Tom Spencer, head of customer data science at Aviva, set up his department and team with a vision to get synergy between the insurance expertise of the company and new ways of thinking that could give the company an edge.
Before even building the team it was important that he ask himself several questions. What do I want to achieve and why? Why are we creating this capability? How do I want to the team to operate? How do I want us to behave as a group of individuals and as a team?
Having thought about the answers, he succinctly summarised the vision he was looking for. “That part of the process was really important because, to paraphrase the Cheshire Cat from Alice in Wonderland, if you don’t know where you are going, it doesn’t matter which path you take,” he said.
His vision had a clear focus on behaviours. “That’s something I’ve learnt through my career with building teams. The work is clearly important, but often how you do that work and the people you work with is what makes a success or a failure.”
Once the vision was clear, Spencer then had to bring in good people who would demonstrate those behaviours. He worked closely with internal and external recruiters so they could understand exactly what he was looking for. He said it was important for the recruiters to be able to convey to the candidates the different type of roles for the team he was creating.
This is because sometimes data science employers can end up in an “arms race” of high salaries. He added that some workplaces with astronomical rates of pay could be compensating for a toxic work environment or dubious industry ethics.
Spencer said that to actualise his vision, he had made significant changes to the status quo. “When I joined, I needed to adjust our talent profile, tech stack and ways of working with other teams. One thing in particular I emphasised was the journey of great analytics teams moving from being reactive servants to proactive partners. I was really clear that to deliver the greatest value and create a really rewarding work environment, we needed to have a partnership with our colleagues.” This involved understanding the opportunities in the Aviva business, understanding the stakeholders, and understanding the KPIs as well as the challenges being faced by the business.
He takes personal and career development support very seriously as one of the core behaviours of his team vision is continuous learning. To that end, everyone in his team has one day a month to devote to that development which they can spend working on their learning priorities, a personal project or attending a specific course.
The effectiveness of the team is measured through the development of internal case studies. “It helps the individual be really clear of what value they have contributed, helps them to communicate clearly and it helps us all learn as a team what have been the major lessons from that project,” he said.
Performance reviews take place in the form of relaxed one-to-one meetings every one or two weeks. Slightly more formal reviews happen every three months, though Spencer explains that this is more of a conversation between the manager and team member about what they have been working on, using the Objectives and Key Results (OKR) framework.
The culture of communication is fostered by the monthly Change Forums in which members of the team can air any problems or issues and the rest of the team can put forward solutions to resolve them in a self-sufficient manner. “I don’t get involved,” Spencer said. “I let them get on with it and really work on what is important to them. I want them to feel some degree of accountability. They might talk about anything from technology challenges, difficulties in dealing with stakeholders or the office environment. They pick a few priority topics and work through a few solutions. Only if they need to escalate, that’s when I’ll step in.”
Looking at the company as a whole, Aviva is a Living Wage employer and offers equal parental leave to new parents. “Having a social conscience is important. I am very proud that Aviva is taking a stand in these types of areas. It was a brave progressive step and makes Aviva the sort of company that feels good to work for,” said Spencer.
He said that he had very little resistance in bringing in new working methodologies and management processes because he is “lucky enough” to work for Dr Orlando Machado, chief data scientist at Aviva and number one in the DataIQ 100.
“He gets it and is very switched on so I don’t often need to ask permission for things. I just get on and do them. It’s a nod to the empowerment we’ve got here.”
For other data and analytics workplaces looking to become better employers, Spencer has a few words of advice. The first is to be clear about the type of team you want to be and the type of culture you want to create. Keep the bar high when recruiting. When you’ve got good people in your team, spend time listening to them, then give them the resources, space and time to deliver great work.