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Rover Knows When to Question, Do You?

October 2020

Photo by Holly Russo of her beloved dog Max

As a senior leader, how much technical knowledge should you have?  Should you be an expert, or should you rely on your managers to handle the details? We offer one perspective here.

Can Max, the untrained family dog, smell drugs? Yes, he can. Max notices that something is different from what he expected to smell that day in that spot. Would Max know what to do upon discovering the anomaly? Probably not. He might react, or he might just hesitate for a minute and then keep walking. In fact, he may just pass it off as another random smell, trusting that 'his people' have things under control.

Rover, the trained drug-sniffing K9 knows to react to the smell of drugs by aggressively pawing at the spot. Rover also knows that if he smells explosives, he is to react passively as aggressive pawing could have dangerous consequences. 


What's important to note is that Rover isn't trained on what a 'drug' is, what chemicals are in its composition, or even the quantity of drugs at the spot. Rover is simply trained to react when he smells something he recognizes that requires further inspection by 'his person'.


As a leader of an agency with data practitioners, you likely receive a ton of information about your agency's data operations. I'm betting that at least once during your tenure, you received some information that seemed a little different or out of the ordinary. Did you know how to react? Did you know what questions to ask? Did you fear that maybe you were missing things that you really needed to react to, because you lacked the in-depth technical knowledge? 


You probably have good intuition, which contributed to your rise to leadership in the first place. You really care about your agency and its performance. The majority of what your agency does is work that has been done for a very long time, perhaps since the agency was formed. But with digital modernization, your agency is also doing some data operations in unfamiliar territory. Because you care, you worry about your lack of familiarity with the subject matter of data operations. You may hire a manager responsible for overseeing these operations, but still you worry. Because ultimately, you are responsible.


Forbes Magazine online reposted a great comment about the importance of data literacy among CEOs, that first appeared on Quora. An excerpt from that article follows:


CEOs often rely on their department heads and other senior executives to be deeper experts in their domains (chief marketing officer, chief financial officer, chief information officer, chief technology officer, etc.) but they ultimately have to weigh in and make the final decision on crucial investments and strategy. You can get by for a while just following the advice of your CIO/CTO, but the real question becomes are those executives doing what’s right for the business as a whole, or just what’s good for their departments?  


The article goes on to say that "Modern CEOs need to have a deeper understanding of technology and its impact on the business to be successful." 
But just how deep does your understanding need to be?

It's a great question, and of course there are many opinions on the matter.


Think about the other areas of your agency that you feel more confident about. Do you know all of the nitty-gritty details of the work done in each of those areas? Or, are you familiar enough that you can smell when something isn't right, and you know what to do when that happens? I bet you know what questions to ask in those situations. 


Think about Rover, who doesn't know the details of the drugs he smells. But unlike Max, he knows enough that what he smells is wrong and requires further inspection. He reacts, and his handler inspects. Rover may be right in thinking that there's something amiss, or he may be wrong, but he didn't overlook the issue. He knows this, because he learned.


So, my advice to you is to learn enough to sense when something needs further investigation, and to ask the right questions. This doesn't necessarily mean taking classes, unless you want to. You may prefer to learn through reading, listening to podcasts, or talking to peers in other agencies. Be very curious, and don't be afraid to ask questions. Trust but verify. Accept that this is new and unfamiliar territory. And above all else, embrace lifelong learning at a level that is appropriate to your executive position.


If you require an independent opinion on your data operations or executive-level training, please reach out to Cybele Data Advisory for assistance!

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