“In God we trust, all others must bring data,” the statistician William Deming once said.
There’s a lot that is appealing to me about Deming’s assertion that there is truth in numbers. As the owner of an analytics consulting firm that specializes in helping companies make better business decisions based on data, I’ve always found the truth in numbers to be strangely comforting. It is one of the reasons I gravitated to the field of digital analytics.
In light of the recent political phenomena of post-truths and alternative facts, however, it feels almost as if the very foundation of knowledge itself is being called into question. That might sound a little dire, but this new trend of doubting the data in politics could easily bleed into other fields, including our own. And that, to me, is very troubling.
If you ever present arguments to executives and backed up your arguments with data, then at some point in your career you may have experienced losing an argument because either the veracity of the data, where it came from or how it was collected was called into question.
Getting shot down because you, your data or your conclusions aren’t trusted, for whatever reasons, can be paralyzing and ultimately damaging to your professional credibility, depending on how you address it. Certainly, it can undermine the force of your argument to others.
It is likely that you will never be able to absolutely prove, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that your data is infallible. But one of the ways to protect yourself is to make sure you’ve done your homework. That way, you can address any questions about your data with confidence.
For you to be credible and persuasive in any role where you are asked to provide useful, compelling, objective analysis, to me it basically comes down to trust; namely, trust in you and your ability to accurately and consistently deliver meaningful, relevant results based on evidence and fact.
For you to be credible in any role… it basically comes down to trust.
Want to build and establish the trust you need within your organization to be respected and taken seriously among your peers, colleagues, and managers for your good work? Here is a checklist of seven tips I put together to help:
#1 – Be Impartial
Try not to have preconceived notions about what the data should show or how it should be interpreted in advance. If you go into an analysis without an agenda and present your results as objectively as possible, it won’t seem like your analysis takes a side or pushes a particular point of view.
If you have a bias, it’s important to say so up front. Otherwise, you could be suspected of leading the witness. Your job when presenting analysis to executives should be to present ALL the facts as you see them and subsequently help guide them to making a sound decision on their own… not to make the decision for them.
At the risk of seeming contradictory, make an exception if an executive specifically asks for your opinion. In this case, you should absolutely be ready to give it. Just make sure to emphasize that there may be multiple ways to interpret the data.
#2 – Provide Context
No analysis is done in a vacuum. There’s always a reason for conducting it, as well as a plethora of factors that go into what data is used, where the data comes from and the methodology you choose to approach it.
Explaining the story of how you got from point A to point B will go a long way toward helping executives understand how and why you reached your conclusions, and to their being able to effectively and independently reach a conclusion of their own. Without that history, your analysis is at risk of being misinterpreted, downplayed or even dismissed.
It may even help to outline as many alternate ways to interpret the data as you can. Touch upon the possible benefits/implications of each. If you’re asked, explain why you might favor one interpretation over another. Doing this gives your analysis more context, adding credibility to your conclusions and enabling your audience to better judge the outcome for themselves.
#3 – Obsess Over Accuracy
Mistakes are only human. But nothing torpedoes the results of an analysis (and your credibility) more than errors, especially careless ones. And they can run the gamut from missing data to incorrect calculations to a misplaced decimal point to using the wrong dates.
Nothing torpedoes the results of an analysis (and your credibility) more than errors, especially careless ones.
Unfortunately, the room for error is almost endless. To mitigate the risk of getting something wrong, you should obsess over getting it right. Your reputation is at stake. Executives will appreciate that you didn’t rush your work out the door. Spend the time to double, triple and even quadruple check your work.
Take a step back, put yourself in the shoes of your audience and try to question your numbers the way they would question them. Does everything add up? Does everything make sense? Yes? Good. Now bounce your analysis off someone else for one final review before you take it to your executive team.
With time, patience and attention to detail, I promise that your chances of success will increase greatly. We call this process “Quality Assurance.” And to earn executive trust, it’s a must.
#4 – Admit Your Mistakes
If being accurate helps build trust, admitting it when you’re not reaps similar rewards. This might sound difficult if your impulse is to hide your mistakes. But believe me when I say that you will get far more respect for owning up when you’re wrong than if you cover it up and are caught.
