About stupid questions, data & future leadership
“And the award for the stupid question goes to..” - If you thought you’d get the “winner” served on a platter by the first line, I have to disappoint you - but it’s about keeping the reader’s attention! Attention is about curiosity, and curiosity is also somewhat what this article is about. It’s a simple message about what I believe is going to be one of the single biggest future influencers for what shapes good leaders from bad ones. What’s going to affect your performance as future managers, those who will be in charge of complex projects, which a lot of you should be in the middle of pursuing as you kick off a hopefully promising career.
Have you ever had a feeling like this: A normal day in class. Crowded room, 3 pm in the afternoon and you’ve had classes since early morning. A lot of clever heads in one room. A teacher who (on paper) seems to be even smarter. You’re multitasking between looking up, scribbling away, & philosophising the best you’ve learned. Suddenly it strikes your mind that you have no idea what’s going on. Did you snooze for a while? Or was it too fast for you? Is everyone else getting this? Your hand begins to tickling, disciplined through many years of practice to skyrocket up in the air and eliminate any blank spots left untouched. But this time, it stays down! Why? Because the bar is raised, the tempo is higher than before, and people around you seem to be pushing forward with an almost unhuman like attitude & notes looking like Michelangelo’s.
Don’t be depressed. You’re currently already a lot more knowledgeable & updated about numerous economic factors, models, macro & micro perspectives on management and global development than your future boss-to-be. It’s important to know. But it’s also important to know why you have to know that you know it (OK I might have lost you, but we’re getting there). Why? Because you will experience that you will know less and less as time goes by. OK, it’s not entirely correct, but it will often be how you will feel like, once the career path has settled down on a solid track. Let me elaborate with a story:
Chaos & data
Just before Christmas, I held a lecture on Maskinmesterskolen in Aarhus for a mixed crowd of students and teachers. Graduates from this school will become technical managers and thus responsible for production logistics, design processes etc. They will have to interpret and communicate strategic ideas about complex products to a highly varied range of specialists, while also being able to convince & motivate various types of people to follow the same purposeful direction in the fastest, cheapest way. I told them the following: “When you become managers, you will have to prepare yourself for having no control over what’s going to happen to you. The only thing you can prepare for is how to react to the vastness of chaos you find yourselves amidst”. Sceptical silence at first, and then hands (luckily) rose up. Two hours of discussion later, it was nice to see a good deal of people walking away with a new perspective on how to tackle their studies & teachings.
I’ll say the same here. What you’ve learned about nice, smooth controllable AIDA funnels, marketing planning, revenue forecasting and multicultural understanding of global leadership strategies, can only be used for one thing: A reference point for how things are not anymore. Because there is no control anymore. It’s dead, gone, buried with the daily invisible integration of online, our intimate social relationships with our smartphones, and social online identification.
People are pacing themselves into random reactions of whatever stimulation comes at them, and every day seems like a new world of emotional triggers & layers of Chinese walls of micro decisions in order to function like a normal modern human being. And those people are your future clients. 150% unpredictable. There is only DATA left in the dust left from the romantic glimpse of the past, which we used to call human based decision making. But before I move into total depression; to have data is not that bad when you look closer at it. It’s actually pretty cool. It’s just - different. The question merely is if you are able to find your way around data patterns and create some form of validated sense that can be used for efficient decision making. Are you? Are the people you are working close with?
Unfortunately my experience, through 5 years in Google, tells me that more than 9 out of 10 companies that approached me in order to get advice on how to grow their businesses are somewhat clueless about what kind of data they have lying around, and even less knowledgeable about how to use them. Sales & marketing - two different focus areas that - if handled correctly - would represent at least 80% of the company focus, and therefore also at least should represent 80% of the data gathered, filtered & utilised across the entire organisation to base their agenda on. Yet the picture emerging is that a vast majority of CEOs, marketing managers, even market analysts, cannot answer since they are not aligned correctly in their daily operation to focus and follow these very impactful movements that will determine future market performance. Stunned.
DATA. Sounds boring? If yes, then OK - the probability that it might look boring to you when you open an excel sheet filled with macros & Vlookups, or a raw extract of a CRM database report seems highly likely, unless you have devoted your life to it already and love digging into the universe of digital digits. But as a future manager, to a certain degree, it’s something you have to become accustomed to. Because the truth is, that data will come (has already for some top tier companies) to rule the floor when decisions about wealth & health have to be taken. Why? Because every other way of taking decisions will be considered less considerate, even reckless and unprofessional, since your client base are acting quantum mechanical (read: totally unpredictable). Don’t worry - data is not the sole entity of the world, but having a sound judgment about what you know about the people you interact with, has to be very closely coupled with data. All the time. Like the Yin & Yan, that, without the other, will head off in a fatal direction.
