in, I recommend reading my review of that tool.

Next, plan your campaign

I’ve shared before the power of analysts creating Stakeholder Maps and the same is true for data or analytics leaders. Alongside developing their domain knowledge & commercial awareness, leaders need to identify all those peers & senior stakeholders they need to influence. Digging deeper than the official map of authority (the org chart), to identify how decisions really get made & who influences whom.

This is partly about developing a greater understanding of the political landscape of your business and partly about identifying processes, meetings & personal relationships that matter. Armed with that greater understanding, data leaders can then apply the same stakeholder mapping approach as analysts. But they should be ambitious in terms of identifying which stakeholder to prioritise. Most data leaders need to be influencing the most senior leaders within the organisation, right up to the CEO.

Flex your style to help the other understand

By default, many data leaders would prefer to conduct meetings & decisions at a purely rational level. To present the facts, make logical deductions and choose those options that optimise the priority metric. However, the work above should have developed a greater awareness of the human dimension. As research in fields like Behavioural Economics has taught us, most decisions are actually driven by emotions. Most people, including leaders in business, make decisions based on how they feel, who they trust and the immediate context.

But I encourage data leaders to get past seeing this as just a human weakness and a frustrating barrier to their data-driven plans. Such a bias in human organisations & decision-making actually captures some important awareness that data leaders may lack. Sales and Operations leaders can be closer to the impact of decisions on their staff morale & motivation. Technology leaders can be influenced by past experiences of similar projects & failures. So, a great skill for data leaders to develop is how to flex their style to how different senior leaders make decisions. Who wants lots of detail & time to chew it over themselves? Which leaders want to focus on the people aspect and how your recommendation would work in practice? Do some need to have trust built first, to see how you can be relied upon to help with their issues?

Don’t limit influencing to yourself, mobilise your staff like a football team

Once a data leader has created a map of the key stakeholders who need to be influenced and styles that work for each of them, it can feel intimidating. So many people to keep an eye on. So much communication and relationship building. Plus there is the existing workload to ensure gets delivered. Never fear. It is not and should not be solely down to you. Effective data leaders know how to mobilise their whole squad on a shared mission.

I used the football analogy above (soccer for US readers), because of the need for ‘man marking‘ in that game. Identifying who will key an eye on a certain player and tackle them when necessary. An analogy can work here. I’ve shared before how matching your analysts to different parts of the business can help with prioritisation. It can also help with stakeholder relationship management. Share the motivating vision with your team of influencing your wider business to take them on a transformational journey. Then divide & conquer. But don’t just focus on which analyst currently delivers work for which directorate. It’s worth also considering personality matches. Whose personal style would work for the ways different leaders make decisions?

How are you securing buy-in as a data leader? How do you need to develop?

Hopefully, this post was also helpful. If nothing else, I hope it encouraged data leaders to think about this topic. I encourage you to reflect on the above in the light of who you need to influence in order to deliver the data-driven change your organisation needs. Then honestly assess your progress. Who has become an advocate or champion of your work? Who remains sceptical?

With all the challenges data leaders are facing today, I get why it is easy to neglect such leadership development. You probably have an overflowing InBox. More demand than you can currently meet. Difficulties recruiting the analysts you need for your team. Plus all the other political & personal challenges that make it such a demanding role. But, I encourage data & analytics leaders not to walk past the softer skills I am focussing on in this series. As you develop your ability to secure buy-in from senior leaders, so much else on your plate will get easier. I wish you well on your development journey.