By Cynthia Carr, Epidemiologist

“Management is efficiency in climbing the ladder of success; leadership determines whether the ladder is leaning against the right wall.”— Stephen Covey, Author of The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People

Whether making decisions related to high stakes multi-million dollar infrastructure projects or evaluating smaller community programs, as a leader (and as the quote above implies) you need data to find out where the “right wall is” and how far you are away from that wall.

One of the biggest challenges facing leaders is that they are often overwhelmed with the needs of community members but have little access to information to support funding for much-needed programs. All leaders, regardless of how powerful their “gut instinct” might be, need real data to support their decisions, and they need to empower staff to provide them with it.

How staff can help you get to the desired outcome

Leaders don’t have time to develop data collection plans, analyze the data or make first round decisions about what the “raw data” means to their business or community. However, staff cannot be expected to simply know how to do this by themselves; investment in training and then trusting in the information provided are imperative.

The more staff understand why it is important to fill in what can seem to be meaningless and tedious data entry, the more they will “buy in” to doing their part by empowering the organization with good quality data.

In order to do so, leadership must consider: “what do we need to know”, “how are we going to get this information”, “what is the IT and training investment”, “who will be trained to analyze this data so that it is reliable information”, and most importantly, “how do I ensure staff are continually updated on progress toward organizational or project goals using the data they helped collect?”

A leader’s perspective on the link between data, empowerment and leadership

Warren Sigfusson loves tractor videos, or any kind of video involving heavy machinery. While he watches these videos, he monitors and learns how others dig up dirt, pave a road or till a field. In other words, he is constantly “collecting data”, learning from the experience of others and applying it to his own work and training opportunities for staff.

His company Sigfusson Northern Ltd. works with northern communities in long-term planning (such as sanitation and winter road access) as well as crises related to infrastructure (such as flooding).

For him, it’s crucial to start with the right data, then process it with historical knowledge to achieve results. He and his staff routinely connect with Elders and other community residents for their perspectives. Detailed calculations with the right data matter, but they must be supported by field knowledge to double check the results. “Double checking” means ensuring the community members are empowered, just as his staff, in guiding the solution.

Once challenges and solutions are identified, he listens to the community leadership and project team. From there he will provide feedback on areas that may have been overlooked or data that may have been misinterpreted. In this way, morale is kept high as staff continue to grow and connect with community members who are impacted by the work. In pursuing this approach to leadership, he can be confident that the product he has promised communities will be achieved on time and budget.

How to Get There

If you believe that data can help you lead your organization toward success, here are some starting points that require minimal financial investment:

  • Hold a one-day workshop with a skilled facilitator and include ALL staff members, no matter the level or job title—all will tell you of at least one example where they needed information and could not access it.
  • Guide them toward open communication and problem solving, even if not every proposal is achievable right now.
  • Identify where the gaps are in both information technology (storage capacity) and in basic data collection (about programs, activities and sales) to help measure your operations.
  • Lay out your annual or long-term strategic plans and work together to either modify or create new indicators of short, medium and long-term progress toward stated organizational goals.

When to Get There

Achieving your strategic goals won’t hap- pen overnight, but on-going training in data collection and comfort in trusting data will empower your staff and increase your confidence as a leader. Look at your key information gaps and do not over-invest in a complicated technical solution.

  • Start with one or two staff members who are keen to learn more and let them develop a simple Excel spreadsheet as a start.
  • Consider starting with a comprehensive “Baseline Assessment” where you hire an expert to assist your organization in determining what information you have, how it can be used, and what other systems may have data to help you.
  • Set annual goals for data collection and continue to expand as staff comfort and capacity expands.
  • Invest in a solution that is sustainable and does not impose too much extra work on staff – the other key parts of their jobs will suffer, or they will simply stop collecting data.
  • Always include opportunities for client, community and staff feedback to inform your administrative or technical data gaps.
  • Look for ongoing improvements in both collecting data as well as in staff using the data to illustrate key areas of operational utilization, success and challenges.

By empowering your staff to use data to support decisions, your organization will continue to thrive!

Cynthia Carr is an epidemiologist and principal consultant with EPI Research Inc. She has worked for more than 25 years using data to support program planning, evaluation and knowledge exchange.