To Become a More Visionary Leader, Become Stronger at Visualization
In our research with thousands of leaders, one skill stands out — by far — as the most common improvement area: their ability to sell a vision to employees. Over 50 percent of leaders we’ve assessed struggle to demonstrate this form of visionary leadership, a larger deficiency percentage than for any other leadership skill. Leaders are consistently unable to vividly paint a compelling picture of the future in a way that inspires others to follow them along a challenging route toward a new business reality. This is an improvement area for most leaders because it requires them to synthesize and clarify ambiguous, complex business concepts into a clear path forward.
Just describing a direction in words is no longer enough; leaders must convert words into visual concepts to make their messages understandable and evocative, and to make them stick. But while information visualization is a linchpin leadership skill between business complexity and clear, compelling messaging, it’s not yet a natural strength for many leaders. It is, however, not only a highly effective and broadly applicable communication technique but also one that’s learnable.
The Time is Now for Visualization as a Critical Leader Skill
Visualization has never been more timely and vital as a skill for leaders of all levels. Not only because of the ever-increasing amount of data leaders are being asked to process and apply to make decisions — data far too extensive to be comprehensibly read through and that draws on incredibly well-honed and rapidly-triggered visual and perceptual abilities — but also because the evidence for visualization’s superior impact can no longer be ignored.
Research is rapidly accumulating for visualization’s advantages over more traditional and common forms of communication in business settings, such as inscrutable tables of numbers and endless lists of bulleted text. Unique, visualized information is far more persuasive and more memorable to an audience, and more effective in guiding high-caliber management decisions. Even for conveying complex business concepts such as strategic direction, visualization generates more attention to, agreement with, and recall of business strategies.
To see for ourselves information visualization’s power to move an audience, we need look no further than The Wall Street Journal’s powerful work showing the impact of vaccines on infectious diseases, Hans Rosling’s 215 years of data on the relationship between country income and life expectancy, and Neil Halloran’s captivating video on World War II’s staggering death toll. Companies and government agencies have taken note, as well, increasingly folding visualization techniques into commercials, summaries of business trends, annual reports. Recently-launched sites such as DataUSA.io now provide access to an incredibly-deep array of visualized government datasets.
How Leaders Can Improve Their Visualization Skills
Leaders armed with skills in information visualization will be more effective in exploring the data they use to make workplace decisions, in explaining information to and educating others, and in engaging their employees in the information being presented. Visualization also aligns employees from various backgrounds around a common view of the future, and draws in their ideas to gather input on and foster commitment to the course of action. Additionally, leaders can use visualization to tell powerful stories about change, about financial trends, about organizational structures, and about comparisons between business units or employee groups.
For leaders seeking to become more adept at visualizing information, there are many inspiring examples and guidance resources currently available. We recommend these resources as first stops to learn more:
- Anna Vital’s guide to “How to Think Visually”: An incredibly-useful overview of visualization communication methods, including charts as well as useful models for visual analogies.
- Cole Knaflic’s Storytelling with Data, An excellent book (and accompanying blog) clearly outlining the essentials of data visualization.
- Harvard Business Review’s “What We Learned about Management in 2015, in 25 Charts and Graphics”: More than two dozen examples of visualizations used to convey important business concepts.
- Prolific and insightful bloggers, such Andy Kirk, Ann K. Emery, and Stephanie Evergreen, who write accessibly about visualization topics.
- I’ve also written about this topic myself, discussing the use of animation in visualization, and reviewing several less-common but very useful visualization types. (On my Twitter account, I also strive to curate all the high-quality data visualization content I come across — though with so much excellent guidance being generated by dataviz practitioners, it’s hard to keep up at times!)
In an information-rich environment, business leaders must continually adapt and build their skills in the tools and techniques that will help them synthesize these immense mountains of data into usable insights. Visualization skills will drive leaders’ ability to explore and make sense of information, and will substantially improve their proficiency and impact in presenting these data-driven messages — about strategy, trends, the urgent need for change — to others.
Visual storytelling skills are highly developable, and they are also exceedingly valuable. When leaders become proficient in visual storytelling, they can make their messages more compelling, memorable, and engaging to the entire range of employees and business stakeholders they must influence.
An earlier version of this article was originally published on DDI’s Talent Management Intelligence blog.