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Navigating executive and leadership engagement gaps: a primer for GIS workforces and their leaders

A common challenge for geospatial programs is engagement gaps between leadership and the geospatial business function. This gap can impede access to resources, undermine the perceived value of geospatial programs, and stagnate innovation. So, what to do? In this blog post, Kelsey Davis discusses six actions you can take to increase leadership involvement and support of your geospatial program to foster better outcomes for the organization.

The insights and strategies presented here collectively represent an accumulation of knowledge and experience of all consultants in Esri Canada’s management consulting practice.

As management consultants focused on geospatial business strategy, one of the most common challenges we encounter is a gap in engagement and support from executive management and leadership teams regarding an organization’s geospatial program. Depending on the organization, there are different intensities at which the issue manifests itself. These range from an outright absence of involvement to minimal attention and lacklustre follow-through. 

This gap in executive support is common and can create significant challenges for geospatial programs and program managers. It often limits access to the resources required to grow a geospatial program and enable innovation. It can throttle access to even the most basic resources needed to sustain ongoing geospatial service and delivery levels in extreme situations. When not addressed, it can slowly undermine the organizational value of geospatial capabilities and stagnate geospatial workforces. 

In this blog post, I’ll explore this gap in more detail and form a basis for understanding the nature of the issue. I’ll also discuss some of the implications for geospatial programs. Building on that foundation, I’ll discuss some proven actions that can be taken to close leadership engagement gaps and garner the support needed to ensure geospatial program success. 

Challenges and implications

Gaps in geospatial leadership present several main challenges. They typically fall into two categories: people-oriented challenges and practical business challenges. 

Common people-oriented problems include frustration, confusion around roles and accountability, low morale, burnout, stagnation, apathy and high attrition rates among geospatial workforces. 

Practical business challenges include limited resources, low solution uptake and stifled innovation due to siloed business areas. We also see heavy competition for basic geospatial resources, duplication of teams and services, and overlapping technology investments, data purchases and effort.

None of these factors are conducive to the effective use of geospatial resources. They can cost organizations significant amounts of money over time. In extraordinary circumstances, they can lead to outright failure of geospatial solutions and innovations. This contributes to a loss of value, including poor ROI for geospatial program investments. It also encourages another more insidious but less visible difficulty: a lack of confidence in geospatial innovation. 

Once decision makers start thinking along these lines, geospatial programs can struggle to regain that trust and rebuild credibility. Better, then, to mitigate the likelihood of losing that trust and credibility in the first place. 

When Esri Canada’s Management Consulting team engages with customers to develop geospatial business strategies and roadmaps, our customers cite various reasons behind the leadership engagement gaps in their organizations. Often, these gaps transcend the geospatial world. Good governance for geospatial programs also factors in. Various reasons aside, we’ve identified one consistent trend centered on where GIS program managers and practitioners have the most influence: geospatial knowledge and awareness. 

Having collectively spent years and numerous engagements addressing these problems, we’ve learned that many gaps in leadership engagement result simply from leaders’ and executives’ lack of geospatial-specific knowledge, awareness and literacy. Fortunately, there are some straightforward things you can do to address this gap and foster a culture of engaged and supportive leadership.

Strategies and tactics

Understand the difference between technical and business speak—and when to use which

There’s a fine but important distinction in how different organizational stakeholders communicate. Technical people, especially those in technology-oriented roles (i.e., the geospatial workforce), typically speak and think differently than executives and leaders. In our experience, geospatial professionals predominantly use technical thinking and language rather than business thinking and language.

On the surface, this isn’t always evident. However, these groups of stakeholders are involved in very different business functions, which affects both their mindsets and their communication styles. What sets more geospatially mature organizations apart is the level of engagement and understanding they foster between their leadership teams and the geospatial workforce.  

As a geospatial professional, you’ll need to be responsible for building awareness and increasing organizational geospatial knowledge. Most importantly, you’ll need to recognize that where you see value, others without a geospatial background may not. You’ll need to be able to explain the geospatial value proposition using language that leadership teams in your organization understand. That messaging also needs to be proactive and persistent. 

