Skilled analysts are in heavy demand, but there is an even greater need for those who can manage them while translating their work for the business. As ever more practitioners are being encouraged to step around from behind their screens, David Reed finds out what it takes to make the transition from number crunching to business leading.
Have you had your elevator drop moment yet? You’ve been working with the team on a presentation assuming your boss will be the one to deliver it. Then as you head to the meeting she says, “why don’t you give this one?” Being thrown in at the deep end this way is terrifying, but can also be an important step in your career, especially if it is done because the person you report to has full confidence that you can do it.
For any data and analytics practitioner, there will come a moment when you either choose or are forced to step around from behind the screen and take your place in front of it. There is nothing at all wrong with preferring to stay within the technical space, crunching the numbers and building the models, of course. Indeed, the salaries currently available for analysts and data scientists encourage staying at the desk. But the really big rewards only come from moving higher up the business hierarchy, adopting the role of manager and developing into a business leader.
So what are the skills you need to take that step? Are there things you can do ahead of time to be ready to seize the right moment? And once you have become a leader in data, what really helps you to sustain the confidence and momentum in your new job?
For Julia Porter, head of consumer revenues at Guardian News and Media and number one in the DataIQ Big Data 100, mentoring has played a critical role, both formally and informally. “It has been important all the way through my career - I have always been able to talk to somebody and get feedback when I’ve needed to make a decision or wanted to try something new,” she says.
Aged 28 and two years into her career as an account director in an advertising agency, she was thinking about leaving. “One of the board account directors was really helpful in discussing with me what skills I had and what my future career should look like,” she recalls.
From there, she undertook an MBA before moving to publishers IPC where her strategic planning role saw her reporting directly to the CEO and effectively promoted to circulation director. “In my first six months, I had a leadership role, a much larger team, big supplier relationships to manage and I had to re-organise the subscriptions business. That CEO was able to help me to find my way without telling me what to do,” says Porter. “A mentor can give advice about how to do things, but it is really about listening. Good leaders facilitate you finding out for yourself - a good mentor acts as a guide.”
Porter said she didn’t realise at the time just how good that individual was at this, but has subsequently tried to follow his approach when dealing with members of her own team. She now mentors for the Marketing Academy. “I give guidance, ask questions and get them to think about what they might want to do, encouraging them to think about the skills they need to develop in order to move on to the next stage,” she says.
Pete Markey, chief marketing officer at Post Office, also attributes his own early career development to the encouragement of a good boss. “At British Gas, I had very good leaders who pushed me to develop good work and stretch myself. They identified what I was capable of,” he says. “They helped to release my untapped potential.”
Given his highly-awarded career since, it is surprising to learn that, “early on, I didn’t have massive plans in mind. Working with good people made me more ambitious and push on. You can’t beat working for people who inspire you and make you want to work for them.” However, Markey also had experience of the other side of that coin, working for bad bosses. “When I became a leader myself, I looked at the best and worst of those experiences and decided what would work for me,” he says.
Finding your leadership style is not easy, especially early on as a manager. Markey is an advocate of Bill George’s “Authentic Leadership” approach and the fact that people follow, rather than being led. He is also aware that work pressures can end up defining how staff are managed, rather than a more thought-through, long-term approach to their careers. “You have to watch out when you are very busy that you are not just chasing it - your staff are humans and have a life,” he says.
Post Office has very structured career development programmes, with online training support and an emphasis on each individual writing their own plan in discussion with their manager, then pursing self-learning. Markey also pushes his teams towards the Marketing Society and Marketing Academy, where he also acts as a mentor like Porter.
Like marketing, data and analytics are fast-moving professions where there is a constant need to keep your knowledge and skills fresh. That means a commitment to career-long learning, rather than assuming that what you learned during a first or second degree will be enough.
In fact, one of the major aspects of becoming a leader is progressing beyond that origin story. “One of the aspects of moving into management is the need to leave behind the things that served you well in the past,” says Paul Laughlin, managing director of Laughlin Consultancy. “You might have been a very good technician, but you need to leave that behind to succeed in your new role because it requires different skills. Senior managers have to leave behind that micro-management.”
After a stellar career running customer insight at Lloyds Banking Group, Laughlin now provides coaching to senior managers to help them make the most of their skills and opportunities. “Often, that means helping analysts to be more aware of what’s going on in the wider world. They are people who are good at delivering what they have been asked for, but when they get promoted to management they need a bigger view and often they don’t have that context,” he says.
Laughlin identifies one character trait which ambitious analysts will need to overcome - their low tolerance for bullshit. “They are usually less willing to suffer meetings for the sake of it, so it can be helpful to have honest conversations about what’s expected when they are playing in the bigger game and the need to develop people skills,” he says. Soft skills are very much at the heart of his coaching practice, together with other important abilities like story telling. “It all helps them to be better prepared to be a manager.”
While many employers now use psychographic profiling in order to identify candidates with the best fit for a role, this does not take into account the human ability to overcome limitations and change their behaviour. While most analysts are likely to test as introverts, for example, that does not preclude them learning how to be extraverted when the situation demands it.
Alex Vass, head of analytics for IPG Media Brands, is now very much in the front line of global media pitches to clients. Yet he reveals that, “when I was young, I was petrified by public speaking. I would shake uncontrollably and not be able to read a sheet of paper in front of me.”