You will get far more respect for owning up when you’re wrong than if you cover it up and are caught.
Honesty is always the best policy, with no exceptions. And that doesn’t just go for your data or your analysis; it goes for what you know and what you don’t know. No one expects you to know everything. If you don’t know the answer, it’s okay! Just say so and that you will find out.
Admitting mistakes and being honest applies to everything you do at work and at home. This includes (but is not limited to) the hours you say you put in, reasons you say you’re late, what you say happened to your computer, etc. Integrity is so important that it’s even one of MaassMedia’s core values.
#5 – Be Thoughtful About How What and When To Communicate
How, what and when you communicate can have a major impact on how trustworthy you are perceived to be, too.
On what you communicate, it is important to know your audience and explain yourself clearly in terms they will understand. For instance, whether you are delivering a message by email, phone or in person you should refrain from using jargon just to sound smart (smart people will think you’re full of it). Talking too much or being long-winded can turn people off and be a sign that you don’t listen.
Talking too much or being long-winded can turn people off and be a sign that you don’t listen.
You should also be respectful no matter the audience. Personally, anyone who treats the people who take out the office trash with the same courtesy they show toward the CEO is held high in my esteem. My best advice on how you communicate is to be authentic, but aware.
Bear in mind, it does no one any good to spend an hour speaking or writing only to leave your audience scratching their heads wondering what the heck it was that you just said. A professional who is good at his/her job will reduce confusion, not create it. The time you spend to gather and effectively articulate your thoughts is time well spent.
Lastly, when to communicate? The simple answer is, early and often. If you get an email at 5:37 AM requesting your help, don’t wait until 4:00 PM to respond, even if you don’t have an answer or the time to find out. While you’re getting on with your day, the person who sent the email could be sitting there growing anxious by the minute. She might be concerned if you even got her message, much less why you haven’t responded.
At the very least, you should acknowledge you got the request and that you will be back in touch soon. That buys you some time to prepare an appropriate answer and creates the impression that you’re on it. Then as the day goes on, consider sending an update or two about your progress. Executives deserve timely responses to their questions and will appreciate your diligence. Thus, they’ll likely be more receptive should you need their support down the road.
#6 – Follow-Through
Missed deadlines. Broken promises. Forgotten details that somehow slipped through the cracks. You do not want a reputation as someone who doesn’t follow-through. Consistently doing what you say you will do demonstrates that you are someone who can be depended upon, and it builds trust.
Stray from that standard more than a few times and you may find yourself losing choice projects, influence and responsibility.
To help ensure you do follow-through, here are some pointers:
#7 – Semper Paratus
This is my last tip. Remember that kid the teacher called on in class who didn’t know the answer because he hadn’t done his homework? It’s embarrassing. Don’t be that kid. Professionals expect professionals to be prepared.
Remember that kid the teacher called on in class who didn’t know the answer because he hadn’t done his homework? Don’t be that kid.
For meetings, spend a few minutes before learning the agenda, reviewing the names and backgrounds of attendees, gathering your research, and coming up with some questions to ask.
For analyses, make sure you fully understand what the business questions and goals are before you start collecting data. Also, ask enough clarifying questions to make sure everyone is aligned on what success looks like.
Being prepared means anticipating what your audience wants and needs. If you take the time to think things through in advance, it will allow you to craft answers and solutions that will hit the mark and earn trust.
Preparation is so important that it’s even the U.S. Coast Guard’s official motto, Semper Paratus, or “Always Ready.” You would like your audience to trust you and your analysis the same way you trust the Coast Guard to save your drowning ass, right? Incorporate a similar philosophy on preparedness into your own professional practice and I guarantee it will not go unnoticed.
If current events have thrown the world into a crisis of trust, the last thing any of us needs is for that to affect our own personal and professional lives. After all, trust helps hold our families and friends together. Trust helps us get and keep our jobs. And for the purpose of this post, trust matters when presenting data to executives if being heard and believed is important to you.
Follow the seven tips I outlined above on how to be a beacon of truth in an era of alternate facts and earn the trust of your organization for you and your work. I promise it will go a long way towards you having a successful career, no matter your role or industry, one of which you can be proud.