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05/19/2021

A Portrait of the Analytics Leader: By The Numbers

Lisa Johnston
Senior Editor
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Jack Phillips

There are countless ways to define leadership, and Jack Phillips, CEO and co-founder of the International Institute for Analytics, has put some numbers behind things when it comes to specifically defining successful analytics leadership.

Sharing his findings at Analytics Unite this week, Phillips presented a portrait that was almost reminiscent of the Boy Scout Law: “A Scout is trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean and reverent."

But, in the case of an analytic leader, those traits would instead fall along lines of curious, empathetic, tenacious, patient and determined.

Philips noted that while analytic leadership used to be like math — “There wasn’t a chief math officer 10 years ago.” — having this role is now paramount for business success. Partially inspired by “The Official Preppy Handbook,” Phillips and team used a series of interviews with executive-level analytic leaders who worked at large global brands and retailers to quantitively identify the crucial skills and traits that make for a high-performing leader.

What they found is that personal and character traits are more critical for successful leaders than technical skills. Rated in order of importance, those traits are:

  1. Personal/character
  2. Leadership
  3. Organization
  4. Business
  5. Quantitative
  6. Technological

Digging into the results, Phillips noted that successful analytic leaders must not only be curious, but they must operate with a level of humility in order understand all stakeholders. The word “determination” frequently came up in interviews, as one must have a mindset that change will take time take but still be able to develop a North Star for the organization.

“Change management — which ultimately is really what analytics is about in the end — is hard and can take time,” Phillips said.

"This function has a seat at the table in terms of business strategy and the overall future of the company.”
Jack Phillips, International Institute for Analytics

While perhaps not necessarily very surprising from a leadership perspective, Phillips noted that the ability to “set a clear vision and strategy doesn’t always come naturally to folks who have come up through data science and analytics levels.”

As for those tech skills, yes, they are important — to an extent. While most high-performing analytic executives spent the first part of their formative years having their hands in code, they weren’t necessarily the de facto leaders in statistical methods or technology.  

Instead, the ability to build and motivate an analytics team was rated as more crucial, as was the ability for leaders to be multilingual — i.e., conversant enough in business to translate strategy into objectives and vice versa. This credibility was frequently cited in interviews as the skill that took the longest for leaders to develop.

Phillips warned AU attendees that if their organizations are still viewing data analytics as a function that’s down in the engine room or back in the IT department, there’s something wrong.

“If you look around, your peers have long since moved beyond that and now are focused on the business opportunities,” he noted. “and this function has a seat at the table in terms of business strategy and the overall future of the company.”

This is also published on RIS News.