How to lead by example in the data-driven workplace

HR, lead, JobKeeper, human skills

There’s a fundamental difference between being a manager and being a leader. Common words used to describe the act of “managing” include directing, dictating and demanding; while leadership is often synonymous with coaching, demonstrating and guiding. In other words, leaders set the example through their actions and how they operate, rather than by simply telling people what to do.

This notion – leading by example – is a critical part of creating the right behaviours and culture in a business. If business leaders don’t act in the way they want others to, why would employees?

Unfortunately, time and time again we see examples of business leaders’ expectations of their workforce differ from employees’ reality. A good example of this is the use of data in the workplace. Most small business leaders understand the opportunities created by being able to harness data effectively, however they falter when it comes to empowering employees to lead with data.

The Human Impact of Data Literacy, a new report from Qlik and Accenture, found half of middle managers feel that all or most employees have the ability to work with data proficiently and believe their employees have access to the tools they need to be productive.

However, the same research also showed that only 25 per cent of Australian employees believe they’re fully prepared to use data effectively. What’s more, only one in five are fully confident in their data literacy skills, with almost half deferring to decisions based on gut feel due to this lack of confidence.

In the digital age, one of the biggest challenges for small businesses is transforming data into actionable insights to empower employees to make more informed decisions. However, it’s clear there’s a significant gap between what leaders believe and what their employees feel— and it is an issue business leaders must address.

Part of the issue is business leaders’ failure to recognise how their own actions set the wrong expectations. For example, almost three quarters (72 per cent) of the Australian c-suite admit to frequently making decisions on gut feel, rather than data-driven insights. While experience and intuition have their place in business, the findings suggest business leaders’ confidence in acting from insights is impeding some businesses’ ability to lead with data.

Improving their own understanding of data is a good first step. Today, data literacy – the ability to read, understand, question and work with data – is as important as reading or writing, but there’s still a major skills gap. Many organisations offer data literacy training in a bid to close this gap – options available include everything from free, self-paced online learning and assessments, to instructor-led courses and workshops.

If leaders are serious about modernising their organisations, then they need to establish the right culture. That can only be done by leading by example – interrogating their own skillsets, investing in training where required and asking for data during meetings to demonstrate to employees how data-led insights can, and should, be used.

To support this culture, it’s important leaders invest in practical initiatives to empower their staff. For instance, continuous learning programs will ensure employees’ skillsets are continually reinforced and developed. Employees should also be given the right tools for their job, including data analytics or visualisation platforms where appropriate.

At the end of the day, the most powerful asset for businesses in creating value from data and succeeding in a data-literate world is their people – and education and empowerment should be led from the top-down.

Geoff Thomas, Senior Vice President – Asia Pacific, Qlik