October 14, 2022

How are Softer Skills still relevant for Data Leaders? Part 7: Sign-Off

By Paul Laughlin

For this step in our series on the softer skills that data leaders need, I focus on the need to consider Sign-off from key stakeholders. This builds on the advice previously shared on how data leaders can use softer skills to create the culture needed for Data, Analytics & Insight.

Building on what we’ve shared before in this series, I once again consider what I have learnt from 8 years of mentoring data leaders. When training analysts on this stage of softer skills, we focus on influencing & navigating organisational politics. How does that translate for the world of their leaders?

What common themes have I seen help data leaders create an environment where the work of their team is acted upon? Where both they and their team have a more significant influence in the broader organisation. In this post, I will share 3 such tips and how I have seen them help successful influential data leaders.

Grow your confidence to act at a higher level

A pattern that I have noticed in successful analysts or data scientists is that their key internal stakeholders tend to be at least one level more senior than them. They need to develop the ability to ‘act up‘ and effectively manage a stakeholder with more authority/status than them. This is normally achieved by both building trust and recognising their authority/status as an expert.

The same principle appears to operate for data leaders. They do need to build effective collaborative partnerships with their peers across other functions. But they also need to be able to step up and engage like a peer with a director or those more senior than them. This requires a combination of confidence & the flexing of their style to work with that person. Take the time to learn what matters most to that senior leader. Identifying their working style & the data leader flexing their communication approach to work for that leader.

There are many reasons for data leaders to believe they can do this & that their voice is needed at that higher level. Most organisations come from a heritage of not being data-led, so it is likely that their senior leadership is still underpopulated with data-literate leaders. (I recommend that readers listen to my podcast interview with Sanjeevan Bala to hear why data leaders should consider becoming a NED.) So, I recommend you consider for a moment whether you should be interacting with a more senior audience than your current focus. If so, what is your first step for getting on their radar?

Secure investment for the long term with mixed delivery

Many data leaders are under pressure to deliver a measurable ROI from investment to date. Even when that investment has been far below what is required for transformational change. To help achieve that I’ve found it can help to focus on both bringing together diverse technical teams and to deliver a balanced diet to your business.

With regards to integrating previously diverse technical teams, I have in mind especially the benefit of combining both technical teams who deliver short-term benefits and those focusing on the long-term. For example, taking oversight of both decisioning teams & strategic analytics or data science teams. The former can focus on delivering for sales & marketing this year. The latter on more transformative change through strategic insights or products. Visibly delivering a blend of both these outputs is what I mean by a balanced diet.

Although some CDOs or Chief Data Scientists have been brought in with large budgets to help an organisation transform, many more need to take an incremental approach. I recommend the latter. A stronger reputation is built for you & your data teams by delivering smaller changes with measurable financial impact. Such cost savings or income generation then gives you the credibility to pitch for the longer-term infrastructure or skills investment needed for transformation.

Consider becoming a profit centre

A number of senior leaders whom I’ve mentored have expressed a desire to move away from being a cost centre. Only a few have done so. The motivation for all of them is both the actual financial contribution to their organisations and the change in perception. Metamorphosing the view of the data teams from being table stakes or the cost of doing business these days. Instead demonstrating that such a department can generate income and improve profitability.

Needless to say, when achieved such a change does alter both how the function is perceived and how it is used. Analysts working on this Softer Skills stage of Sign-Off may sometimes need to consider sharing financial targets that they cannot control in order to be perceived as having “skin in the game“. This approach for leaders takes such influencing one step further. Not just being “all in it together” with the commercial teams they are supporting, but rather being at least equal. Equally important to the financial survival of the wider business.

I’ve seen a few different approaches work for this evolution. Some start by delivering data products or leads that can generate income or savings. Then they successfully lobby for retaining that extra cash in order to invest further in the team. From this commercial basis, they develop into going beyond reinvestment to sharing a net profit back. Others address historic issues with prioritisation by starting to cross-charge for their services. This alone can help reduce less important requests. It can also be a first step towards owning a profit centre.

What has helped you navigate your politics & achieve more sign-offs?

I’m aware that was a briefer blog post than some in this series. Apologies for that. I hope my thoughts were still useful and sparked your own. I have the great problem of being very busy with lots of client work. But have no fear, the CIL blog & podcast will still continue.

I’m also interested, as ever, in hearing more about your experience. What other tips have helped you influence more senior leaders in your organisation? What did you do to secure great investment or have more of a say in strategic decisions? All data leaders need to master such skills, but most do so without a playbook. So, let’s share here what has worked in practice.