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How to be a data-savvy leader

By Jason Muller, Pivigo COO

I was excited to recently be invited to Cass Business School in London to speak to the current full-time MBA cohort on all things Big Data. As an MBA myself, I tend to jump at any opportunity to interact with others on their MBA journey. The brief for the presentation, “Big Data in Application”, prompted me to consider what this data revolution holds in store for the next generation of business leaders.

So what’s most relevant to this audience of 60-odd ambitious professionals, mostly from financial services backgrounds, all looking to develop themselves and their careers paths? Here are the couple of questions I chose to focus on:

What will Big Data deliver for the businesses I work for?

We fired through a dozen or so use cases from banking, insurance, healthcare, cyber security, retails and the third sector. We even talked about a data-driven beer! Hopefully we were able to cut through some of the hype and demonstrate the real value being generated.

How will Big Data affect my job market?

You don’t have to look too far to find material highlighting the current and projected shortage of analytical talent across the globe. The much-cited McKinsey report from 2011 suggested the US alone would have a ‘deep analytical‘ talent shortage of between 140,000 and 190,000. Does that mean jobs for MBAs? Not necessarily. However, in the very next paragraph, that same report goes on to say:

In addition, we project a need for 1.5 million additional managers and analysts in the US who can ask the right questions and consume the results of the analysis of big data effectively.

And here’s the exciting news for my audience of MBAs. Such are the similarities between the US and UK Big Data markets, that the number of additional data-savvy managers needed here won’t be too far behind that quoted here.

So, what does a data-savvy manager look like?

Let’s start with a subtle re-phrase more in line with the mantra of most business schools to data-savvy leader. Next, let’s go beyond the reference in the McKinsey quote to the essential “ask the right questions and consume the results” and include these characteristics, tasks and skills in the job description:

  • Talent identifier, recruiter and performance manager

  • Manager of interactions both within the team and the wider organisation

  • Supportive, positive, motivational and relentless

  • Exceptional communicator

  • Project management

  • Understands tech and the scientific process

  • Understands what can and can’t be achieved

  • Strong navigator of internal politics

Most of these elements emerge from the fact that data science is new and often misunderstood. Sometimes projects fail, and sometimes project outcomes challenge the intuition and experience of senior managers. In the face of considerable resistance and occasional adversity, data teams must persevere and continue on the iterative path towards their goals. A strong leader is vital in facing these challenges. These leaders certainly don’t need to be programmers but they do need to understand what makes techies tick! From there it’s leadership 101…listen!

To Eugenia, Aneesh and the Cass MBA cohort, thanks for having me along. I hope to see some of you leading exceptional data teams in the near future.

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