How to Become a Data-Driven HR Leader

A survey of nearly 28,000 business leaders showed that only 11% trust HR to use data to anticipate and fill their organization’s talent needs. This is actually a decrease from a survey three years ago, when 20% of business leaders felt they could trust HR’s use of data. Why, despite the growth of HR technology over the past decade, do so many human resources departments lag behind in their ability to leverage data?

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It’s not simply a matter of collecting data. HR leaders need to subject these metrics to rigorous analysis, find the story behind the numbers, and use those insights to predict future behavior and trends. It’s the difference between knowing how many employees have left the company within the past year and knowing why they’ve left, who is likely to leave within the next twelve months, and how to make the appropriate changes to retain those employees.

To communicate with the C-suite, strategic HR conversations need to be rooted in data and analytics, rather than anecdotal experience. Otherwise, when the CEO asks for your recommendations, you risk sounding like Michael Scott, “My philosophy is basically this. And this is something that I live by. And I always have. And I always will. Don’t ever, for any reason, do anything to anyone, for any reason, ever, no matter what. No matter where. Or who, or who you are with, or where you are going, or where you’ve been. Ever. For any reason, whatsoever.”

Becoming a data-driven HR leader won’t happen overnight, but the following tips can get you on the right path.

1. Follow the Scientific Method

The scientific method begins by making an observation, asking a question, and forming a hypothesis. The same should apply when deciding what HR data to focus on. Maybe you observe that the majority of employees who have left the company in the past six months are under age 35, or that many of the company’s highest-performing individuals are concentrated within one department.

These observations should naturally lead to questions: “Why are our younger employees leaving? What changes could we make to encourage them to stay long-term? What is that high-performing department doing successfully? Is it a result of recruitment/hiring, training/development, management? How can we replicate those behaviors in other departments?”

Once you’ve formulated a list of questions, create hypotheses that could provide potential answers. Those hypotheses can guide the process as you collect and analyze data.

2. Gather Comprehensive Data

Speaking of data, you may need to look beyond your office walls to get the complete picture. If one department is experiencing high turnover, it’s natural to believe that internal factors are the culprit. But you should consider external factors as well. Was there a recent spike in job postings from your competitors? Do you notice a number of employees going to one specific competitor? What benefits are they offering that your company isn’t? Maybe the problem is commute times or distance from the office. Maybe certain employees can’t afford to pay rent based on their current salaries. Are your compensation packages aligned with the rental market in your city?

Try to think outside the box here and gather data from as many external sources as possible, consider population statistics, market data, your competition, online reviews, and more.

3. Master Data Visualization

Remember the saying, “A picture is worth a thousand words.” No matter the quantity or quality of data you collect, it’s worthless if you don’t have a clear way to present it. Find a way to visually present a story—using graphs, charts, plots, statistics—that will convince executives to take action and approve specific policy/process changes. Don’t make them flip through a 200-page paper report.

One study showed that when presenters included visuals, audience members were 40% more likely to take the desired course of action compared to non-visual presentations.

4. Look into the Future

In order to be seen as a true data-driven leader, HR professionals must use analytics to predict future trends. HR leaders should become experts in the latest analytics tools, demographic changes, and performance management trends. They should be able to anticipate talent gaps, identify the qualities/skills that managers will need 1-5 years from now, and ensure that HR initiatives stay aligned with the company’s long-term goals. They should not only be able to answer the question, “Where are we now?” but also, “Where are we going?”

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