Confession: I’m a Closet Data Geek

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Originally published in Fast Company 

data geek

Years ago, I dropped out of an Ivy League school to become a chef. Back then, chefs weren’t the celebrity stars they are today. So when it came to telling my parents I wanted to trade those hallowed halls for hot kitchens, and turn in my white-collar career path for the literal white collar of a sous chef’s coat–well, let’s just say the conversation was tense.

But I did it. After working as a chef for some time, I wound up back at an Ivy, eventually completing my degree at Cornell University’s hotel school. Hospitality was a good field for me because I’m a people person; my love for the humanities and other cultures has always pushed me toward human interactions–toward getting to know people.

For the first half of my career, that was always an in-person, hands-on, totally analog process. Much more recently–and much to my surprise–I’ve learned how to do it through data, too. Here’s how.

People to Patterns

artificial intelligence and the c-suite

At 25, I moved to Kenya to run a hotel that had more staff than guests, a 10% occupancy rate, and 12 wine glasses. I was the only woman, young, overly confident, and struggling to manage a staff twice my age. I cried myself to sleep just about every night for six months straight.

Eight years later, I’d finally turned the hotel around and decided to start an eco-safari company. It was only after both of those businesses sold, around four years later, that I found myself confronting a new cliff’s edge of career choices, no less difficult than my earlier decision quit college to cook: If I could do anything, what would I do?

I found myself focusing again on those people skills–which at this point in my career now included the relationship-building and leadership chops I’d gained by overseeing 500 employees from all different backgrounds while facing down tsunamis, food shortages, lions, and more. So I became a certified executive coach, wrote books, gave talks, and developed online coursework that blended management coaching with diversity training. And the more of this work I did, the more patterns I began to notice.

I’ve always loved patterns. Hospitality is all about “people patterns”–understanding who guests are, what makes them tick, how to motivate them. My job was to uncover the patterns that made them return for another holiday or a meal. But quite honestly, even the patterns in intricate pastry design drew me in. After leaving hospitality, I similarly found the patterns of communication and energy that take place within a group of people in an organization enthralled me just as much.

That’s what led me to the world of data. Yes, a former pastry chef who ran a hotel and eco-safari company in Kenya–a speaker, writer, trainer and coach–is officially coming out as a closet data geek. Ta-da!

The Proof is in the Numbers

data geek

Why? Making a difference is important to me. All the speaking and training I’ve done to help organizations increase their emotional intelligence, find their values, prepare for the future of work, and increase their employee engagement was always really interesting to me. Yet I had a nagging question in my mind: Was this a “random act of training” that would go in one ear and out the other? Or was I actually helping change organizational behavior on a large scale and for good? I’d collected anecdotes that certain programs indeed made a difference, but I lacked statistical proof.

I found myself searching for a way to quantify the results of my work. How could I really know if my ideas increased employee engagement? What evidence did I have that a particular unconscious-bias training changed organizational dynamics? How could I prove that losing employees cost a lot more than just the price of recruiting a replacement? Well, now I know how: with data–specifically, “people analytics.”

HR departments have been collecting data for decades: head count, attrition rates, diversity numbers, absenteeism, maybe even satisfaction results. Yet merely reporting those numbers faithfully isn’t doing anybody good. The field of people analytics represents an opportunity to gain deeper–and actionable— knowledge of the workforce. It’s a way to track the work being done inside organizations, then making g data-driven decisions to improve them, instead of just writing a narrative of reform based on intuition or subjective experience. To me, this is a natural and fascinating extension of the people skills I’ve spent my whole career developing. The through-line couldn’t be clearer.

Here are some examples of why data is exciting: I can geek out and learn things like why attrition in certain demographic group is on the rise. I can alert leadership that despite a low turnover rate overall, their “high performer” turnover is actually quite high. Then we can sit down to find out why and focus on solving that particular problem. I can speak to and train leaders on how to improve their organizations’ employee engagement, and then I can test if behavior actually changed. And if behaviors don’t budge? I can look at the new data, reevaluate, and try again.

It all comes down to the patterns and trends–footprints in the sand left by hundreds or thousands (or even hundreds of thousands) of human beings, all moving in various directions, sometimes together and sometimes, well, not. I find it fascinating, but I also find it extraordinarily meaningful. With the data to back up the work I’m doing, I’m finally able to prove that I’m making a difference.

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  1. Michael Stern
    May 1, 2018

    Good story, Anne. And relateable. The ability to use data to understand and then predict outcomes is useful. To be able to drive the point home is valuable, not only in business, but in all organizations.


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