How to build respect and forge your own path as a new data leader

In the last few years, the modern data stack has fundamentally changed the way we work with data. Self-service and transparency are up; set-up times and compute cost are down; and on-premise, monolithic tools are receding into the past.

These ideas aren’t new, and many people have talked about them. However, there’s another important change that we sometimes miss.

Since the modern data stack is so new, no one can have decades of experience working with it. This has opened the ability for younger people to join and shape the data world as we collectively define what it means to be a data leader.

That’s why today we’re seeing amazing people like Erica Louie, Head of Data at dbt Labs, who is shaking up tradition and setting a great example of what it looks like to build a modern data team.

Still in her twenties, Erica leads the internal data team at dbt Labs, the owner and maintainer of dbt. She is the one of the youngest leaders at her company and leads with a people-first approach — all without a formal degree in data.

What stands out about Erica is her clear vision and drive to create the environment she’s always wanted to work in. “I’m the youngest on the leadership team,” she says. “I had to really reflect hard on what good and bad management looked like based on what I experienced. I think the role of a data leader is to make sure that your team is operating and scaling well.”

For other young data professionals hoping to move into leadership positions in the near future, here are some great advice and insights from Erica.

(This interview is from an ebook we recently published, titled The Secrets of a Modern Data Leader, featuring insights from Erica and other amazing data leaders. Learn more and download here.)

Not all old ways apply — your approach to leadership can be personal

The longer you work as a leader, the harder it is to remember what it’s like to lack decision-making power. One of the advantages of being a young data leader is that those memories are more acute. For Erica, they were top of mind while she was developing her hiring and management plans.

When their team was just three people, she organized an offsite to collectively develop values for their team. “Basically, we explored what we had experienced. Let’s unpack our workplace trauma,” she laughs. “And let’s talk about what we value as we currently are today, and the traits that we want to have our fellow teammates have.”

Those values still inform everything about how the team works and Erica manages. Being the same age or younger than her direct reports meant her relationship with her team members was inherently different than that of a more senior leader — despite the hierarchy, the result was naturally collaborative. That relationship style has carried forward as the team has grown, which makes for an environment where everyone feels safe to admit they don’t know something or ask questions.

“In all my monthly one on ones and performance reviews, I always ask, how can I support you better?” she says.

It isn’t about knowing everything, but it’s about making sure that your team feels like they’re growing professionally and that they’re happy.

Erica Louie

Trust yourself

Erica wasn’t always so confident about leading a team of people who might have been in the industry long before her. “I’m really young for my role, and I always felt like I had to know the answers to everything,” she says. “And I wondered, how can I earn the respect of some of my direct reports — if they’re older than me, they probably have had more experience.”

But as a young modern data leader, one of the most important lessons she’s learned is to trust her gut and believe in herself. “If I don’t know something, I just tell them — ‘I don’t know this.’ And if they don’t know it either I say, ‘let’s learn it together.’”

Being a young leader means not being afraid to learn from your peers or even your reports, because what you’re bringing to the table is a vision that supports the company’s goals. So much of modern data leadership is about making decisions that make sense for the organization at large — that can happen at any age.

I think that by me being upfront and transparent and vulnerable, it created this really comfortable work environment for us where everyone is open. 

Erica Louie

Those who are more willing to ask questions are more likely to find answers that can then be used to improve your product and business. Increased learning opportunities no matter your seniority can only make things better.

Let your work speak for itself

No matter what industry you work in, young leaders can be met with skepticism. Erica has learned not to spend much time arguing with those who are unwilling to see my vision — often your work can be so much louder.

There are sometimes going to be people who will question your validity as a leader because you’re young. But don’t do politics, just do good work and it will speak for itself.

Erica Louie

There’s so much to manage as a data leader — building relationships with department heads, creating strategies, building infrastructure. Don’t waste energy trying to change people’s opinions. A happy team, efficient work, and company-wide impact speak volumes about your capacity as a leader.

“Anyone who questions what you’re doing won’t really have anything to back it up,” says Erica. “Because you’re going to be doing great work. That’s all that matters.”

Because modern data leadership is ever-evolving, people like Erica are a window into the future of tech. Your current team, or even your next hire, can bring new perspectives and passion if given them the opportunity.

Celebrating that kind of energy and enthusiasm will only breed more innovation and engagement within your organization — not to mention a workplace with more modern values and approaches to help keep your company ahead of the curve.

Erica recently did a live Q&A about her 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).

This article was also published on Medium.

Header photo: Dylan Gillis on Unsplash

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