Data Analytics to catalyse wide-scale development across Africa – Barns

Nigeria, and the rest of Africa, is confronted with the challenge of collecting and interpreting data for informed governmental and corporate decision making. To resolve this issue and set afoot the economic rejuvenation of the continent, several non-profit organisations have set up conferences and summits to enlighten stakeholders about the limitless potential the sector offers. One such organisation is an international conglomerate of project managers and think-tank, The Leadership Project, expected to play host to business owners, entrepreneurs, and managers at the upcoming West African Business Leaders’ Summit in Lagos. The event which is themed ‘’Leadership. Innovation. Profitability’’ is billed to provide participants with tools to engender all-round growth. In this interview with BusinessDay journalist Segun Adams, key speaker at the event and former CEO Nielsen Holdings, a Fortune 500 company, Mitch Barns, elucidates on the imperativeness of the advancement of the nation and why he is on a mission to develop economies and leaders across Africa.

What is the biggest challenge you have faced in your various leadership positions and what role did innovation, technological advancement or data and analytics play in resolving them? 

Innovation, technology, and analytics are all important to an organization’s success, but most of the time, any advantage they bring will eventually be copied by a competitor. The bigger challenge, and the bigger opportunity, is the role that people play. Does the organization have capable leaders who the organization trusts to lead with integrity? Is the business culture strong and positive, enabling the organization to govern and guide itself to a large degree, without too much of the heavy hand of excessive rules, controls, and policies? If those things are true, the innovation, technology, and analytics required for success almost always follow. If those things are not true, then no amount of innovation, technology, or analytics will be sufficient.

You have a plethora of experience involving data and analytics from the different roles you played in Nielsen, what promises do you think this discipline holds for Nigeria? 

From a leadership perspective, data and analytics often elevate our decisions and outcomes beyond what we can do based only on our personal experience or by following conventional wisdom. This is because data brings undeniable objectivity and a lack of emotion that often is a counterbalance to our very human, more emotionally driven approach to forming our judgments. Both (data and experience) are good sources, and they complement one another. Smart leaders want data that sometimes disagree with them because that is, in fact, the type of data that provides the most incremental value. This has been true for me in every location I have lived and worked, including the USA, Europe, and China, and I am confident that it is just as true in Nigeria.

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Another thing I like about data is the powerful role it so often plays in helping us to improve the efficiency of our business operations. We commonly leverage data at every step in our operational processes to improve quality, shorten cycle times, increase reliability, and trim waste. All these ultimately contribute to greater efficiency. And efficiency gains are gold! Why? Let’s compare them to gains in market share. When we do something that increases market share (e.g., launch a new product), that’s great, but it often is short-lived. Our gain is usually our competitor’s loss in a zero-sum game. Soon the competitor fights back and some or all our gain goes away, still in a zero-sum game. But it was good while it lasted! With an efficiency gain, it is different. Instead of zero-sum, efficiency gains are often a non-zero-sum game. Our gain in efficiency is no one’s loss. Instead, our operation is better, and in fact, the entire market gets a little better. And when our competitor copies our efficiency gain, our gain doesn’t go away. Instead, we both are better off, and the efficiency of the entire market got better two times. Therefore, I like efficiency gains so much, and the role data plays is crucial to most efficiency gains.

In addition to insights relevant to the topic Leadership, Innovation, and Profitability; what should attendees expect from the upcoming conference? 

The most obvious reason we attend a conference like this is to hear the featured speakers. The second reason is to have a “shared experience” with like-minded individuals, an experience that is almost always richer than if we take in the same content alone. One of the biggest reasons to attend a conference like this is the tremendous value you gain from the chance encounters at a break or the impromptu discussion with the person who happened to sit next to you. Give serendipity a chance and it will often surprise you in a good way!

In your experience, what are some of the issues that businesses face in developing countries and what do you think can resolve them? 

