Do data analysts need people skills? After all, we’re number-crunchers, shouldn’t we primarily be sharp knives chopping up a hodge-podge of varied and large data sets so we can make a delicious and nutritious information stew? My cooking analogies aside, this is not an uncommon perception of data analysts by some managers. In my opinion, this is a limited viewpoint. Of course, if foot soldiers is all you want, then that’s all you’ll get. However, a more strategic vision of the data analyst role encompasses much-needed people skills, which ultimately helps data analysts do what businesses need most: add value.
In my experience, I found the following people skills to be most useful in my career as a data analyst so far:
Some people liken this to listening well. They’re two sides of the same coin. In most work environments, especially analysis-driven ones, dissenting opinions are common. This is most true when you’re required to strategize together with your colleagues. In my case, workforce productivity increases don’t usually occur in a single-analyst vacuum. Working well with others sometimes means resisting the urge to argue immediately against an idea I don’t agree with. I’ve often had conversations where getting my ideas across meant I spoke for less than 10% of the conversation while the other person carried the bulk of the dialogue. Quality is far more important here than quantity and I find that when I’m a patient listener, the other person appreciates being heard and is a lot more receptive to my thoughts in turn.
I enjoy meeting new people. This simple personality trait of mine has many a times had unintended positive consequences. For instance, when I build data analysis models, I know there are other pairs of eyes I can rely on to check on my work and give me their feedback. Similarly, when I need information from my cross-functional counterparts, or when I’m relaying information to them, I have their ears and their attention because they often know me personally. My extensive network allows me to reach almost anyone in my company on a first- or second-degree basis and that lubricates data gathering and process improvement immensely. Meeting new people and maintaining meaningful connections with them is a very fulfilling aspect of how I work. It has held me in good stead for many years and I’m confident I would be a poorer data analyst without it.
Part of being in a large organization means one has to work harder to communicate the value of one’s specific function to the rest of the business. Data analysis is often not visible to the rest of the organization so the onus is on data analysts to educate their cross-functional colleagues on their role within the organization. Tying in previous data analysis work that resulted in great business outcomes into conversations with new internal partners is often an excellent way to demonstrate the value of your function. I see myself as an ambassador representing at various levels and the most local level is usually the particular data analysis group that I’m a part of. At the broadest level, I am of course representing the organization altogether. I often find that being able to preach at the local level is vital in terms of ensuring I get the organizational support I need so that I may in turn support overall organizational outcomes.