How data leaders drive recovery and growth

In a time of crisis, like the COVID-19 pandemic, data leaders can help companies chart rapidly shifting market conditions and make essential decisions to navigate toward calmer waters.

This article was first published in partnership with Forbes BrandVoice.

If data is at the heart of the modern organization, then data leaders are its pulse. They evangelize best practices, model data-driven behavior and promote data skills by serving as educators and mentors. These are the employees that create and nurture a company’s data culture, which is critical to success in today’s landscape. In a time of crisis, like the COVID-19 pandemic, data leaders can help companies chart rapidly shifting market conditions and make essential decisions to navigate toward calmer waters.

“As data has become more and more valuable to organizations, there are people who have stepped up to drive the culture and mindset of how the organization collects and uses data, ultimately changing how decisions are made,” says Ashley Howard Neville, senior technology evangelist at Tableau. “These are the leaders that will use data to drive innovative solutions and help craft an organization’s recovery strategy.”

Who are your company's data leaders?

  • They model data-driven behavior

    Data leaders lead by example. They rely on real-time organizational data to influence their day-to-day decisions. They are adept with the company’s business intelligence software and they encourage a data-first mindset. 67% respondents from data-leading organizations said that they require data to support recommendations and decisions, according to a recent Tableau-sponsored study from IDC.1
  • They foster data-focused teams

    Today’s data-focused teams must be able to balance the three core competencies of finding data, analyzing data and interpreting data. That means looking to internal leaders to form well-rounded teams and cultivating data communities that allow a data culture to thrive. Employees at data-leading organizations are 3x better than their peers at less data-aware organizations at finding and connecting with data, according to the IDC study. But they need to be supported by data-focused teams.
  • They are educators and mentors

    Data leaders often start as informal teachers, offering data expertise and guidance to their colleagues before taking any formal leadership role. According to the IDC study, 79% more employees from data-leading companies are very forthcoming when it comes to sharing data across their organization than are employees at less data-aware companies.

With businesses forced to adjust to various overlapping crises, having a handle on data and data leadership is more important than ever. “Having good data and being able to interpret that data actually increases your speed and agility,” says Mark Jewett, senior vice president of product marketing at Tableau. “You have to embrace that.”

If you’re an executive wondering how to lead your organization through this turbulent time—and how to deputize your most valuable employees—follow the data. Here, we’ll provide actionable tips on how to empower the data leaders in your organization to foster a healthy data culture. These actions help position your organization to make critical decisions around reopening and to meet future obstacles with an agile mindset.

How can you empower data leaders at your company?

Data leaders aren’t always in formal leadership roles or data roles. There’s no single title for a data leader, says Howard Neville; sometimes they come from the business side, sometimes IT, though they are often at mid-management level with experience in multiple disciplines. “But really, anyone in an organization can be a data leader,” says Howard Neville.“ It’s about the value these people bring to the organization. Data leaders show up beyond their specific area of focus to champion data across an entire organization.”

These are the employees that will lead elements of your crisis and recovery strategy because they understand how to get the data they need and how to use it to guide and adjust their planning.

Executives need to empower these people because they will likely be a source of faster response times, new ideas and company alignment. But as an executive, how do you unlock their capabilities? Consider these actionable tips for empowering the next crop of data leaders.

Create a feedback loop

Don’t focus on hierarchical processes where you, as the executive, have the first and last word. Encourage frequent and open conversations about data and insights. This could take the form of daily stand-ups, where everyone consults the data and uses their contextual expertise to uncover useful insights, creating room for a democratized process and unlocking faster, better decisions. When you prioritize data-informed decisions, you put your organization and your people in the best possible position for the recovery ahead.

Work simple, work smart

“Simplicity, trust and speed are essential in a crisis,” says Jackie Yeaney, executive vice president of marketing at Tableau. That means finding a crop of data leaders and giving them the resources to do what they need to—and quickly. As Yeaney notes, “Don’t let perfect get in the way of good enough.” Executives should work with data leaders to re-evaluate and stay on top of key metrics as elements change. Praise your team as they start and stop efforts—and even try new things—during crisis.

Create opportunities for collaboration

Data leaders don’t operate alone. They rely on their own teams, support from superiors and a strong community to help employees cultivate data skills, collaboration and sharing of best practices between departments. The next data leader in your community may not come from the C-suite; they might be a manager or analyst working diligently with their team, waiting for the chance to step forward. Give them that chance by creating a dedicated time and space to exercise and augment their abilities.

How can data leaders help companies move forward through crisis?

During a period of acute crisis, companies must learn to rely on data leaders as strategists and bellwethers of market conditions. The same is true of the period of recovery following uncertainty, when businesses begin to stabilize and find their footing in a new normal. A few months into the COVID-19 pandemic, some organizations have already demonstrated how valuable a strong data culture and strategy can be. What unites them is their agility and their ability to rapidly leverage existing data talent and resources. Consider these real-life examples:

How a food charity is tracking students missing meals

One global food charity was able to create a dashboard that shows where schools are closed and how many children are missing out on meals as a result. It already had a database in place to track these metrics, but the organization’s data leaders pivoted quickly to integrate open data from public organizations to provide more recent data. This dashboard is now being leveraged by leaders and policymakers around the world and is also available to the public.

How a credit union is accelerating the loan process

When much of the United States entered a period of shelter in place, one of the country’s oldest credit unions was ready to adapt. Since banks are considered essential services, the organization had to rewrite the way it operates, including putting more resources toward drive-through and online services and handling a surge in loan applications from the Paycheck Protection Program. The credit union had already prioritized a data culture, so data leaders on the analytics team could quickly provide the necessary data to help steer resources where they were needed.

How a lending organization is keeping its employees safe

When India instituted a society-wide lockdown, senior leaders at a lending organization responded by creating a task force dedicated to the needs of employees during the crisis. They created a dashboard that visualizes information related to the health and safety of employees, helping them assess core needs like finances, medicine, food and transport. As a result, they were able to move quickly to shore up resources before the crisis worsened.

Ultimately, data leadership is about trust, which flows both ways between executives and lower-level employees alike. If employees are empowered and given more access—and greater agency—that will be reflected in their work. “We’ve found that the more trust you put in a team, in terms of the data access they have, the more accountable they feel to use it responsibly and effectively,” says Tableau’s Mark Jewett. That lays the groundwork for an agile data culture that can help organizations adapt to unforeseen challenges—and turn them into opportunities for growth.

1. Why You Should Care About Data Culture, April 2020. IDC InfoBrief, sponsored by Tableau.