Developing countries generally enjoy faster growth but have less infrastructure. Both are challenging. Fast growth typically means a competitive market for talent and prices are often less stable. Business leaders like high transparency and low uncertainty, but developing markets often have lower transparency and higher uncertainty. Infrastructure develops with time, but sometimes the timeline for infrastructure doesn’t align with the timeline for your business or your market. That presents a difficult choice. Do you just tolerate it, or do you take on the very large added burden of trying to do something about it?

Over the course of your career, what would you describe as the one thing you have witnessed organisations incorporate in order to experience a leap in their operations? 

In my experience, there are several ways to accomplish this, but there are three common elements most seem to have: 1. The rules are relaxed. I don’t mean that ethics or legality are set aside; I simply mean that the normal corporate bureaucracy is dialled back somewhat to allow more degrees of freedom for the team who are driving the leap forward. 2. Higher risk tolerance is accepted. This doesn’t mean that less rigour is applied or that there is not as much discipline in things like financials or quality. It’s more about being willing to figure things out inflight rather than requiring all of the answers before take-off. And 3. Less fear. If people are going to be expected to take on more risk, they need to be able to count on an environment of safety (career safety, mostly) in the wake of those risks. Trust of and among the leadership team is the critical ingredient here.

From your experience, what differentiates a good organisation from a great one? 

Two factors that differentiate a great organization from a good one are sustainability and a “despite, not because” mentality.

Sustainability refers to the ability of the organization to repeat success repeatedly through various ups and downs and changes in the market over the long term. Great organizations do this by continuously remaking themselves over and over, adapting and innovating to remain contemporary. By doing so, they not only survive the changes in the market, they thrive by being propelled by the changes in the market.

A “despite, not because” mentality means that the business leaders are fully expecting challenges to appear at some point in the future and they are preparing for those challenges even though those challenges are as yet unknown. The best leaders know that “unknown” doesn’t mean “unexpected”. So, when the challenges arise, instead of having to say, “We fell short of our objectives BECAUSE of these challenges,” they are able to say, “We achieved our objectives DESPITE these challenges”. The first statement is consoling, but the second one is inspiring. This is a big part of what leadership is about: Finding a way forward despite it all.

What one piece of advice would you offer individuals in critical leadership positions of businesses in the country?

Leaders need to do two things simultaneously, and the two things will feel somewhat contradictory. The first thing a leader must do is create clarity for the organization. This requires a very clear, consistent, and confident communication of the mission (what we do), purpose (why it is valuable to the world), and strategies (the changes and improvements we intend to make). The organization needs to be able to count on the leader for this clarity and consistency. However, at the same time leaders are projecting a picture of clarity and consistency, they also need to remain fully open, constantly learning, and always ready to change, at least as fast as the world around them is changing. According to Singularity University, the pace of change in the world today requires us to be in “learning mode” for at least 100 days per year! So that’s the challenge: On the one hand, the team needs the leader to provide stability and clarity, but leaders can never afford to become still, and they must constantly be entertaining new ideas. Balancing these two competing interests well is one of the most critical skills for a successful leader.

As a former CEO of a multinational organisation with operations in over 100 countries and an employer of approximately 45,000 people worldwide, what is your greatest learning? 

One of my greatest learnings as CEO is that my jokes were funnier when I was CEO than both before and after I was CEO! And in that little piece of humour is also contained a little wisdom and warning for all of us as leaders, which is that we have to resist the artificial bubble of leadership and stay grounded in reality, truth, and authenticity.

Another of my most important learnings is that the role luck plays in our success is larger than most of us realize or are otherwise willing to admit. Recognizing the role luck plays in our success carries at least two big benefits: 1. It keeps us humble, and humility is an essential trait for a good leader; and 2. It keeps us resilient. If some of our successes are a result of luck (vs. only our hard work and brilliance), then the same is true of some of our failures, and when they occur, this recognition encourages us to pick ourselves up, keep moving forward, and try again.

Finally, my most important learning of all was that while the world will judge us by our outcomes, we will ultimately judge ourselves by the quality of our motives, the quality of our decisions, and the wake we create for the people around us. When I force myself to be quiet and still and I take a long look in the mirror, I see the truth. Do I like what I see? This ultimately will be more important to me and the people I care most about than anything else.