29 June 2021

C-Suite & People Analytics: Insights & Takeaways

Priyanka Mehrotra
Research Lead

Siddardh Alwar
Research Analyst

TL;DR

  • This readout presents key insights and highlights from our roundtable on C-suite and people analytics, and includes an explorable mindmap
  • Some of the things we learned from the discussions include:
    • Metrics can serve as a conversation starter with the C-suite
    • People analytics teams and leaders need certain skills that are key to influencing C-suite executives
    • Structural inefficiency can be a barrier to value delivery for people analytics
    • People analytics teams should take incremental steps to build their credibility and trust within the org
    • In order to have a strong partnership with the C-suite, people analytics leaders will need to balance their priorities

INTRODUCTION

We recently launched new research on C-suite and people analytics (PA). This research aims to:

  • Explore the types of challenges that PA can help address for C-suite leaders
  • Highlight ways PA leaders can build successful partnerships with the C-suite
  • Gain credibility to continue providing value in the future

To brainstorm this further, we invited a group of leaders to participate in our roundtable on this topic.

Our purpose is to better understand how people analytics can support C-suite execs to address talent-related challenges.

Our roundtable discussion focused on 4 key areas:

  • Challenges. How can PA be of value to the C-suite and help them address challenges—both common and novel?
  • Metrics. What kind of metrics should PA leaders focus on? How can they best drive change within the org using metrics?
  • Partnership. How can we build a strong partnership between PA and the C-suite?
  • Culture. How can we create / reinforce a data-driven culture to propel change in our org?

Mindmap of C-suite and PA Roundtable

The mindmap below outlines the conversations that transpired as part of this roundtable.

Note: This is a live document. Click on the window and use your cursor to explore it.

KEY TAKEAWAYS

We had a very enriching conversation. The discussion highlighted ways people analytics can actively contribute to help address C-suite challenges, practical steps to gain credibility, and strategies to create a lasting impact. More broadly, participants expressed their ideas on 2 fronts:

  • Strategies and practical steps for PA to showcase its value to the C-suite and the broader org
  • Factors that PA needs to consider to maintain a strong relationship with the C-suite

Participants expressed ideas for PA to show its value and to gain influence among C-suite members—and sustain that for the long term.

A few key takeaways stand out from the discussion:

  1. Metrics can serve as a conversation starter with the C-suite
  2. Certain skills are key for PA leaders to influence the C-suite
  3. Structural inefficiency can be a barrier to value delivery
  4. Incremental steps can build credibility for PA
  5. A strong partnership with the C-suite requires a balancing of priorities

The following sections offer an overview of each key takeaway.

Metrics can serve as a conversation starter with the C-suite

A frequently mentioned insight shared by participants was around using metrics as a means to spark conversations with execs about high-impact issues, rather than just providing metrics for the sake of providing them.

PA teams should lend themselves to decision-making instead of focusing on measurement.

Participants shared how the C-suite often becomes amazed by some of the simpler descriptive, tablestakes metrics: These can help PA get a foot in the door and gain the C-suite’s attention. Providing high-level descriptive metrics can lead to conversations with C-suite leaders intrigued by the “catchy” numbers which, in turn, will more likely engage them in dialogue with PA when they’re making important people decisions. As one participant explained:

A portion of the people analytics meetings with the C-suite should be about the high-level metrics and numbers. The more these metrics lead to questions, the more likely it paves the way for meaningful conversations.

Although these descriptive metrics can help PA get a foot in the door, participants agreed that they’re mostly useful in attracting the C-suite’s attention. The next-level metrics—that provide more value to the C-suite—are usually the same tablestakes, descriptive numbers but presented with more granularity.

PA can provide more value to the C-suite by linking tablestakes metrics with operational performance and business goals—by breaking down descriptives via different employee groups, etc., and using an intersectional framework.

When it comes to specific metrics, some of those that participants routinely share with their execs include:

  • Tablestakes metrics—
    • Employee engagement
    • Turnover and retention
    • Recruitment metrics (e.g., headcount growth, hiring goals, current openings, etc.)
    • DEIB metrics
  • Next-level metrics—
    • Objective data on employees
    • Operational performance metrics
    • Intersectional and group-specific metrics

Certain skills are key for PA leaders to influence the C-suite

During the discussion around ways PA can help address C-suite challenges, the conversation pivoted to highlight some of the skills that PA leaders need to enable them to better influence the C-suite. Some of the skills mentioned during this conversation include:

  • Storytelling
  • Courage
  • Political skills / astuteness
  • Relationship-building

C-suite leaders often don’t have enough time to dig into complex data and analyses—and here’s an opportunity for PA leaders. The following ideas from roundtable participants highlight the use of these 4 skills with the C-suite.

  • Participants mentioned the need for PA leaders to be able to tell stories to facilitate communicating with the C-suite, apart from just presenting data. Storytelling can:
    • Convey data-driven insights in a more appealing way
    • Help C-suite leaders better understand the relevance of people data in making important decisions

As one participant stated:

“Storytelling is a way to see the forest through the trees—combatting anecdotal truths with data.“

  • Participants highlighted the importance of PA leaders being courageous to more strongly call out significant findings when faced with doubt. This skill is especially useful, for instance, when leaders question the integrity of data and pose doubts about the findings.

Sometimes conversations with C-suite execs become circular—and courage is needed to bring attention to the situation and get to the truth.

