Scrolling through LinkedIn, you can find an abundance of inspirational posts that take a seemingly random event and turn it into a lesson on leadership. Although these posts sometimes come off self-promotional and dramatize reality, there is usually some truth to them. One common example explores the difference between managing and leading, with the takeaway that managers achieve results through control and leaders by guiding. You can tell a lot through the word choice these posts used to describe both groups: They typically depict managers as demanding and leaders as people who coach, advise and demonstrate.

It’s a return to the notion that leaders set an example through their actions rather than telling people what to do, and there is a nugget of truth to it. Any leader worth his or her salt has both received and given this adage, but the difficulty lies in acting on it. In this way, an organization’s culture is driven by what senior executives choose to prioritize. After all, if senior executives don’t act the way they want others to, why would employees?

All too often, we see discrepancies between the C-suite’s expectations for its workforce and reality of those workers’ day to day, including when it comes to how the business uses data. Many organizations understand the benefits of using data to inform decisions: that it can empower employees to make more informed decisions, improve productivity and drive competitive advantage. In fact, in a survey by Credence Research, 90% of professionals said “data and analytics are key to their organization’s digital transformation initiatives.” However, few leaders have a realistic view of the extent to which their organizations can implement these practices.

The Data Skills Gap

In a recent survey by Qlik and Accenture called “The Human Impact of Data Literacy,” 75% of C-suite level respondents said they believe that all or most of their employees have the ability to work with data proficiently. Moreover, 79% of these executives believe that their employees have access to the tools they need to be productive. However, middle managers and lower-level employees are less optimistic; only around 50% feel that all or most employees have the right abilities, and the same percentage believe that employees have access to the right tools to achieve goals.

Clearly, there is a disconnect between the perceived capabilities of the workforce and its actual capabilities, demonstrating that not only must leaders trust the data, but they should also strive to help their employees become more confident and comfortable using data to make decisions.

Part of the problem is that leaders are failing to recognize how their own examples are setting the wrong expectations. According to the Qlik and Accenture survey, around two-thirds of C-suite executives, senior managers and directors would go with their gut feeling over data-driven insight, compared with 41% of lower-level employees.

In SHRM’s “Skills Gap 2019” survey, 50% of respondents said that skills shortages worsened in their organizations over the previous two years. Now that the global pandemic has caused an uncertain economic landscape, one might think that the skills gap would shrink or stay the same amid unemployment. The reality, however, is that unemployment will only cause the gap to widen. It is more important than ever to focus on developing data skills from the top to the bottom of your workforce.

Additionally, the Qlik and Accenture survey findings suggest that executives’ lack of confidence in making data-based decisions is impeding their ability to lead with data. A little fewer than one-third of global C-suite respondents said they were overwhelmed with data at least once each day, compared to 14% of employees overall. And, just one-fifth of the global workforce reported feeling fully confident in their data literacy (the ability to read, understand, question and work with data).

The Leadership Solution

Leaders can only solve this problem by leading by example — interrogating their own skill sets; investing in training where required; and moving away from gut instinct to demonstrate to their own employees how they can, and should, use data-led insights. After all, Gartner reports, “By 2022, 90% of corporate strategies will explicitly mention information as a critical enterprise asset and analytics as an essential competency.”

If leaders are serious about establishing a data-driven culture, they need to establish the correct priorities. Education and empowerment should be led from the top down. Empowering employees to confidently embrace and make data-driven decisions is an investment in a business’ most important asset — its people. The result can have a financial impact, too, as Qlik and Accenture found; enterprises that have successfully built a data-driven workforce can increase the value of their organization by up to five percent.

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