Data Leader, Servant Leader: 5 Ways to Build Winning Data Teams
As an overall philosophy, I’ve always liked the idea of servant leadership in data and analytics. As your manager, I'm here not to tell you how to do something or to show you the way I've done it. I know from my own experience that there are a lot of different (and probably better) ways to accomplish the same result. I worry that if I offer too much guidance, I actually might be limiting my direct reports. Then you'll only be as good as I figured out how to do it. Whereas it actually benefits all of us is if I can give you the tools and everything that you need to be successful.
For the most part, I feel like I'm a coach, and you don't expect a coach to get out on the field and make the winning play. Yet too often in this world, particularly as people transition from being individual contributors to leaders, it's hard to give up on the idea that you should be able to be the best technologist in addition to being a good manager. Here are five ways I’ve tried to build winning data teams by using a servant leader perspective.
- Set people up to succeed without overdetermining their path.
Data leadership is really about putting all the components in place — trying to ensure that we hire the right people, giving them all the tools they need — and then supporting them as they find newer and better ways to do things. Certainly there are skills and techniques that I can relay, but I always hold out hope that there's a better way.
If my team looks like they’re heading for disaster, I try to help them avoid it if I've seen otherwise, but I also try to coach them through my thought process versus solving a problem for them.
- Base your expectations on more than your own experiences.
When I look at just technology over time, a lot of techniques that didn't exist when I was at college are now in common use. Look at Python as a programming tool language. Kids are learning it in high school these days, in some cases even earlier. I would've never anticipated that it would have gone so far and would be so useful. But if I’d relied only my own experiences, I would have never accounted for that. It would have been too easy to conclude, as someone I know did a few years ago, “Well, Python is what high schoolers program in.” That’s totally the wrong approach. As a leader I’m always asking myself, how many other things do we take for granted that could be revolutionary to the way we do business?
- Learn (and teach others) how to deal with ambiguity.
Growing into leadership, your skillset changes. Just because you become better technically does not necessarily make you a better leader. On the other hand, your ability to deal with ambiguity and teach that skill to others is huge. It’s the difference between getting people to ask, “How do I solve this task?” and getting them to consider, “How can I be ready to solve any task?”
Ambiguity is a tricky one. As a parent of teenagers, it's hard to let your children explore and even struggle when you may already know the answer. In my experience, a lot of people are looking to receive direction on what to do next in the data space. What is the next report or database that I'm building? What is the next information that I'm analyzing? What I try to teach my team is a higher level of comfort with being proactive in connecting dots when the outcome is unclear, or to come up with ideas and say, "Well, nobody's looking at this information. It seems like a treasure trove of data. Let's try to understand if there's value there."
- Teach people to consider the downstream implications of their decisions.
When someone on my team says, “Okay, I'm going to make this change,” I feel it’s part of my role to say, “Well, who's impacted by that change? And what are the implications?” It can be a struggle to move someone’s focus from the skill they need to do a thing to more broadly considering all the downstream impacts of decisions they make. If I build up people around me to have those skills, then I can spend less time dealing with the day-to-day and get more strategic and less tactical.
- Help people deliver what they were asked for before pursuing their own direction.
This point may seem a bit counterintuitive based on what I’ve already said, but it’s key to building confidence in the people you serve. If someone on your team becomes too enamored of their own way of doing things, they could present their work by saying, "I know that you asked me to do this assignment, but I don't think it offers a lot of value to the company. So I worked on something else.”
This can be a tough conversation. For one thing, you need to impress upon the person how going to the next level in almost any role requires doing what you were asked to do first, and then do the thing that you really believe to be true. Otherwise it seems like you weren't listening or following directions. I tell team members to imagine ordering dinner in a restaurant, then asking how they’d respond if the waiter arrived with a completely different entrée and said, “I realize this isn’t what you ordered, but it’s what you should have ordered.” Contrast that with the same waiter bringing you your original choice and a free sample of what they think you might like better. You’re far more likely to return to that restaurant in the second example.
And even if you got lucky and created something amazing pursuing your own vision, it’s human nature for people to be left wondering, “What if you did what we asked for? What’s the differential?” By presenting both directions, you can more respectfully convey, in essence, this is what you should have asked for.
Comfortably operating in the unknown
Let’s face it: it’s a tough transition to go from being a great individual contributor to an effective leader. You have to help people prioritize deadlines based on the positive implications for the organization. You have to help them abide by the general guidelines without being slavish to the rules. You have to help them embrace a bit of change every day, even if that means they’re operating for a while in the unknown. The more comfortable your team gets with these dynamics, the easier it is for them to become part of a group that really delivers impact.
I tell people it’s like public speaking. First you talk to 10 people and all you can think is, “Oh, man, this is nerve-wracking.” You keep practicing and before you know it, you’re addressing 100 people and thinking, “This is not a big deal.” Good servant leadership is all about training people to make these judgment calls on their own and determine where and when they can push the boundaries. In order to grow, we’ve all got to do it.