Seat at the Table (Failure of Analytics Leadership)

Eric Sandosham, Ph.D.
4 min readJan 21, 2024

Why Data Analytics leaders struggle to maintain their seat at the table.

Photo by Nastuh Abootalebi on Unsplash

Background

Recently, a client had asked me: “What does it take for an Analytics Leader to secure and maintain a seat at the management table?” Now, the topic of Data Analytics leadership is always on my radar and close to my heart. I was the first Data Analytics leader to gain a seat at the country management table when I worked in a large multinational US bank in Asia. And I was also the regional CAO (Chief Analytics Officer) subsequently, where showing the value of having that seat at the regional management table was vital to the success of the data analytics function. So I understand the struggles. When I left corporate life to pursue a consulting career and my PhD, my thesis topic focused on foundational methodologies to create sustainable enterprise-wide data analytics capabilities (and why so many organisations fail in moving the needle on this initiative), including a leadership dimension on this proverbial ‘seat at the table’.

There is the organisational perspective versus the individual leadership perspective regarding this ‘seat at the table’. I’ve written about the organisational aspects before in several previous articles — on how organisations can create the right kind of Data Analytics capabilities (parts 1, 2 & 3 on capabilities building), and the importance for the Data Analytics function to be accountable for business outcomes and impact which is an essential ingredient to having that seat at the table (see article on Knowing vs Doing). These organisational perspectives are centred on how that ‘seat’ should be crafted within the organisation to ensure a successful outcome for all stakeholders.

For this 22nd weekly article, I will instead focus on the individual leadership perspective.

(I write a weekly article on bad thinking and bad practices in data analytics / data science which you can find here.)

Seat at the Table

For the Data Analytics leaders to have a successful seat at the table, they need to embody the following behaviours. They need to be:

  1. A change agent
  2. The Devil’s Advocate
  3. The most data literate person in the room
  4. Impact-oriented

Change Agent

Most organisations are still fairly immature when it comes to Data Analytics. While top management may embrace the agenda, the reality on the ground is that most employees are not sufficiently data & digital literate, or they fear their own obsoletion. The pushback can be significant. So anyone practicing Data Analytics needs to be a change agent. They need to constantly challenge the status quo. They need to help their table colleagues see the greater opportunity in leveraging data analytics for solutioning across the enterprise — the money that is left on the table because of non-optimal decisions made, the missed opportunity to collect monetisable data about the customers and business processes, the opportunities to enrich customer interactions with high-quality information.

Devil’s Advocate

The Data Analytics leader needs to be contrarian and push back on group thinking; they need to play the role of the Devil’s Advocate. They are in a unique position of having access to a wider range of data and information, and have the ability to challenge evidence that run contrary to what they’ve seen. But this can only happen if the Data Analytics leader is abreast of the organisation’s strategy and business performance, the marketing trends and competitive forces, and changing consumer behaviours, and has a very strong ability to interpret the data and connect the dots, i.e. translation skills. The Data Analytics leader therefore has a distinct obligation to call bullshit when they see it around the management table.

Most Data Literate

The Data Analytics leader needs to be the most data literate person in the room. The world of data analytics and AI is moving so swiftly that it is often filled with half-truths, misinformation and misunderstandings. The management table can get quickly buzzed with the latest ideas and trends, and go down a rabbit hole. The Data Analytics leader has a responsibility to upskill their knowledge in this shifting domain and provide guidance and confidence to their management colleagues. They need to give inputs into the operating strategy of the organisation.

Impact-Oriented

The Data Analytics head at the table must embrace an impact-oriented mindset; this is a generalisation of the often-quoted commercial mindset, since not all data analytics activities are consumer facing. The Data Analytics leader needs to help his fellow table stakeholders understand the short and long-term impact of their decisions. They also need to articulate or attribute the economic and strategic value of their data analytics work (i.e. impact). It’s all about improving the speed and quality of decision-making at the management level. The Data Analytics leader must change from a data-orientation to a decision-orientation vocabulary — don’t talk about data but instead talk about how data becomes information that can shape management decision-making.

Conclusion

Earning, and then keeping, that seat at the management table is a tough thing for a Data Analytics leader. The data analytics role does not come pre-qualified with a seat, unlike a role like Finance or Operations. To earn their seat, the Data Analytics leader must develop a more ‘dominant’ personality to fulfil their role as Change Agent and Devil’s Advocate; they cannot shrink away from confrontation. Change takes strength, and not just intellect.

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Eric Sandosham, Ph.D.

Founder & Partner of Red & White Consulting Partners LLP. A passionate and seasoned veteran of business analytics. Former CAO of Citibank APAC.