While this may seem scary or overwhelming and just another thing on your to-do list, you can make it more manageable by sharing the responsibility and incorporating it into an ongoing and scheduled program. Make it a team exercise, engage others to assist and share the responsibility among groups. Most importantly, set a regular cadence and promote accountability for follow-through. Engaging others also provides great mentorship opportunities and chances for more junior staff to showcase their abilities. 

Recruit champions from your organization’s business function

Stakeholders representing specific business lines’ interests can be particularly effective foot soldiers for delivering your geospatial value proposition. When an ask is tied clearly and directly to a business need, and a well-thought-out case is made by someone in the business, that ask will often garner more support. Try working with that businessperson on the business case and co-presenting it. This can be an opportunity for you as a GIS practitioner to gain exposure to business thinking and language and insight into decision making. 

Understand your audience

Another tactic you can try is to learn what’s important to your audience. It’s just a matter of talking to people. The more you do it, the better you’ll become at it. Every opportunity to speak to a leader or executive should be capitalized on, but you must be prepared. The more senior the leader, the less time they typically have, and you need to appeal to them quickly to ignite their interest. You might only have seconds to make your pitch. 

A good friend and colleague working in marketing at Pepsi-Cola once told me that if your customers aren’t buying, you must do your homework. You need to find out what occupies their minds and keeps them awake at night, then change your pitch to align with that. Otherwise, you’re just spinning your wheels. This idea of customer-centricity highlights this communication misalignment between the geospatial professionals and leaders we’ve been discussing. There are several ways to overcome this, and at Esri Canada we promote a few key strategies that are particularly helpful. 

Overcome procrastination with consistent outreach

Big aggravators of the geospatial leadership gap are inaction and procrastination. Getting caught up in daily tasks and neglecting promotional activities is easy. You’ll need an intentional and persistent outreach program to increase awareness and create opportunities to understand your leaders’ needs better. 

The specific type and form of the outreach aren’t as important as targeted, strategic content, specific messaging and consistent commitment. Above all, you’ll need to assign responsibility for follow-through, ideally among several team members. With this responsibility in place, you now have a mechanism to start building awareness and developing deeper relationships with leaders and executives. It takes time and persistence and might be outside your comfort zone, but eventually, with patience and persistence, you’ll find it easier to advance your growth aspirations for your geospatial program. Soon you’ll be able to develop support from leaders to obtain the resources you need to succeed.

Show, don’t tell

To boost your communications with your leadership team, consider using the same geospatial tools and solutions you use in your daily work. Find out what an executive’s pain is and what keeps them awake at night, then provide them with an easily accessible and consumable insight using a geospatial solution. For example, use an ArcGIS StoryMaps story to take leadership through your narrative. Or try using ArcGIS Dashboards to grant them some situational awareness. This will help you showcase the value of geospatial technology tangibly. It’s a very effective mechanism for visualizing what can sometimes be hard to articulate verbally.

Refine your sales pitch

Consider memorizing an enticing elevator pitch that can be slightly modified for different audiences. Develop a quick, inspiring pitch that ignites imaginations and moves your audience to act. There is an art to elevator pitches, and they take practice and refinement to get right, but numerous resources are available online to help you develop yours. Overall, they’re relatively easy to master and worth the time investment. 

In conclusion

These are just some tactics that have proven effective among our management consulting clients. Use these as practical starting points for elevating the profile of your geospatial program and building credibility with leaders. 

Thanks to Sarah Hughan and Geoff Mortson for their review and edits.

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About the Author

In the role of Program Manager, Indigenous Communities at Esri Canada, Kelsey works closely with Indigenous leaders, community members, and stakeholders to build relationships that foster geospatial-enabled capacity building, sustainable development, and cultural preservation. With over two decades of experience, Kelsey brings a wealth of knowledge in developing and implementing GIS solutions that address the unique needs and challenges faced by Indigenous peoples.

Profile Photo of Kelsey Davis