Problem: Leaders bring their past successes and personal biases to the leadership table and use those to drive decision-making. So, data information gets viewed only as a way to report on the past. Instead, it has to be a compass to help navigate and create the future.
Opportunity: The most successful leaders know that using effective leadership skills redefines the role of data. Thus, they understand data builds bridges between key internal stakeholders. It also creates a common language and provides an unbiased foundation for decision-making.
Resolution: Use data as a diplomat at the leadership table—and throughout your group. Meaning, realize how it informs decision-making and prioritizes decisions, especially related to revenue initiatives.
The most successful business leaders understand that data information is a vital aspect of decision-making. Therefore, let's take a look at how data helps you make critical decisions that impact your operations and revenue.
David Beroth, CFO at Billy Graham Evangelism Association and host of Christian Nonprofit CFO podcast, invited me to unpack my thoughts about leadership and data information during a recent episode. David heard me speak on this subject at a conference breakout session. As a result, he was kind enough to offer me the chance to dig deeper into how data can become a bridge-building exercise between financial and non-financial leaders at the decision-making table. (Listen to the podcast interview.)
Below is a summary of the most salient points discussed.
What Does It Mean to Make Data Information a Diplomat?
We all do it. Our decision-making, good judgment calls, and effective leadership skills are what got us a seat at the table. Still, those past successes can be dangerous.
For instance, one thing I've seen consistently with leaders, regardless of organization size or sector, is the following.
We bring our biases to the leadership table. Unfortunately, the bias of past success can cloud our ability to see things in new ways.
And we often become entrenched in different perspectives based on what we experienced in the past. As a result, too often, we come to an impasse and pull rank to get a decision made.
There is a better way.
Expertly using data information offers a path to create a common language. Further, it gives us the chance to elevate the decision-making process above our individual experience. Consequently, we can work together toward a common outcome.
Understanding data information is the source of some of the most substantial growth experiences we create as leaders. Moreover, it builds bridges between departments and creates an unbiased foundation for future success opportunities.
What's the Benefit of Viewing the Data in This Way?
For a long time, data information has been captive. We have used it to tell us what already happened, rather than what is happening now. Effective leadership skills include contributing to our understanding of what could happen next.
So, when we shift our thinking to view data more like a compass and less like a report card, we get an entirely different view. Accordingly, the conversation becomes: "What is the best thing we can do to steward the opportunities, resources, and team to create the biggest impact?"
When we reconsider data information, we start asking different questions. And in the process, we look at challenges, projects, and lines of business more holistically. In turn, this gives us the chance to stop protecting our individual success. And it means we start advancing the mission of the group. Also, it brings a new level of humility and collaboration to the leadership conversations.
When leadership teams live into that, it changes the tenor of the conversations around the leadership table. And, it also improves the culture of the group as a whole. In the process, we gain the chance to recognize and harness the gifts each of us brings to the table.
What Does That Look Like in a Nonprofit Organization?
The collective opportunity and knowledge of the group are much greater than any single view. Therefore, using data information as a diplomat gives us the chance to break from rigid role-specific thinking. It allows us to start to communicate cohesively and includes everyone in the same discussion.
Shifting from channel-owners to data information portfolio-managers
Current attribution models fail to truly inform where organizations invest their fundraising dollars and benefit from that spending.
In our work, we see a lot of siloed channels. As a result, everyone on the team believes their channel is the one driving revenue. Yet one channel isn't the answer.
The key to developing better effective leadership skills and success is moving from channel owners to portfolio managers. So, you have to ask, what would it look like to divide your group's donors into these four categories?
Adopting a portfolio management strategy goes beyond just input and output. Instead, the data information analysis looks at the number of donors and the frequency of donations. And it also looks at the behavioral patterns specific to the portfolio. Finally, it reviews how those relate to the other portfolios.
Then we can use the data information to see the fundraising spend. But it's in light of how each of the portfolios contributes to the total revenue needed.
Moving to a donor-centric model for decision-making
Looking at data in this light shifts to a donor-centric model. Moreover, it aligns spending with the actions the donor takes that produce the outcomes we want. Rather than starting with the question, how do we sustain the process we currently have in place, it allows us to make decisions around the donor's behavior. Therefore, the data information gives us the chance to listen to what the donor values.
Creating an iterative management model
Using data information in this way also creates a structure for iterative management. Instead of setting 12-month goals for the fiscal year, you look at the data every 90 days. In that dynamic process, you evaluate what is working and what needs to change. You ask, were our assumptions correct? Are we on track? What is the data showing us?
Thus, it gets leaders out of rooted discussions around specific channels.
Further, it focuses on the behavior, activity, investment, and available resources to what is actually happening. So it frees us to think in new ways and pivot regularly.
How Does Data Information Help With Prioritization?
One of the disciplines we need to embed at the leadership table is prioritization. For instance, we often think in binary terms—yes or no, good or bad. Yet, data information helps us move away from that rigidity and foster ideation and collaboration.
Teams can make a data-driven case for why the group should invest in a specific scenario and informs the projected outcomes. As a result, those ideas get pulled into a priority list and looked at globally.
Effective leaders are able to use data to identify what it will take to deliver on agreed-upon outcomes. The data is a compass that gives leadership teams the confidence to move forward together.
Notably, it takes the emotion out of ideas and creates a data-based level playing field for collaboration.
How has the role of data changed?
In short, technology has democratized data. The capacity to tap into that data—and make meaningful insights—is accessible to everyone.
Therefore, there are three key questions we need to ask about data information:
How do we get the data and ensure we're capturing the correct data?
How do we make the data accessible to every decision-maker in the organization?
And, how do we make decisions based on the data and in real-time?
Data information needs to be available at every level of the organization. Every business leader needs to practice the discipline of validating or challenging their assumptions against what the data shows.
What Data Visualization Tools Do You Recommend?
There are many reasons a leader or organization might pick one tool over the other. But if you're just getting started, here is what I think about a few specific data information solutions:
For Smaller Groups: Google Data Studio is a good launching pad. It's accessible, and their free version gives you a lot of functionality.
For Midsize Groups: Power BI from Microsoft is a good bridge between the more entry-level option of Google Data Studio and Tableau's advanced abilities. I recommend this for organizations that already use Microsoft.
For Large Groups: Tableau is like working with a blank canvas. So, you shape massive amounts of data and have the complete drill-down capability to see the source data. Thus, it's a powerful tool and one of my favorites to use.
How does data information create a culture of learning?
Use data information as a diplomat in your group to build bridges around the leadership table. Use it to create a common language, and give an unbiased, non-emotional foundation for decision making. Using effective leadership skills means we must consistently ask ourselves and each other: What can we learn from the data today to inform our future decisions?
Data is a teacher, not a task-master.
So, when we approach it like that, we accept that the marketplace changes faster than we can admit, ingest, interpret, and integrate into our workplace and workflows. Therefore, we need to look at data to inform how we make decisions.
No one person has all the answers, but collectively, we can get there together.
Ben Stroup is Chief Growth Architect and President at Velocity Strategy Solutions where he helps leaders design, develop, and deploy smarter business growth strategies. Ben is a futurist, disruptor, and data champion. He leads a team that takes a structured learning approach to business challenges, which allows them to assist leaders in bridging the gap between ideas, innovation, and revenue—taking ideas from mind to market.
Velocity Strategy Solutions is an on-demand, next-generation business strategy and management consulting firm which provides clients with a relentless focus on data, execution, and results that positively impact the bottom line. Velocity delivers integrated people and revenue strategies combined with a disciplined approach to growth architecture that elevates the capacity of leaders, teams, and organizations to succeed and win more.