Like It or Not, Leadership Support is Essential for Successful Data & Analytics Initiatives
Anyone who has ever had to deliver a large analytics effort, from a self-serve implementation to standing up an entire Data and Analytics organization at a large company has heard “you’d better have executive support.” Depending on how I woke up on the days that I heard this, I would have one of two reactions. One is, “well hell, if we need the CEO to tell us that growth and increased profit are a good idea, god help us all.” And the other one, is “agreed let’s go get some!” Since that second response is a lot more productive, let’s focus on that one. And, of course, being a data person, I know what the data tells us - Leadership drives analytics maturity.
When people talk about needing executive support, they’re really saying: with time, money, and attention being finite resources, and with the change management required to launch a major data initiative being considerable, you will need executive help to be successful. Regrettably this is truer in data initiatives than in areas with a longer history in the corporate world, for example M&A or Organizational Transformation. Not only have fewer members of executive teams been through a major data initiative, it’s likely that there is a big gap between their knowledge of how data transforms business and your knowledge of the topic; making you prone to the dreaded curse of knowledge.
Executive Support Manifests in Three Areas
Terms like “executive support” and “buy-in” are too ambiguous to actively secure. Instead think across three vectors to better understand the level of executive support you have: Enthusiasm, Understanding, and Influence.
As in life, enthusiasm for data initiatives plays an outsized role in success. As Kevin Kelly of Wired Magazine has said on Freakonomics (and other places), “enthusiasm is worth 25 IQ points.” This should be the easiest to assess and the easiest to instill in your fellow leaders, provided, of course that you lead by example and are wildly enthusiastic.
Understanding can be tricky. You don’t need someone who knows everything there is to know about how analytics drives value. That’s an impossible ask – even you don’t know it all. What’s more important is that your executive sponsor understands the potential of analytics to transform your firm, which includes understanding what leading firms in your industry are doing.
Influence can be touchy. Clearly, it’s unwise to ask a C-suite executive, “are you influential around here?” Even if you are brave or crazy enough to ask it’s likely they don’t even have an accurate answer. The best you can do is judge their track record. And since data initiatives will challenge your firm’s change management capacity, their ability to influence widely and in ways that don’t rely solely on their title and formal authority is critical.
Quickly Assessing the Three Areas
Thinking through these three vectors can help you put focused efforts into actions that will improve the overall impact of the support. When all three are at your disposal for a decent amount of time, the chance of your initiative’s success skyrockets. However, it’s likely you will need to manage a gap in one or more of the vectors over the course of your initiative. Even if you start your journey with strong support, that supporter might leave, they might get pulled into other areas, or simply have a reduction in one of the three areas. So, it’s helpful to think of the foursquare below as dynamic and something to check in and update regularly. Below are 6 examples garnered from experience and discussions with leaders in analytics across the world.
“Focus on delivery” – An executive with enthusiasm, understanding, and influence sounds like a dream, and it is for most. Still there are things to focus on to ensure they stay here. If their understanding is correct and their enthusiasm justified, then it’s simple – you need to deliver. It is, however, possible that they overestimate the potential of analytics in your firm, so a cautious watch on their enthusiasm is necessary. Enthusiasm will drop faster than understanding will calibrate.
“Use cases to teach” – Whether they are an eternal optimist, or you are that charming, there is a disconnect between an executive leader’s knowledge and their enthusiasm. Even with medium influence this is not a bad situation. It’s likely that you can keep this enthusiasm with a focus on use cases that really connect to their business function or their experience. And the closer the connection the greater the potential to improve understanding.
“Get some friends” – With only a medium amount of influence, a lack of understanding, and enthusiasm, a leader in this position will not likely improve on any vectors unless you get colleagues of theirs to act as your surrogate to drive the other vectors. And it may be one for enthusiasm and one for understanding, with the knowledge that as fellow execs they will also bolster the influence. Think of it along the lines of the sum of parts exceeds the value of the whole.
“Prove yourself” – Provided the level of understanding is accurately assessed and this leader does have influence you need to accept the lack of enthusiasm may well be an indication they think you and your staff are not up to the task. In most cases a winning smile and a killer PowerPoint will not do the trick, you will need to deliver results, ideally in an area of high interest to them or their key surrogates.
“It’s going to be a long slog” – While not impossible, you will need to be realistic about the time, quantity of false starts, and high levels of frustration you’re going to endure to be successful here.
“Find Your Exec A Mentor” – If you have a highly influential leader energized to support your efforts, speed matters most. Delivering on use cases that have major impact could help keep the influence, but to really maximize the situation you need to get this leader more knowledgeable very quickly. The leaders in your company, especially the C-suite, might have greater access to thought leaders than you. They might, however, not know who the analytics leaders in your industry are; here you can help. If you identify to whom they should connect with e.g., a leader at a digital native, a tech company CEO, etc., you might be surprised by how their knowledge grows after a couple of one on ones.
This landscape will shift over time and your interactions with these execs will be limited, so this framework is intentionally simplistic. It’s meant to be a lightweight, easily adapted way to think actively about how to get the executive support you need, and how to keep it.
Drew has close to 20 years of experience, having worked on both the business side of analytics, leveraging insights for business performance, and on the delivery side of analytics driving the use of enterprise analytics. As the lead of Analytics Leadership Consortium, Drew drives engagement with analytics executives and top analytics practitioners in the IIA Community to help them lead their firm’s journey to analytics excellence.
Before joining the IIA, he led the Enterprise Data Analytics and Governance function at IKEA’s global headquarters in Europe. He leveraged analytics in various leadership roles across the IKEA value chain in both the United States and Europe. He received his MBA from Penn State and his undergraduate degree from Boston University.
About The Analytics Leadership Consortium (ALC)
The Analytics Leadership Consortium (ALC) is a closed network of analytics executives from diverse industries who meet to share and discuss real world best practices, as well as discover and develop analytics innovation, all for the purpose of improving the analytics maturity of their firms and securing the business impact they deliver.
You can view more posts by Drew here.