Anyone that’s spent more than five minutes on LinkedIn will have come across an “inspirational” post or meme on leadership. Usually, they take a supposedly random event and turn it into a lesson on how to lead. However, there is usually some truth buried amongst the self-aggrandizement. One that often comes up is the comparison between being a manager and being a leader. On the former’s side, there are words like directing, dictating, and demanding; on the latter, coaching, demonstrating, and advising. The overall sense is that a manager gets results through control, the leader by guiding.
It’s a twist on the notion of leading by example – that leaders set the example through actions and how they operate, rather than simply by telling people what to do. It’s a critical part of creating the right behaviors and culture in an organization – if senior executives don’t act in the way they want others to, why will employees?
Yet, time and time again we see examples of where the C-suite’s expectations of their workforce diverge from the reality those workers are facing. Take the use of data in enterprises. Most organizations understand the incredible opportunity that being able to harness data offers them, yet there is a disconnect between what senior leaders believe their teams’ capabilities to be and what employees believe.
The Human Impact of Data Literacy, a new report from Qlik and Accenture, found that three-quarters (75 percent) of C-suite level respondents believe that all or most of their employees have the ability to work with data proficiently, and even more (79 percent) believe that their employees have access to the tools they need to be productive. However, middle managers and below are less optimistic, with a half feeling that all or most employees have the right abilities and 50 percent echoing the same sentiment about access.
One of the greatest challenges for organizations in the digital age is not capturing data but turning it into actionable insights and value to empower employees to make more informed decisions, improve productivity, and drive competitive advantage. That’s why to succeed in the data revolution business, leaders must be able to trust the data and therefore enable their employees to become more confident and comfortable in using data insights to make decisions.
The impending data skills gap
However, with the gap between what leaders believe and what their employees perceive being so wide, enterprises are going to struggle to realize the opportunity if they don’t address it. Part of the issue is possible that leaders are failing to recognize how their own examples are setting the wrong expectations. Around two-thirds of C-suite executives, senior managers, and directors would go with their gut feeling over data-driven insight, compared with just 41 percent of junior managers and those below the last layer of management. While experience and trusting instinct can have value in business, the findings suggest that executives’ confidence in acting from insights is impeding some businesses’ ability to lead with data.
So, what could be causing this lack of confidence? For a significant proportion, it could well be a case of data overload. Just shy of a third (30 percent) of global C-suite respondents to the survey said they were overwhelmed with data at least once a day, compared to 14 percent of employees overall.
How can senior leaders address this? Improving their own understanding of data is a good first step – 30 percent said data literacy training would help them be more productive. That’s improving their knowledge and ability to read, understand, question and work with data, a skill their own employees would like to improve – just a fifth of the global workforce reported feeling fully confident in their own data literacy skills.
If leaders are serious about turning their organizations into data-driven enterprises, and in doing so improve their enterprise value by up to five percent, then they need to establish the right culture. That can only be done by leading by example – interrogating their own skill sets, investing in training where required, and moving away from gut instinct to demonstrate to their own employees how data-led insights can, and should, be used.
After all, 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.