The Transformative Effect of Leadership From the Insights Function

The insights leaders of the future take action, not orders. They don’t follow an agenda, they set it. They don’t deliver data, they provide solutions to business problems. They lead from the core, rather than follow from the periphery. That’s the future of insights.

The insights function is changing, rapidly. It must work across the organization, not just as a servant of marketing. It can’t just react to requests, it needs to lead learnings that benefit the entire organization.

Recently I interviewed a number of insights professionals for my book The Insights Revolution: Questioning Everything, which is being released this month. In those interviews, I came across many inspiring stories of insights departments that transformed themselves into teams that lead the business by providing a holistic view of customers and prospects. Let’s look at two of those stories: World Vision Canada, a charity, and Virgin Australia, an airline.

World Vision Canada

Elias Hadaya joined World Vision Canada as Director, Insight and Research in 2011. When he joined, Hadaya started a review and transformation of the insights department. That, in turn, led to a realization that there was a need to reorient the entire organization’s structure. Now he has the role of Vice President, Customer Experience, and the organization views, and acts on, donors holistically. This is a story of an organizational transformation, driven by insights.

In his review, Hadaya said, the insights staff told him: “Well, the business is very ‘siloed.’ Everyone comes to us with one piece, and then we have another team that asks a similar question, but through another lens. And we end up doing multiple things…with the same target audience, but nobody sees the big picture.” “For instance,” he explained, “the channel team is interested in direct mail analysis, and then you have the revenue folks, the product folks who are looking at how much we missed the revenue, and they are trying to analyze that.” There was no holistic view of donors and prospects, and no overarching plan to better understand them.

Hadaya realized that the Insights function was uniquely positioned to provide that perspective and bring the customer front and center across the entire organization. He said, “We responded to the challenge by transforming the function.” As a result, the organization “recognized that we cannot be organized around products and channels. Our new structure is organized around customers and integration.”

Now, Hadaya ensures research serves the entire organization and provides a consistent and comprehensive picture of those who support the charity. It’s a great example of how the Insights function can be transformed to lead from the heart of the organization.

Virgin Australia

Steven Cierpicki was a supplier side researcher in Australia for many years before joining Virgin Australia, as Manager, Research and Customer Insights. He recently spearheaded a reformation of the insights function. His team has moved from being an order taker to becoming an agenda setter with a very singular focus: generating growth in the business. This change has revolutionized the type of work they do, the tools they use, and the suppliers they work with.

When Cierpicki first joined, he says, “Our modus operandi was like a little research agency within a business. We would take orders. We’d ask: ‘Right, what do you want to do?’ And we were really good at that. We built up a huge reputation across the business, and everyone liked giving us briefs.”

But he could see that each group that was commissioning them was quite siloed, and only looked at things from their own perspective. The problem with that model, he says, was that “no one really knows what is actually delivering customer outcomes. What is it that ultimately a business is trying to do around the customer? We decided that our insights team in Virgin Australia wasn’t just going to be a really awesome service provider. We took a really strong perspective that we wanted to be directive of the agenda.”

The specific agenda was “How do we become a more successful business commercially through delivering better customer-centric outcomes?” To do this, they needed to set the agenda. Cierpicki says, “I pitched it to my new executive, Tash. I said to her, ‘Look. I want to start our team stepping up and being directive. When someone comes and offers us a brief and says, “Can we do research?” we might push back, or say, “No, that’s not important.” What we need to do is have a knowledge agenda.’ Fortunately, Tash agreed with that, and we’ve now got a program of strategic research that’s forming knowledge.”

That’s a revolutionary stance that required backing from the CEO on down. And it involved a change in structure, with insights quite literally getting a seat at the table. He explains that his boss “reports to the Chief Executive Officer of the Virgin Australia business. And she’s not an insights person. She’s an operational manager but has always had a customer focus. And before airlines, she was in hotels. She really knows the importance of, and really believes in, that customer-centric way of operating. She was prepped to speak to the CEO. And through those discussions, the CEO started what’s called a Customer Board.”

On this Board, “There’s the CEO. And there’s my manager — who’s head of customer experience and product development. And then there’s me. And then there’s a head ground operation person, and the head of technology. So, through that Customer Board, I’ve got influence across the business.”

With that kind of backing, Cierpicki says, “our team just sat down and said, ‘These are the most important questions the business needs to answer.’ And that’s the directive approach. Once you figure out ‘What does the business need to answer?’ you can start to push down that path, rather than waiting for a brief to come in.”

The team’s singular focus on the financial outcome of decisions makes the agenda very clear. “We started a knowledge agenda, in which the fundamental question is: ‘What drives customers to choose Virgin Australia?’ We’re framing it from a financial perspective. We put a value on what is the share of wallet of the existing fly base. The same from an acquisition point of view: we looked at the entire market and the value of a group of people that have not flown with us, and how many there are, and what the value of that is. I think framing it as a financial opportunity is really critical.”

The result of the insights team setting the agenda has been positive. “We’ve gotten more kudos and more respect,” he explains, “because we are actually helping.”

These are just two of the inspiring examples of how the Insights function can lead the way that we cover in The Insights Revolution: Questioning Everything. To learn more about how Maru/Matchbox can help you develop a powerful portrait of your customers and prospects, contact us.




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