Does this mean you have to become a data sommelier? No. But it’s a must that you know:
- Who is able to dig into the data jungle, interpret, and deliver different kinds of data back to you
- What those kinds of data mean to other kinds of data.
- How the complexity of raw data has to be filtered in a proper manner
- How it can be combined with the current knowledge embedded in the organisation, in order to mean something that has any sort of relevance.
- How to interpret this into human language, so others will see the sense, without disturbing actual data authenticity despite having emotional people messing around with it.
- Knowing that also those people reading interpreted data will adjust it shallowly to their needs
- How you should be able to align these people and all that data in a certain way, that makes a value adding impact.
- To make sure that your people know what you require from them in terms of data handling, so you will be able to “swim” properly in the data ocean that comes at you daily.
With the wrong mentality or the wrong people, your daily swim will become a vicious current pulling you down slowly but surely until you cannot navigate or see the shore. Sorry, back from the state of depression. So far, so good. How do you do that? There are a lot of things to consider, but what will get you far in the right direction fast, merely is “just” to ask the right questions.
Back To Basics
This is the part where some will ask if we’re really going that far back to basics. Yes, we are. But that’s only because the sad truth is that we have become really (really really) bad at it. We - pardon my French - suck, at asking the right questions at the right time, to the right people. Because the ironic fact is that with the gigantic release of new data (also known as the invention of the internet, internet of things etc.), so has the speed of how we work, communicate, and make decisions. This makes is harder than ever to deliberately slow down once in a while and look where one is heading. We’re busy making decisions for the decisions’ sake, as decisions are far more noticed in the chaos of information than reflection - but that doesn’t make decisions any better if you see what consequences it has for some (Nokia is a classic example in recent years and when I told them about the danger back in 2008, it seemed foolish to some). Here is where YOU will enter, with your new fresh approach to things, and updated outlook on the world. Your pallet of competencies becomes important. But you will have to use it mostly just to begin asking the right questions.
There are enough answers out there, pick one and get one free. But answers are changing daily. One day an answer of decreasing sales will be a lack of motivated sales people. The next day, same sales figures might be the result of a country which you have close production partner with, voting for a change in foreign goods taxations, which then triggers your other export markets to not focus on you anymore. You honestly don’t know. And you’ll not know it by focusing on driving the business as you used to. You won’t be told this by your sales team, which logically will begin the whole race by denying that their pipelines are going down until they turn around and start blaming you for not making sure their lead generation platform is stable enough. You’ll have to get it from (no surprise there) - data. External data vs. internal data. Back-end data vs. front end data. Big data etc. And that data will only come to you when you learn to position yourself in the right environment, under the right circumstances and ask the right question at the right time.
And The Winner Is
Back to the flashback scenario. The room where your hand is stuck. Suddenly another person on the front row raises a hand and asks the exact same question. The question is acknowledged with respect, answered, and life goes on. You’re sitting there, in the back, half relieved to catch up again, and that you at least had the right question in mind. But somewhere, deep down, there’s also a hint of disappointment for not being the one that raised the question. And with good reason, if you ask me. Because the person who raised the hand, just proved the core principle of what it takes in character to make it a future leader. What makes leaders of tomorrow successful?
- To dare trust that an active, conscience and shared strategy towards knowledge handling is more important that using the energy to contain an environment where everyone is able to answer the questions, but where the questions remain more or less the same as yesterday.
- That being afraid of challenging your surrounding with “stupid” questions, just because you’re one of many in a fierce environment, is the certain road to stagnation, stupidity, and bad management.
- To control your own relationship to knowledge through platforms & people, and to utilise it optimally in order to create a safer, more coherent & sense based environment in an otherwise super fragmented world where data shoots out from everywhere, is the strongest capability you can bring with you - everywhere - all the time.
So the award for the stupid question of the day goes to - those who don’t raise their hand & practice asking as much as possible.
About the Author
Who am I, and why do I blog here? Well, my name is Adam Engelhardt, a Copenhagen native, with a background in sales & marketing, where I have spent 5 years working for Google and 3 years being the Nordic Adwords Sales Manager for SMB New Sales.
I am a geek by nature when it comes to new tech, and innovation, both radical and incremental, and my speciality is organizational development & knowledge strategies.
That's also why I have just founded a new company - Philosoflow - specialising in helping out companies with little knowhow on data utilisation, how to catch up in order to keep their performance in this newly data-driven world. Furthermore, I give lectures & inspirational speeches and advice on boards.
For further info, visit the company website www.philosoflow.com and don't hesitate to give me a shout if you have great ideas.