Leadership in the Age of Big Data Analytics


With data availability and accessibility being at an all-time high, the analyst community is in big demand. The need for learning new enterprise grade technologies such as Hadoop and IBM Watson is becoming critical. Data is available in all shapes, sizes, quality and quantity.

Increase in demand requires analysts to advance their skills to the next level, which I call “Chief Intelligence Marketers” (move over data scientists). I know some of you may object to the word “marketer” in the title, but ultimately analytical people have the dual task of deriving intelligence from data and marketing it to respective stakeholders.

I can already see some eyebrows being raised as some of you may say “Sameer, my job is done when the analysis is done.” I agree with you to a certain degree. In most cases, post-analysis, the analytical community takes a back seat and the business managers and leaders make decisions. However, with the rapid growth in data volume and complexity, analytics ninjas need to step up their game. This is a perfect time for analytical folks in any organization to become the initiator and the driver of change.

The age of information is maturing in full force and we need new leaders to take the front seat and rule the data world. It has long been known that leadership is all about influencing people. However, information influence is a more than just motivational speeches with fancy words.

For the last 5,000 years, human beings have been driven by information of some sort. Even human emotional patterns are linked and influenced by information and data. According to the Science Daily, humans experience pain and pleasure based on information transmitted to the neurons. All the greatest monuments built to date such as the Pyramids, the Taj Mahal, the Leaning Tower of Pisa, and the Statue of Liberty were based on processing and manifesting information and hard data.

The lingering question is how data and business analysts can become leaders, or more directly, how you can take a career leap towards the leadership in your organization. Good news! It is absolutely possible for intelligence marketers to drive change in any organization. The catch is that there is a learning curve and you have to follow a systematic plan to accomplish it.

The following paragraphs will discuss a simple step-by-step plan to data intelligence leadership. The foundation of any type of analysis is a three-step process, which I call the “trifecta of analytics” (i.e., collect, analyze, and evangelize).

trifecta of analytics

Trifecta of Analytics

Collect: Collection and storage of data is necessary before the data can become useful for analysis. Of course, there are other steps such as cleaning the data, removing redundancies and other data sanitation methods, but for simplicity’s sake, they fall under the “collect” phase.

It is very interesting to note that a large majority of the technological advancements that have been made in the last decade surround the storage of data. Cloud computing has made it easy to store massive databases cost-effectively. Technologies such as Hadoop make it even prettier to store and analyze data at high speed without the need for moving data around.

Hadoop comes in a variety of flavors, and each vendor has their own twist to the base Hadoop offering from Apache. IBM Infosphere BigInsights is the most comprehensive Hadoop offering in the market for storing, analyzing and visualizing large volumes of data.

Most organizations spend the majority of their time and money in the “collect” phase.

Analyze: Analysis or torture of the data to the point that it speaks up is a key part of the trifecta of analytics. Ultimately it boils down to what the data is telling us or else it remains a pile of garbage or 1s and 0s. Although a critical aspect of driving change, analysis generally takes the second position in most organizations behind the collection phase.

Analysis of data opens up a lot of possibilities in terms of the type or method of analysis. You can simply use spreadsheets to start manual analysis or use the SPSS modeler to dive into complex analytics algorithms such as Bayes net, linear regression, K-means or many more.

Regardless of how complex your analytics methodology is, the end game should be getting answers. If you ask the right questions of the data by proper analysis then you are bound to get answers. You may also be surprised to discover completely new answers.

Evangelize: The last phase of the trifecta of analytics is the phase where most analysts get lazy. I am not joking here, as in general, the analyst community is known to communicate key takeaways instead of driving change. We feel that our job is done as soon as we share that massive spreadsheet or gigantic PowerPoint deck from our inbox or Dropbox. We tend to rely heavily on the receiving party to take further action.

Some analysts go one step further by transforming the garbled tables into pretty visualizations. Visualization has a role to play when it comes to evangelizing the results. You can, in certain cases, easily communicate your message by picking the right visualization methods.

The issue is that the visualization of the data still does not complete the story, or make a difference. Remember, in order for you to become leaders, you have to drive CHANGE. It is your time to turn the tables and expand your influence beyond crunching numbers. The only way you will succeed is by evangelizing your analysis to the extent that it influences people to take action.

Remember, leadership is simply influencing people and you can either influence them by motivational speeches or by the power of information. In our case, it is easier to use our information weapon as a key motivational method.

Under no circumstances should the “evangelize” step of the trifecta of analytics be omitted. Think about the problems you can solve, dollars you can save for your organization, system improvements and technological advancements you can bring about, and even lives you can save. There is just too much at stake if you are not ready to evangelize your results to influence people.

In addition to these three steps of analytics, there is a fundamental skillset required to be a solid leader.

1. Communication: Clearly communicating your results is also a subset of the evangelism phase discussed above. However, being a leader requires you to take charge of your communication skills. According to the connected leader survey conducted by McKenzie, an effective communication skill set is required for 4 out of the 5 dimensions of leadership mastery (meaning, framing, connecting, engaging, energizing).

Communication skills can take you far beyond your day-to-day analytics program management and help you turn data into insights. The leader who can communicate their emotions, fears, ideas, results, actions, strategy and plans effectively continues to lead for the long term.

One major part of communication skills is listening skills. Listening is the most essential piece of effective communication. As John Maxwell says, most leaders communicate, few listen and very few connect. In order to advance to the levels of leadership, it is highly important to learn to listen.

