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Helen Mannion, global chief data officer, Specsavers

Helen Mannion

Path to power

As a child I loved maths and always saw myself being a teacher. Like many, I continued to study and learn more about the parts I enjoyed most and, instead of entering the classroom, somehow, I found myself working as a SAS analyst. I haven’t looked back since. I have no regrets, as I love the job I do and relish seeing the impact intelligent use of data can make in people’s lives.

 

As my career has progressed, I have tried to focus on doing roles that I enjoy at companies with great cultures, that align with my values and that have a real customer and employee focus and purpose.

 

I now realise that I love making a difference; whether that’s transforming how companies use and generate value from data, enabling wider data users to make smarter timely decisions, being a compassionate, curious leader who helps inspire and empower individuals to develop themselves or being an empathetic, kind and supportive mum, daughter, wife and friend.

I feel privileged to have worked in several great customer-focused and employee-focused organisations and with such enthusiastic, motivating people who have provided me with opportunities and experiences to develop and grow. It is a huge honour to now work for a company that focuses on improving individuals’ sight and hearing while being a non-executive director for an educational trust committed to providing children with outstanding education and care. It is hugely rewarding to watch how data makes a real difference to people’s lives.

 

What is the proudest achievement of your career to date?

I am hugely proud of what my teams have managed to deliver over the years and the bottom line benefits they have achieved for the various companies I have worked for. However, my proudest achievement has come from making my role redundant, either because I have managed to change the culture of the company or I have sufficiently upskilled the team. When I left giffgaff, for example, several of my direct reports were promoted and I was not replaced. This was a hugely proud moment.

 

Who is your role model or the person you look to for inspiration?

I look to many people for inspiration. I believe I can learn something from everyone, and I’ll get to a better outcome by considering a range of diverse viewpoints. When learning something new, I look for an expert and try to adopt their strategies or habits.

 

Did 2019 turn out the way you expected? If not, in what ways was it different?

Data continued to gain greater focus within organisations. Many companies increased their investment and there is a continuing upward trend in organisations recognising the need for senior data leaders. This is great news for the data industry and while this transition seems relatively slow day-to-day, year-to-year it is not slowing down. As a data leader, I believe I have a huge responsibility to ensure I set realistic expectations and continue to realise the benefits, so data can continue to go from strength to strength.

 

What do you expect 2020 to be like for the data and analytics industry?

With our high streets continuing to struggle, and the digital world taking over, data becomes an invaluable asset to enable organisations make very difficult business decisions and embed slick customer experiences within digital transformations.

 

As organisations get the basic foundations in place, I believe there will be a shift to optimise data practices to ensure our decisions from data are fairer and less biased and set us up for making smarter, more accurate choices.

 

Data and technology are changing business, the economy and society – what do you see as the biggest opportunity emerging from this?

For me, the most exciting opportunity for data is how it can be used to save people’s lives, help diagnose illnesses, slow epidemics or alert individuals with chronic illnesses before severe symptoms arise. I am also pleased with the small differences data can make to my everyday life; after relearning how to skip this week (for fitness) I was thrilled by an app I downloaded to count my jumps and calculate my average speed and heart-rate. All these marginal gains have a huge impact on our existence.

 

What is the biggest tech challenge you face in ensuring data is at the heart of your digital transformation strategy?

Truly embedding technology into an organisation is the greatest challenge; not setting it up, but empowering individuals to utilise it and maximise the benefits. This requires a huge amount of organisational and cultural change which, in my view, is always going to be the toughest and most rewarding part of ensuring data is at the heart of your organisation or transformational journey.

 

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