  • Political astuteness. Often, PA leaders need to manage a variety of stakeholders while influencing the C-suite’s decision-making. Understanding the “lay of the land” and using that to the PA function’s advantage is becoming increasingly important for PA leaders—to enable them to push up the chain of command and provide value through data.
  • Relationship-building. Along with political astuteness, PA leaders also need to have strong relationship-building skills—empowering them to be better informed of what the C-suite considers as their biggest problems. This puts PA leaders in a better position to more accurately provide the insights needed by C-suite execs.

Structural inefficiency can be a barrier to value delivery

Among the many factors discussed in PA influencing the C-suite, participants indicated org structure as being critical. The appropriate placement of the PA function within an org is crucial for developing prominence, credibility, and sponsorship. Participants also highlighted that direct communication, feedback, and alignment with the C-suite are some of the outcomes of an ideal structural placement.

The proper placement of the PA function within an org can enhance the value that analytics can provide to the org, instead of being hidden away due to poor org structure.

One of the challenges of effectively building partnerships between PA and the C-suite is often the lack of open communication channels. Participants mentioned that navigating different functions (e.g., HR, finance, etc.) to get the information to the C-suite can create barriers and difficulty in providing value: It increases the chances of receiving inadequate information or data being interpreted out of context. Combatting this org structural inefficiency is key to successful PA and C-suite partnerships.

If information has to go through several functions to get to the C-suite, then this delivery system increases the likelihood of creating a bottleneck along the way.

Our discussion highlighted the need for direct communication channels to equip everybody with the people insights they need—without blinders—to make informed decisions.

Incremental steps can build credibility for PA

Throughout the discussion, participants mentioned several ways that PA can build credibility in order to help and influence C-suite challenges. Specifically, the need to take incremental steps was called out. Some of the basic steps that PA functions should focus on include:

  • Figuring out the capabilities of PA (as more than just a reporting function)
  • Becoming familiar with business needs and org goals
  • Building out use cases to demonstrate the value
  • Addressing data skepticism, myths, and anecdotes with facts
  • Providing consistent results to build trust

When PA considers itself as a reporting function—taking orders and requests, they’re likely to be less influential. People analytics is brought into important company conversations when PA is clearer about their capabilities and proactively takes actions to solve C-suite challenges.

Having a clear vision of what PA provides—both now and for the future—helps PA move beyond being just a reporting function.

Participants also mentioned the need for PA to proactively understand the org's goals and to put that into context (for the C-suite) to help support business needs with important data and insights. PA can start small by building out specific use cases (e.g., providing managers with critical team productivity data) and enabling individuals to be data champions to demonstrate the value of analytics. As one of the participants stated:

PA has a reputation for sounding like witchcraft and wizardry—PA needs to debunk this stigma and enable individuals to be data gladiators.

People analytics can also build credibility by addressing any data skepticism and myths that hinder progress by providing quality data.

One participant shared an example of how they were able to dispel skepticism around their work policies by providing data which addressed leadership concerns that people weren’t productive working from home. Similarly, the PA function was able to offer concrete data that showed the risk of losing 33% of their female workforce if they didn’t offer a flexible work policy.

Consistently providing critical data that helps the C-suite make important and tough decisions can help in establishing and maintaining credibility.

A strong partnership with the C-suite requires a balancing of priorities

The roundtable discussion also touched upon the need for PA to be clear and transparent about their priorities in order to build a strong partnership with the C-suite. One way to do this is by pushing back on some of the low-value and low-impact requests from HR. The key to that, as one participant explained, is using the “push” approachwhich involves PA identifying a key business issue and creating a cadence of sharing insights on it with the C-suite.

This approach can help build a lasting relationship instead of a delivery model that relies on a “pull” approachwaiting for the C-suite to pull PA into conversations or decisionswhich isn’t realistic. As C-suite grapples with many competing priorities and challenges, they don’t know when, where, or how PA can provide value.

The push approach can be successful in building a strong partnership with the C-suite: PA identifies their internal customers and then asks those people questions they themselves might not be asking, thus increasing PA’s impact.

However, as some participants noted, push approaches can also build mistrust among C-suite execs. Finding the balance between push and pull approaches may be key to maintaining credibility and trust. As one participant offered, regarding C-suite execs:

PA should regularly ask, “How much do we want to push?”

Throughout the discussion, participants also mentioned other strategies that can go a long way in building a partnership with the C-suite, including:

  • Using business language
  • Keeping insights succinct
  • Providing actionable recommendations

A SPECIAL THANKS

We're extremely grateful to the attendees who enriched the conversation by sharing their thoughtful ideas and experiences. And, as always, we welcome your suggestions and feedback at [email protected].

Written by

Priyanka Mehrotra

Priyanka Mehrotra is a Research Lead at RedThread Research. Before joining the company in 2018, she was part of the research team at Bersin by Deloitte where she worked on talent management, D&I, and people analytics as well as conducted research and contributed content for Bersin’s Mid-market study. Prior to Bersin by Deloitte, Priyanka worked at several non-profits, think-tanks, and international organizations where she published and co-authored several articles.

Siddardh Alwar

Siddardh Alwar is a research analyst with RedThread Research. He holds a MA degree in Industrial-Organizational Psychology. Siddardh has worked on research and consulting projects on topics such as DEI, psychological safety, organizational culture, and employee well-being.

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