Leaders' Edge Advisor

by Gary De Carolis, President

“Not everything that is faced can be changed. But nothing can be changed until it is faced.”

-James Baldwin


We live in the Information Age. Whether one is in the world of finance, product development, education, housing, research or yes, human services, information is a partner in most decisions about present and future activities. Having served on my City Council for six years, I saw time and again presentations by potential contractors who had precise data to back up their presentations consistently win competitions over other bidders who were relying solely on their company’s reputation, past performance or the experience of the lead person. Data matters.

In human services our ability to measure our work by a set of outcomes that go to the heart of quality of life issues is critical. Why should a legislature continue to fund efforts that have shown meager results or worse yet have no data at all to prove whether or not they were successful? Yet there are those that find it a burden to engage in any evaluative work regarding their project, service or system. Is the world of human services so far removed from the information world we inhabit?

As we build interagency systems to consolidate and maximize resources between and among agencies it becomes critical to look at the results of those efforts. We should assess not only how we are working together but also at what services are making a difference. By building a robust data system we can see what services are being used, how, when, where and at what cost and benefit to our intended customers. We can, for example, explore the value of using flexible funds to buy innovative services and learn if they make a difference in the lives of recipients.

To thrive, today’s leaders must learn to use data to inform and shape strategic plans for their organizations and systems. They should ensure that all key constituents have had an opportunity to weigh in on what works and does not in the organization/system. Leaders should seek to build systems whereby they can expect answers to their questions about quality, cost and effectiveness to be based on solid evidence collected in a routine methodical manner. That information can inform leadership on the necessary steps to be taken to keep their organization/system alive, vital and moving forward.

With solid assessment strategies, leaders can determine what their ideal organization would look like based on information gathered from all key stakeholders. They can then focus needed change geared towards building that ideal based on hard evidence gathered from the organization. While this approach takes planning, it is far more likely to pay off in meaningful system and organizational improvements than will making guesses based on assumptions or feelings.

The genius of great leaders in the 21st Century is not in making things happen or having a terrific idea. Rather, it is asking the right questions to guide them to important information that their stakeholders have to offer. There really is no substitute for solid data to inform and support a leadership team that is challenged by what next steps they should take to move their organization forward.

Data Plus Stories = Power

Perhaps the most powerful use of data is when it is combined with personal anecdotes. For example, it is one thing to provide data about the high cost of residential placements for youth with mental health disorders in out-of-state residential facilities. It is quite another thing to have a parent talk about the pain of losing a son or daughter for a period of time to a place that is too far away to visit, and where the child is completely out of touch with any of his or her relatives and friends, pets and comforting daily routines. Not to mention the stories of abuse that have been shared about some of those placements. That combination of data and story is most compelling to public policy makers who are concerned both about limited finances and sound social policy.

Tools for the Information-Driven Leader

  • Listening
  • Body language
  • Town hall meetings
  • Staff meetings
  • Public forums
  • Suggestion boxes
  • Surveys
  • Needs assessments
  • Focus groups
  • Interviews
  • Spontaneous remarks from informal leaders
  • Research and other evaluative studies
  • Other ideas?


Tips for the Leader

  • Locate your evaluation staff near your own office so you can develop both a formal and informal relationship with those that regularly analyze information.
  • Treat data-gathering as an integral part of the life of your system/organization; build data collection, analysis and feedback into every major activity.
  • Prior to making any major decision, be sure you have either eliminated or narrowed the “information gap” in the decision to be made.
  • As you can see from the list above, information comes in many forms. Develop a multi-tiered approach to data collection, always relying on a number of sources for your information.
  • If you are an evaluator, push to work closely with your leadership team to ensure they pose questions that various audiences may want answered and push for the data to get those questions answered.
  • If you are not an evaluator, develop a close working relationship with someone from the evaluation world so that they can take your questions and do the analysis that will help provide the audiences you will be facing with the kinds of data that you need to make your case.

In the end, those who master the Information Age will harness all the value that information can bring to a leader and organization and use it to move their organization forward as a learning community that is continually improving. Combined with courage, persistence, strong ethical standards and a thirst for knowledge, today’s leaders will be rewarded with continuing opportunities to build and expand upon their enterprises and influence in their world.

Center for Community Leadership · P.O. Box 3069, Burlington, VT 05408-3069
ph: 802-863-9132 fax: 802-863-6586 · info@centerforcommunityleadership.com

Copyright 2005 Gary De Carolis. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system or transmitted in any form or by any means electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without the prior written permission of the author.

Printer-friendly version.

VT Nonprofit Web Design