In “The Art of War,” Sun Tzu writes, “Fighting with a large army under your command is nowise different from fighting with a small one. It is merely a question of instituting signs and signals.” As with much of the sixth-century text, this principle can be applied to the 21st century with little imagination.
One modern version of “signs and signals” leaders use is a data-driven management style, which serves to unify an organization by operating under the same system, as did Tzu’s original purpose. A data-driven style essentially is collecting facts and figures, often from employees, sometimes in subjects that aren’t traditionally tracked.
Tony Meola, New Century Mortgage Corp. executive vice president, implements this style based on his idea that the most important personal attributes in determining happy and productive employees aren’t easily quantified.
“While there is emotion and passion in business, they’re even greater assets when there’s data to back those feelings up because you can have a rich discussion when you’re dealing with data,” Meola said. “What a data-driven style allows us to do is get in touch with our employees in ways that you generally don’t address on a daily basis. One is the morale of the organization, and two is the readiness or state of operation.”
Leaders often have to hypothesize about employee readiness and the state of operation. With a data-driven style, such information is always at your fingertips, and it is updated constantly.
Meola said there are some unique challenges to this method, however. For example, the data-driven style forces leaders to be flexible because independent, fair-minded results often suggest actions leaders would rather avoid.
“You’re a little bit vulnerable because sometimes the data is telling you things your intuition says can’t be right — the data can tell you a market that you really want in the mix is not performing as well as it has to in order to stay in the mix,” Meola said. “So, there’s leadership in this because you’ve got to be vulnerable as a leader and open to various suggestions and/or directions that you might not have thought of or you might not sometimes like, quite frankly.”
A data-driven leadership style isn’t decided and implemented overnight. Rather, it’s an evolutionary process that must be tailored to the company to which it’s being applied.
Certainly, employees won’t be happy about answering questions concerning company morale at the end of their days with no prior discussion. With patient execution, however, as well as clear benefits for both employees and the company, a data-driven style can put everyone on the same page and create a results-driven workforce.
“When people can all get around an independent analysis, it certainly creates alignment,” Meola said. “Everyone’s looking at the same data, drawing the same conclusions — you get alignment among employees. They understand why you may be going in a certain direction.
“It establishes true benchmarks and creates a recognition-and-reward culture that’s very valued. When you do achieve something, the numbers scream that you’ve achieved it, and that really gives people a sense it’s a fair and equitable organization. People are more on their game in that environment.”
Time is the key element to tailor a data-driven style to fit a company’s needs. Meola said it can take up to six months not only to get accurate, helpful responses but to narrow the subjects down to the most helpful ones, as well. Once the actionable information is known and asked, it can be woven into the daily process of the organization.
Meola said this is a main concern for the data-driven leader because being tempted to try to receive feedback on erroneous topics quickly can become annoying and time-consuming to the employee.
“You just want to pick the five to 10 forward-looking and decision-making indicators that will demonstrate and achieve success,” Meola said. “You don’t want your employees to have analysis paralysis. The key is less is more.”
– Ben Warden, email@example.com