While age and experience help to dilute such early nerves, Vass also recognised how this might limit him. “I put a lot of mental effort into thinking about what I needed to do to ensure good presentations happen. It is a natural reaction now and I get it right more often. That is not a natural skill for an analyst, but you have got to be able to present to people,” he says.
Part of what drove that self-development was the glass ceiling he encountered while working at ad agency DDB. “I hit a point where you can’t go any further as there is already a top dog above you,” he says. After a move to Mediabrands, his big break came when the company was struggling to recruit two analysts and he told his boss he would find them.
“I effectively ended up running things because I solved the problem. Under her leadership, I was given the opportunity and repaid her trust. I worked really hard because I didn’t want to let her down,” says Vass. In a shrewd move, the two new hires ended up reporting to him, even though they were originally meant to be on an equal footing.
Vass argues that motivating teams is more down to empowerment than pay and conditions (assuming these have reached the hygiene level). This is especially important now that, “analysts are making the big jump from being a specialist activity to making an impact on the whole business,” he says. For those who have paved the way, there is a choice to be made: “A lot of people have had a manager who did things they didn’t like, but then they end up doing the same.”
Giles Richardson, head of analytics at RBS Private and Business Banking, says his own career was forged from two decision points. “What first led me to having a commitment to data started with a saying in economics - if you have all the data, you will get the answer. Now I consider data to be the only game in town, although it has taken me a while to realise others don’t see it that way and think it better to rely on experts or focus groups,” he says
His economics degree left him with a belief that, “as the data increases, the scope for doubt decreases until you hit the point of perfect information and can make the perfect decision.”
Secondly, Richardson realised he would need to move out of the specialist function into a leadership role to see his vision realised. “I was working at Barclays running its insight programme and I saw the good things it could do, but I couldn’t get out of perpetual proof of concept mode - things that burn brightly, then fade.”
Great results from tests can be encouraging since they validate an analyst’s technical skills, but they do not provide the satisfaction which changing something in the business for the better will give. So when RBS came calling with a senior role, Richardson decided it was time to move. “Data and analytics used to be a dark art which nobody got to see and just emerged as PowerPoint presentations every quarter. No-one got close to the potential impact of it,” he says.
In his current role, Richardson has overseen a shift towards a do-it-yourself culture within the business which is enabled by data, business intelligence and content management tools under the guidance and governance of a single, centralised analytics function. “It gives us the thrill of being able to change something and the opportunity to do that at scale,” he says.
Nevertheless, he had to persuade the business of the wisdom of this approach. “The day I pitched to the business what it should do, the business thought it was a terrible idea and felt nobody would have the skills, it could all go wrong and it would have no control - all the usual resistance. I felt so strongly it was the right way to go, I just told them it was what we were going to do,” says Richardson.
Conviction and strength of personality are the real weapons of choice for business leaders. Standing in front of a group of peers or more senior executives and persuading them to a point of view they do not initially share is one of the toughest things any leader can do. For analysts, the first instinct is to reach for more data and use the weight of evidence. But this is only ever a back-up to be pored over after the decision is made - it is the force of the individual making the argument that really matters.
This has become even more critical given the scale and pace of change which most businesses are having to undertake in order to respond to the forces of digital, data, social and mobile. Nobody can be 100 per cent certain they are making the right decision - having a leader with conviction about the direction of travel provides a level of reassurance.
Ian James, managing director at Acxiom UK, says this has been at the heart of his own career: “When I look back on the decisions I have made, the continuity is around transformation, moving the business from one state to another.” He traces this all the way back to his first job at Chrysalis and coping with the impact of the internet on its music and radio business.
From there, he moved to a global spirits business which in 2005 was trying to embrace the role of data and digital to engage with its customers, before joining Aegis Media and Starcom MediaVest Group to reconfigure how digital channels are used to create great customer experiences.
“I didn’t set out on that path, I just ended up doing it. I am not a specialist in music, spirits marketing, media or data. I am a specialist in understanding how business needs to transform and adapt,” he says. A degree in history has helped him to see that change will always happen and needs to be acknowledged, as well as a belief in presenting certainty instead of doubt.
“I believe and am always confident that logic will prevail. Things will evolve whether you are involved in them or not - that is a fact. But some people ignore that or prefer to stay behind their screen. I’d rather go with the flow of change and am sensitive about where that flow is heading,” says James.
Having an inquisitive mind, constant learning and taking careful note of indicators about the business are what will help analysts to offer this kind of insight. Employees with these qualities - especially when wrapped around a strong technical base - are particularly valuable and are increasingly being nurtured.
“Some companies are doing this better than others, identifying strong managers early in their career and putting them through strong leadership development programmes,” notes Michael Young, chief executive of MBN Solutions. Advanced management programmes, including spells at Harvard Business School, are often on the table as persuaders during the recruitment process.
“On the other side of that, somebody can be a good analyst yet be put into management too soon. I have seen clients with strong teams of analysts doing cutting-edge work who then bring in a senior analyst from a different company to oversee them and, because they are not equipped with the right skills, lead to those people leaving and having a negative impact,” warns Young.
It is a delicate balance between the careful progression from skilled practitioner to inspiring leader and the risk of over-promoting someone because they are good at what they do now, rather than at what they are asked to do next. Everybody in the industry needs to think carefully about what type of career they really want and be honest with themselves. Do I want to be top dog or am I barking up the wrong tree?