Make Data a Cornerstone of Your Team

If you were entering the job market in the early 90s, most job descriptions included “Macintosh experience” or “excellent PC skills” in their preferred qualifications. This quickly became a requirement for even the most non-technical jobs, forcing people across every industry and age group to adapt with the changing times, or risk getting left behind.

Today, the bar for computer proficiency is set much higher. There’s an ever-increasing demand for people who can leverage software to analyze, understand, and make day-to-day business decisions based on data. Data Science is now a quickly growing discipline, giving people with any kind of data expertise a serious competitive edge.

Corporate leaders are becoming convinced of the impact that effective data collection and analysis can have on the bottom line, from tracking daily reports against Key Performance Indicators to make informed decisions on where to spend marketing dollars, to monitoring and evaluating customer communications to adjust product offerings. Many are investing heavily in hiring talent with data skills and building out data proficiency across the organization.

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If you see this as an important step in the evolution of your business, there’s a lot you can do to improve data skills among existing employees without spending a ton of money on expensive consultants or full-time data experts. This all starts with thinking carefully about how employees are motivated, and how you can have the right reward systems in place to achieve your desired goal.

Five years ago, Jack Welch famously stated that there are three fundamental ways to motivate employees: financial rewards, recognition, and a clear mission. Unlike Welch’s 41-year tenure at GE, today’s employees are expected to hold an average of 10 jobs before the age of 40. Because of this, a fourth motivational principle must be added: personal growth and development.

How can each of these principles be applied to building data skills across teams?

To answer that question, we need to start with the basics. Creating any kind of cultural transformation requires a long-term commitment, and that expectation should be set from the start across the various stakeholders interested in bringing the organization into the data-driven era. With that said, if you take the right steps early on, you can set yourself up for success in the future, and this starts with:

Aligning the company towards the new mission

Since this is first and foremost the responsibility of leadership, early executive buy-in on becoming a more data-driven company is paramount. Getting teams and individual contributors to form new habits comes down to leading by example. As is so often the case, the smallest changes can have the biggest impact.

Take your weekly Monday morning all hands meeting — an opportunity to share important updates, clarify short-term goals, and motivate the team to keep pushing forward toward the main vision. This is the perfect chance to change the way you communicate to better highlight your changing strategy.

Has the company decided to pursue a new business vertical based on data collected by the sales team in the field? Take this opportunity to educate other teams in the organization by clarifying how the team was able to successfully leverage data to validate the demand in this new vertical — from setting up customer interviews, to tracking responses in a spreadsheet and reviewing them as a team.

Just taking this one step can motivate others in the company to start thinking about ways that they can do the same thing in their own roles — after all, the sales team must be doing something right to be singled out during the all hands meeting.

You can also encourage team leads and managers to be more deliberate about highlighting successful outcomes from using data.

If a sales manager has been tracking the performance of sales efforts against a new vertical, he should be able to quickly gather some valuable insights that the rest of the organization would benefit from understanding. A clear example of how using data is already starting to drive more revenue for the organization might be: “Over the last week, after selecting two of our leading sales reps to focus on pitching this new customer segment, we noticed that the time to close a new customer went down from five days to two days, with the average contract size increasing by $500.”

Highlighting wins like this does a few things. It builds trust from employees that can now clearly see that the company is deliberate in how it makes important decisions. It also motivates colleagues to emulate their peers to have an opportunity to be mentioned by leadership in the next all hands meeting.

Leadership should encourage various department heads to take a similar approach in their communication. Any meeting in front of the whole team can be used to share takeaways. Perhaps news recently came out about a competitor that was able to take advantage of a new tool to optimize their marketing funnel. Share these case studies with the team to encourage them to think about how a process change or new tool might be able to help with their job.

Another way to make data top of mind is to display it all over the office. Install a TV showing a few data dashboards. Is real-time web traffic an important metric for the team to keep an eye on? Load up a dashboard from Google Analytics and have it always running. People will start to notice trends, like when traffic spikes during the day or when social media activity is at its peak, and can then have impromptu brainstorming discussions around how things can be improved.

As people start to understand the importance of thinking through the lens of data, some employees will display a personal desire to learn new data skills. Growing as a professional, and learning new hard skills has been proven to lead to more job satisfaction, which is why one of the best ways to incentivize employees is to create opportunities for professional development.

Focusing on people’s personal growth

Google famously focused on employees’ personal growth with their 20% rule, where employees were allowed to spend 20% of their time working on personal projects. Similarly, you can work with your managers to create a culture across the organization where spending time on self-study around acquiring data skills is encouraged.

Ask people to consume relevant content about how data can be used in their roles, and use your internal chat app to share interesting and relevant articles that employees find throughout the week.

If someone takes an interest in diving deep into a particular solution, like Google Analytics or Mixpanel, give them time during the week to become certified in those tools. You can also give managers the freedom to approve inexpensive online seminars and courses for those who are interested, proving that the company truly cares about investing in its talent. If you want to go the extra mile, you can even offer to cover the cost for anyone interested in taking evening or weekend classes around topics like data science.

As expertise grows, certain team members will take more initiative and start to stand out from the rest. This is a perfect opportunity to allow employees to learn from each other.

If you see that someone excels at manipulating data to provide new insights, give them a platform to train their peers, encouraging knowledge sharing within teams and across departments. People will appreciate the ability to take on new responsibilities like this and feel positive about being seen as a domain expert.

Another powerful way to impact how employees feel and where they place extra effort is to offer individual recognition.

Private and public recognition

It’s important to embed a practice where people are consistently recognized for great work, and this is very simple to do through existing channels.

Train managers to focus on providing private recognition to exceptional employees. Many sales teams integrate weekly 1:1 meetings between managers and employees to identify challenges, and offer help. This could be a great time to spend the first few minutes of each meeting congratulating someone if they are particularly diligent with tracking data, or submitting critical reports on time.

Create a “Data Expert of the Week” award, where you share success stories from specific employees during a standing meeting, via email, or in your favorite chat app in front of the whole company. You can even offer a little financial incentive by asking people to nominate someone else on the team, offering a $200 gift card to the person that gets the most votes. This helps people feel appreciated by their peers, and provides a little extra monetary motivation.

If possible, you can also offer extra quarterly or annual bonuses for those who are truly transforming the way certain things are done. If your engineering team dedicated time to implement a new solution that tracks additional user metrics within your application, and this information becomes critical to your understanding of your customers, reward them by giving people on that team bonuses, signaling to employees on other teams to take similar initiative.

The use cases for leveraging data to build value are limitless, so it’s inevitable that data will continue become a bigger part of our day-to-day work. Jack Welch gave us a brilliant blueprint for motivating people to do great things. Incentivizing your team to become more data savvy is just one way you can achieve this greatness.