Gordon Wong: Using a data contract to build trust in modern data teams
I just need to get through this busy period, then I can focus on the important stuff… Haven’t we all thought this, only to find ourselves still mired in ad-hoc work months later? With one urgent P0 after another, it can be easy for data leaders and teams to focus on short-term deliverables and deadlines — all while missing out on the bigger picture.
From our work with hundreds of amazing data teams and as a data team ourselves, we’ve learned that defining who you are as a leader and what you want your team to work toward is a key component to success — just as important as hitting that next P0 deliverable.
We recently spoke with Gordon Wong, a consultant and founder of Wong Decision Intelligence who was formerly a senior leader of business intelligence at both Hubspot and Fitbit. He’s a hands-on, collaborative analytics leader with deep experience in building great data teams while helping businesses grow.
One of the big takeaways from our chat was the importance of forming a clear mission and vision for your team. “That seems way too simple,” he says. “But turns out, it’s really hard.” Here are some methods Gordon used to set up team missions and visions — both personal and professional — and how they helped his team perform at their best.
(This interview is from an ebook we recently published, titled The Secrets of a Modern Data Leader, featuring insights from Gordon and other amazing data leaders. Learn more and download here.)
Establish your team’s mission and vision
Let’s start with the basics — what is the difference between a team mission and vision? Your vision should contain your data team’s why, and your mission should focus on the what and how. The former should inspire, and the latter should drive action.
Whether you’re new to your role or looking to improve the layout of your existing team, getting solid, authentic definitions of your mission and vision requires lots of questions and deep listening.
“The most important trait of a leader is to establish the vision. You have to start somewhere.”
Gordon starts by speaking with stakeholders across the organization to get a solid picture of what everyone needs. He focuses most of his early time on asking questions and adjusting based on what he learns.
While some of the questions might feel basic, they’re all about making sure everyone is on the same page. This is necessary for a functional mission. “Enterprise business and data teams are busy, and our product tends to be so abstract,” he says. Making the abstract more concrete by gathering context will help you more easily set goals.
Some questions he’s found useful at the beginning:
- What’s the common understanding of the problem?
- Who are our customers?
- What do they care about?
- How are we addressing their needs?
Once you identify the problems and the path is clear, you can form your mission and vision, and the KPIs required to make them successful.
“Because that kind of success is hard to measure, we don’t measure it,” says Gordon. “Every small shop owner, every small restaurant, they measure the business. They know the receipts for the day, they know their inventory. We should do the same.”
Define the contract
After years of experience in the data industry, something equally important to Gordon as a mission and vision is a well-defined contract. This is not the kind that outlines your salary and role expectations. It’s the contract you and your team enter into with your superiors and stakeholders.
“This is a new part for me,” says Gordon. “It’s all about deciding together what winning looks like.” Showing your boss a well-thought-out mission and vision for your team is great — getting your boss to agree to the terms of success is crucial.
- What is our agreed-upon definition of success?
- What resources are you willing to give me to support this mission?
- Do you agree to these set goalposts?
Most leaders don’t move goalposts maliciously, but because they’re ambitious. This doesn’t change the fact that quick pivots can strain your team and lower the quality of your work.
“When you have a mission, vision, and contract, you’ve incidentally outlined how to deal with disagreements.”
If you give me these resources, I’ll deliver this work in this time frame.
If you don’t give me these resources, I can no longer guarantee the timeline.
“If you have a good relationship with your boss, you should be able to have that conversation,” says Gordon. “Do you acknowledge that if you change your scope or cut my resources, we’re putting quality and delivery at risk?” Risky as it might feel to set clear boundaries, remember that your role as a leader is to speak not just for yourself, but for your team.
“We’re all adults,” says Gordon. “Get this conversation out there up front.”
Determine where you are on Maslow’s pyramid
Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is a theory of motivation — everyone is motivated by something, and figuring out where you and your employees fall in the pyramid can help you best connect them to your larger goals.
“Your employees are internal stakeholders. Work with them to establish why they’re here.”
Some common motivations Gordon has seen over the years include money, education and mentorship opportunities, community and camaraderie, and an alignment with the company’s values.
No matter your employees’ reasons for showing up every day, once they’re settled you can begin to build trust with them. “I’m not going to criticize you if you’re here to feed your family,” says Gordon. “I’ve got to jump right in — I have to feed my family as well. So I try to establish trust with you by saying, ‘Hey, I think I believe that if I am your coach, and I help us sell, and we drive business, we can help you meet those goals.’ That’s where we get that alignment.”
Communicate your personal mission and vision
Something that has gone a long way for Gordon when building relationships with new teams is being upfront about his own mission and vision, his own reasons for being there, and telling his employees the contract from day one.
He even wrote up a manual called “How to Gordon.” He shares the guide with people he works with so there is no gray area about what he promises and what drives his decisions.
“I’m a big believer in psychological safety, so really, this has nothing to do with data, but rather has to do with just leadership in general,” says Gordon. “I need to establish trust with my team, so my first decision is I start communicating about myself and my motivations: I need to get paid, I need to be learning, I need to be good for employees, for the company, for the world.”
Much like with a team’s mission and vision, a clear outline creates space for open and honest conversations. “It’s been really helpful for me,” he says.
“I try to give people a reason to trust me. Missions and visions — my own and team-based — say, ‘here’s how I think you will benefit if you are willing to put some trust in me.’”
Gordon recently did a live Q&A about his learnings and lessons as a modern data leader. Watch the recording here.
Found this helpful? Read our latest free ebook — Secrets of a Modern Data Leader: The First 365 Days Inside a Data Team.
It’s chock-full of insights from innovative data leaders like Erica Louie, Stephen Bailey (Whatnot, Immuta), Taylor Murphy (Meltano, GitLab), and Gordon Wong (Wong Decision Intelligence, Hubspot, Fitbit).