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The great thing about being in the digital age is that you don’t have to step up to a podium and give a speech to become a leader. In fact, public speaking is constantly rated as one of the top ten phobias.You can easily communicate through books, social media, webinars, blogs, videos, and podcasts.

There is no excuse to not communicate to your audience. Incremental communication leads to confidence, which is the next step in leadership skill development.

2. Confidence (with Integrity and Honesty): As analysts, we tend to be confident in our analysis and we can bet our shirts on how accurate our work is. It is absolutely necessary for you to be confident in your numbers as long as you know you are right.

In this case, I am talking about a different level of confidence required as a leader. As leaders, your confidence is your charisma. Your level of confidence shows up in your posture, eyes, and tone of voice and helps you connect with your audience. Think about John F. Kennedy here just for a second. JFK in general was not as outgoing a speaker as Teddy Roosevelt; however, he connected with the audience more because of his charisma and confidence even though both were solid Presidents.

The idea is to remove yourself from the equation and put your audience at the front and center. If you truly believe the information you have to share will benefit your audience, then you have reached the peak of confidence. All of the greatest speeches and presentations are delivered at this higher level.

Above all aspects, the key to being a confident leader is your integrity and honesty towards your work, towards others and towards life in general. No matter how confident you are, you will eventually fail if your confidence is not backed by integrity and honesty.

3. Authority: It is a hard reality that the leadership strategies and tactics that worked for centuries are being put to the test for upcoming information age leaders. Historically, leading people was a one-way communication using a limited number of media, mainly live speeches, person-to-person meetings, TV or radio. Social media and digital media has totally disrupted the one-to-many communication with a multi-dimensional connected model.

If you message is not clear and available in multiple formats, then you will instantly lose your audience. As intelligence marketers, we sometimes try to complicate things by adding unnecessary data under the assumption that we will be not doing justice to our audience. On the contrary, the truth is that your target audience today is too sophisticated, too skeptical and too busy to spend time deciphering your message. Moreover, you may not be able to reach out to all the stakeholders at the same time, so data distribution in multiple formats is a must.

image1Source: http://julianstodd.wordpress.com/2013/05/02/authority-the-changing-nature-of-authority-in-social-learning/

In addition to the simplicity of your message, you have to stand out by differentiating yourself from others in your industry. In my eyes, the most critical differentiator is becoming the authority. By becoming the authority in your market, you can connect with more people, generate more followers, influence larger groups and establish undisputable credibility and trust. Your followers will look to you for valuable advice and guidance. They will act on your recommendations and ultimately change their course of action.

Secondary benefits of becoming an authority are:

  • you will become more searchable in your industry online and in social media
  • you will be regarded as the go-to trusted advisor
  • key decision makers won’t proceed without your input
  • people will want to work with you (and under you)
  • your income will grow significantly
  • your competitors will respect you

Enough said on the advantages of becoming an authority. Let’s briefly talk about how to go on to becoming an analytics authority. I could easily write pages on all the actions you can take to increase your social influence in analytics but that is a conversation for another day. At this point I want to provide a short list of things to do to become an authority in your industry or niche.

a. Blog: Writing useful articles and posts is slowly becoming a “commodity” for almost all industry types. There is no reason why you should not start your own blog or blog for your company, a local organization or third party sites.

There is still a strong need for good writers, so get a copywriting book and follow a simple formula of writing one page per day. Blogging your thoughts on analytics, data, cloud and numbers in general can open up new leadership opportunities for you.

b. Create your Persona: Think about the last time you said something and the point was very well taken by your peers or senior leaders. Imagine if you could do that over and over again. What was the difference in your communication style, your voice, or your tonality? What made your analysis better, or were you more confident? Are you a passive and relaxed communicator, or a more aggressive orator?

These are some of the questions you may need to answer to develop your persona. It is extremely important for you to understand your style and create an anchor for your audience. It’s all about how you make them feel when you interact with them.

c. Thought Leadership and Vision: Once you have identified your style and persona you must articulate your vision and thoughts openly. You can also participate in the analytics community and groups by listening to what your peers and industry leaders are talking about. Eventually start contributing to the community and be approachable.

Sometimes it is ok to be a little provocative, as long as you are not crossing the boundaries of professionalism. Speak at a marketing or analytics conference or two, depending on what your schedule permits. Write a book on areas you have a good grasp of, or simply write white papers showcasing your successes as an intelligence marketer.

Extend your reach and create followers by answering analytics or big data questions on Twitter. Helping your community is one of the simplest way to rise to leadership.

analyics-twitter2Analytics questions on Twitter (Twitter search string: analytics -filter:links ?)

d. Iconic Words: I learnt this technique from one of my mentors and have found it really useful in connecting with the audience. Iconic words are simply unique quotes or phrases that separate you from others. They are your made-to-stick statements and compliment your persona.

e. Mentors: Great leaders have great mentors and having a mentor to coach and guide you as you continue to develop your leadership skills is extremely important. Mentors can correct you if you take a misstep, and they will help you to not lose sight of your ultimate goals. I have had the luxury of having had great mentors who have helped me with different initiatives in my life.

Remember, it is a no-brainer to aim to take that leadership role in your organization. If you can show your audience and customers what they need to do differently to solve their problems and fill their needs, you are bound to win them as followers.

Just imagine what you are leaving behind if you do not pursue the path to leadership. By not pursuing the path to analytics leadership, you are leaving your potential followers deprived of the knowledge you can share and change you can drive.

This is a perfect time for you to start working on your analytics leadership plan!

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