Communication, Influence Keys to Success in Statistics
Robert Starbuckand Paul Berg
What does it take to be a highly successful professional statistician? A good foundation in statistical theory and methodology is an obvious requirement, and one that is typically achieved through completion of academic degree programs in statistics and continued learning of statistical theory and methodology throughout one’s career via attendance of courses, seminars, and professional society meetings and through self-study (e.g., reading technical journals and books). Other less obvious requirements for success are the ability to effectively communicate with and influence other people, and this will be the focus of this article.
Why do communication and influence skills matter? Your work products are typically communicated through a written document or oral presentation. The audience for these communications varies from well-trained statisticians to people with little or no formal training in statistics. The better the content and delivery of your message, the more likely it will be heard and influence those hearing it. A person who consistently communicates well will achieve greater influence than would otherwise occur.
How do you acquire better communication and influence skills? Courses in these topics are not routinely included in academic degree programs, though some forward-looking programs have begun to include them. Some employers provide courses for their employees, but they may be sacrificed in tight financial times. Numerous courses are available through private companies, whose business is to provide such training, but the daily cost per participant in these courses typically exceeds $500, an amount many statisticians cannot afford to pay themselves and many employers will not support.
Fortunately, the American Statistical Association and Eli Lilly and Company are addressing the need for communication and influence skills.
American Statistical Association
ASA President Robert Rodriguez established the Career Success Factors Workgroup to provide career-building courses on topics such as presentation skills and influence skills. The first action of the workgroup was to determine what topics that are of importance to statisticians would be considered for course development. That resulted in the following list of career success factor topics:
- Personality training
- Influence skills
- Presentation skills
- Defining a problem
- Negotiation skills
- Understanding business purpose
- Time management
- Leadership skills
- Career planning
- Communication skills
- Professional appearance and demeanor
- Facilitation skills
- Cost-benefit training
The workgroup selected an initial set of topics to work on and combined some of them into single courses. The courses being developed are the following:
- Presentation Skills
- Influence and Leadership Skills
- Personality Training and Team Building
- Career Planning
Course material is being gathered and assembled, and a “train the trainer” course will be prepared for each topic and delivered to ASA members who want to participate as instructors.
Each course is expected to be one day in length, though some topics may need more time to cover. In the latter cases, the course might be offered on consecutive days or divided into a series of one-day courses offered at different points in time (e.g., beginning, intermediate, advanced).
Ideally, courses will be offered in numerous locations convenient to most ASA members (including those residing outside of the United States), and “local” enough to minimize travel costs, both for the attendees and instructors. Though some courses might be offered in conjunction with major ASA meetings (e.g., JSM), the majority of course participation is anticipated to occur in a manner unconnected with such meetings. Keeping the course costs modest should make the courses affordable.
Many ASA members live in areas that have a local ASA chapter, and it is anticipated that ASA chapters will embrace these courses as a meaningful way to serve their members and increase the attractiveness of being a chapter member. The chapter could play a key role in identifying a champion to provide a meeting facility and sponsors to provide refreshments. ASA sections also may provide similar support to enable their members to benefit from these courses.
Some courses may be suitable for webinars, in which case “local” pertains more to time zones than location. For these courses, webcasts also may be created to enable ASA members to view a course when it fits into their schedule. Information about webinars and webcasts will be posted on the ASA web page.
Eli Lilly and Company
The statistics organization at Eli Lilly and Company created a leadership development program to improve statisticians’ ability to lead and influence innovation; increase statisticians’ involvement in critical decisionmaking; and attract, develop, and retain talented statisticians. These goals were based on feedback—solicited from internal customers—regarding the impact and leadership of statisticians at the company. Communication and influence skills are essential parts of this program.
Each year, employees at Lilly write development plans for themselves, focusing on skills the employee and his or her supervisor agree could be acquired or improved; some aspect of leadership development is required as a line item in each person’s development plan. Lilly assembled a database of resources statisticians can use when updating their development plans each year. This database contains links to articles, short courses, books, and videos, as well as ideas and contacts for activities to develop their communication and influence (and other leadership) skills.
Quarterly, Eli Lilly hosts executive leadership presentations by internal and external leaders with a variety of backgrounds. Presenters have included Lilly business unit vice presidents and retiring statisticians, as well as a college basketball coach and a CEO of another company. These presenters tell the stories of their leadership journeys and engage in question-and-answer sessions; they inspire, teach key leadership lessons, and highlight leader role models. Arranging a diverse group of accomplished presenters, who are good communicators and influential in their fields, is key to the value this presentation series provides.
A third mode of developing leadership skills that Lilly has implemented is via a series of multi-day events, focusing on interactions with leaders, reflection, discussion, and peer-to-peer teaching of key leadership skills. This program is completed by participants identifying personal barriers to their full leadership potential and action items to address them.
Efforts of Eli Lilly’s leadership development program that have focused specifically on communication skills include a competition for the best video clip highlighting good communication, a group dedicated to communication skills in the company’s internal social network, and a web conference on how to facilitate meetings remotely.
Lilly employees have responded positively to these efforts. Fanni Natanegara, who has worked at Lilly for nine years, said, “In addition to focusing on specific leadership elements, we also got a chance to interact with internal and external leaders and hear about their inspiring leadership journeys. The offsite visits, which included meeting their CEOs, reinforced the in-class learning and highlighted the common thread of leadership behavior.”
W. Scott Clark, a senior director in the organization, said, “Because of our leadership development program, I’ve seen big changes from even some of my experienced staff. Their conscious efforts on communication skills and improving their influence on senior leaders have really made a difference.”
This leadership development program, part of a comprehensive strategic effort started four years ago, has had measurable impact on raising the floor (i.e., increased expectations and increased performance) for statisticians at the company. For more information about this program, contact Gary Sullivan at firstname.lastname@example.org.
These are just two examples of ways organizations can foster the growth of communication, influence, and other nontechnical skills of their members. So take the opportunity to do something about your nontechnical skills; those skills may be the difference between your being a good statistician and a great statistician.