The difference between top tier analysts and run of the mill ones is usually soft skills, not technical ones. Of course technical skills are important; more and deeper skills enable broader and deeper analysis. But it is usually the soft skills which enable analysts to drive beyond the obvious, overcome roadblocks, and develop intelligence which can drive the business.
Here are the most important soft skills for analysts to have, in more or less priority order:
Curiosity – Curiosity may have killed the cat, but it is also behind almost every solid piece of analysis. Like scientific discoveries, powerful and counter-intuitive analysis usually starts with, “hmm, that’s weird.” Noticing an odd or unexpected relationship is common for analysts. Following up on that odd piece of data and dig down into its root causes is what separates the good from great analysts.
Tenacity – Tenacity for analysts is twofold. First it is the ability to sustain effort when there are many obstacles in the way. Before every real world analysis the data requires cleaning. Data cleaning is often boring, time consuming, humbling…and entirely necessary. The tenacity required to spend significant time doing tedious data cleaning, is essential to developing thorough and relevant analysis. Analysts without that tenacity will be content to only grab the easily achievable insight which is often not the full picture.
“Give me six hours to cut down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.” – Abraham Lincoln. If you changed that for analysis it would be something like, “If you gave me six hours to complete a project, I would spend the first four cleaning data and structuring the problem.”
The second part of tenacity is the ability to reframe and restructure problems when the first, second, etc., solutions do not work. Tenacity does not mean to simply try harder, but the ability to take a step back and examine why it did not work and then come up with plans to re-try solving the problem.
Note: There is overlap here from what I wrote about Cheryl Metzger’s articles. I recommend reading both if you have not already. I did not repeat all of her points, but I do agree with all of them.
Business sense – Business sense for analysts can mean a lot of things. First and foremost it means understanding the business that is being supported. Analysts are a support role; they must never forget that they not the business, but are there to support the business. If you want to be a good analyst you need to understand the business you support.
The details of business sense will change from company to company, but there are a few things you need to understand at a minimum. You will need to understand how a business makes its money, who its customers are, what its value chain looks like, and what can/cannot change.
I know, that sounds like a lot. For someone who wants to break into analytics this can either be daunting or encouraging.
If you are outside of the company or industry, you should do your best to show how your previous work provided value by your knowledge of the business. If you do not have work experience, you can start by reading. Read all that you can on the target company or industry and about business knowledge in general. Fortune magazine is great for being “on trend” to keep you up with the latest concerns of business leaders and the current terminology.
If you are inside the company this is a great spot for you to showcase your business knowledge. Everyone who has been in management long enough has seen some initiatives fail because they were not implementable. You need to highlight how you bring an advantage by knowing the process and culture and how you can use that to inform your analysis.
Communications – Good analysts can accurately communicate results. Great analysts can do it concisely. Great analysts I put this soft skill lower on the list, but it could be number one in many organizations. Organizations that are newer to data driven decision making need good communicators.
Communications are a two way street. Analysts must do a good job of listening to business leaders about their goals. It often takes qualitative research, e.g., interviews, to formulate hypotheses or identify the pain points which are hurting the business.
Listening to front line employees and finding what they were telling me in the data is my brand. I have had success because I could work side by side with our people, watch what they did, listen to their problems, and then size the business impact of those issues by finding them in the data.
Good analysis with a great story about why it is important is much more likely to succeed than perfect analysis without a story.
Employees have concerns that are often seen as complaining by many businesses. When management addresses employee concerns with a plan that will provide real business impact it improves the business in multiple ways. Not only is the problem addressed, but the front line employees saw a change based on their input.
Employee engagement improves when people feel like management is listening. It improves even more when they know management is listening because they see results.
Conflict resolution – In the course of an analytics project there are often personal issues. Sometimes business leaders are reluctant to listen to the nerd with a computer. “I’ve been doing this thirty years, I know what is important!”
Sometimes mid level people will feel left out and withhold data or input. Sometimes junior people will lie about their experiences because they feel like any issues were their fault and they don’t want to look bad.
Good communications can help to prevent conflicts, but some will inevitably happen. When conflicts occur, the burden usually falls on the analyst (and the analyst’s leadership) to fix things.
I had a boss who was fond of saying, “There are two types of people in business. Those who are seeking to drive the business, and those who are trying to keep the lights on.” Conflicts can torpedo a change. When that happens you are not driving the business, something that is unacceptable if you want to be a good analyst.
Attention to detail – In almost every analysis, small details can change the entire meaning. I have personally had multiple days worth of work, and seen others who fared worse, when I misunderstood one seemingly insignificant detail.
Some business leaders will make sure you have turned over every stone when you conducted your analysis. They will ask detailed questions about what variables mean, how many customers of a certain type are in your sample and how that compares to the average, and more. You need to be able to answer those questions or you risk destroying your credibility. Or worse, you risk pushing through a bad change.
Soft skills are the difference between being an analyst and being a good or even great one. If you already have these soft skills then you should consider moving into an analytics focused career. You have the temperament for it, and you might be able to build the skills and experience easier than you think.
Demonstrating soft skills usually requires an interview. Hiring managers will want to see how you utilized the skills in past experience, and there are specific things they are looking for. Stay tuned for our next post in the series about experience and how you should discuss it in the interview.
What do you think? Is there anything I missed, or that you disagree with?