This article was originally written for Data Leadership Collaborative.
Organizations that are looking to become truly data driven face two paradoxical challenges when it comes to attracting the right talent. The first of these is that while they need to find candidates that can challenge the business, admitting the current state of affairs publicly could turn off suitable applicants. Is the first rule of transformation not to talk about transformation? Just imagine the following advert.
Wanted: data scientists to come solve our organization’s biggest challenges… using Excel macros. We are looking for people who will work tirelessly to generate meaningful insights... only to have them rejected by data-illiterate stakeholders. If you care about progressing your career, this is the place to be… provided progression means stepping away from data, because that is how management works.
For this reason, many organizations choose to hide the truth, or at least sidestep it. When asked about company culture, they might respond by quoting the CEO on how data is the new oil, or listing off recent data hires as a sign of their progress. Yet recruitment figures and clichéd quotes do not make a successful data strategy, as is demonstrated by the short tenures of many data professionals.
How can organizations tackle this obstacle? To quote my primary school teacher: honesty is the best policy. Yet this needs to be combined with a savvy in knowing how to frame the problem, in a manner that appeals to the right talent. You will still turn some candidates off, but likely attract much stronger applicants. In essence, this is about turning a weakness into a strength. Here is an example:
Wanted: data analysts who enjoy seeing an organization go from 0 to 60 when it comes to data enablement. We are looking for people who will challenge our traditional approach with meaningful insights. If you care about doing what is right for our customers, and are not afraid of holding our senior leadership to account with data — then let’s talk.
This is the reason all the job descriptions I have drafted at Chalhoub include the line, “This role is not for the timid!”
Yet being courageous and admitting your organization is in need of some serious change agents is not enough. You also need to be brave enough to hire these people. After all, organizations have a tendency to recruit people who are similar to themselves, a phenomenon known as homophily. This not only undermines diversity, but can rob organizations of the challenger talent they so desperately need.
Data leaders love talking about talent scarcity, but this second paradox can do even more damage to an organization’s prospects. After all, even if a handful of challengers get hired, any business that does not embrace and empower these people will likely not be able to hold on to them for long. Humans like being comfortable, but meaningful business change requires championing discomfort, at least initially.
Personally, I try to resolve these challenges in two ways. Firstly, I like to ensure everyone is bought into a role before we even start recruiting. This way I can guarantee the candidate that they will have the appropriate empowerment when they join. Secondly, I strive to always be open about our business challenges and maturity, just as I am honest about my excitement in addressing them together with our great teams.
The comforting truth is that the transformative talent many organizations seek is often willing to take up their cause. However, these challengers need to be given a candid lie of the land upfront, and the subsequent empowerment to make their mark. While this might cause some discomfort in the short term, it is the only way of guaranteeing meaningful impact in the long term.