The Knowledge Exchange / Business Analytics / Hiring your dream analytics team

Hiring your dream analytics team

Evan Stubbs, SAS

I knew a guy once, let’s call him Bob, who worked for a large bank, large enough to warrant having a few hundred analysts scattered around the place.

In the face of corporate downsizing, credit crunches, and near bankruptcies, Bob had somehow managed to keep his job. Time, history and attrition had conspired to make Bob the most experienced and skilled member of his team.

Bob’s life changed when he fell under the roving gaze of the Chief Marketing Officer. Thanks to an inspirational off-site for the executive leadership team involving late night chants and paintball, the bank had seen the future. And, that future was business analytics.

With visions of models dancing in his head, the CMO had returned to reward Bob for his loyalty and clarity of vision. Despite his better judgment, Bob decided to take responsibility for the bank’s business analytics strategy. Armed with team, title, and targets, the world was Bob’s oyster.

Now, this isn’t entirely accurate. When I say, “take,” I really mean “got an offer he couldn’t refuse.” By “clarity of vision,” I mean, “he had no idea what to do.” And, when I say, “rewarded,” I really mean that Bob had been given a year. Beyond that, all bets were off. It was pretty clear that, well, without some serious results, Bob’s neck would be on the chopping block.

It wasn’t all bad news though. The poison pill included the promise of freedom – he had budget, he had a mandate, and he had the full weight of the executive leadership team’s authority behind him. He could hire, he could bang tables, and if he wanted to, he could bring down the wrath of the Gods on any who opposed him.

Of course, he still needed to figure out what he was going to do. Hiring a team seemed like a good starting point although this proved harder than he thought. He knew he needed a high-performing team to drive high-value results. Unfortunately, he didn’t know how to define that “x-factor” in a way he could advertise.

Over time and at great personal cost, he narrowed it down to four useful hiring principles.

1. There’s room for generalists and specialists. Just make sure you’re hiring what you need.

Business analytics teams need a much wider breadth of skills than they used to have. It’s not enough to be a great modeler; to be successful, you also need to be able to change the business. Or be able to model and capture the value you create through your analytics. Or have a position on how best to design decision support systems.

Analysts need to think in terms of value chains, not activities. This requires having multiple skills. There will always be a need for ultra-specialists. However, hiring too many of these can lead to fragmented, disintegrated value chains.

An effective team has a good blend of specialists and generalists, often with a bias towards generalists. Jack-of-all-trades probably won’t have the best answers. They will, however, usually come up with an answer that works. And, that’s often more important than anything else.

2. You can teach technical skills. You can manage performance. What you can’t do is force curiosity or passion.

Business analytics is a voyage of discovery. It’s hard to know where the answer will come from or what will work ahead of time. It’s only through experimentation, persistence, and curiosity that a team can go from problem to value.

An enthusiastic, engaged, and interested team are exponentially more productive than a bored, disengaged team. The best technical skills in the world will go to waste if they’re not backed up with enthusiasm and real interest. Personality is important; if you ignore it, you’ll regret it.

3. There’s a difference between insight and action. Those who drive change rather than just answer questions are worth their weight in gold.

Business analytics is about driving change. Having the right answer is great, but if that answer isn’t acted on and automated, all that work was pointless.

Analysts are good at creating answers but often poor at driving outcomes. This is an issue: If they don’t take charge of making sure their insights are actually used, who will? People who understand this and are willing to take ownership over driving change are worth their weight in gold.

4. Business analytics is more than just statistics. If you all you have is a hammer, everything’s going to look like a nail.

Analytics is easy, relatively speaking. It may sometimes take arcane skills and deep knowledge, but like most disciplines, the problems are usually surmountable. Business analytics, on the other hand, is a team sport; it requires a variety of skills including financial modeling, data warehousing, change management, and systems architecture.

Business analytics is a team sport; it requires a variety of skills including financial modeling, data warehousing, change management, and systems architecture.

An effective team supports the outcome. In business analytics, that means the team needs to be able to do more than just mathematics. Just like building a house takes more than a hammer, driving value from business analytics takes more than just statisticians. Hire accordingly, or get used to frustration.

Bob’s journey was a long one. In fact, it’s still going. I’m happy to say that on the balance though, I think he succeeded. And possibly, by sharing his hard-earned lessons, others can too.

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  1. raghu
    Posted August 3, 2012 at 6:20 am | Permalink

    I’m a freshman just out of college and have been working as a B.A. in a small company for 15 days. I want to get into a bigger company as there are very few projects here and at the moment I’m helping in sales and marketing. Kindly help.

  2. Peter Batista
    Posted August 5, 2012 at 11:48 pm | Permalink

    Great article. I think you nailed it on the head… generalists are able to pull from multiple patterns (truths that exists in other applications… which can carry over to “this” one). You can’t teach passion (it is most likely triggered by a sense of purpose… no purpose, no passion. Finally, driving change home… this is a big one for me… when you are in a leadership role, sometimes, there’s not enough time in the day to implement the solutions yourself, so you need to be able to inspire others to step-up and go the distance to automate the solution (you nailed it with “automate”)… it’s not easy, when others lack the passion… so you have to paint the picture that draws them in, and gets them to see what you see; then they will step-up and the rest will be history.

    • Posted August 6, 2012 at 8:42 pm | Permalink

      Thanks! I constantly find it amazing how infrequently organisations take advantage of automation. Even forgetting about the cost efficiencies, it’s the difference between being able to manage tens of models and being able to manage thousands of models.

  3. Posted August 6, 2012 at 8:40 pm | Permalink


    The good news is that there’s usually a lot of activity around using analytics in sales and marketing. So, you’re in a good spot to build experience. The bad news is that it’s often hard to get people to experiment, especially when the results are uncertain. So, if you’re unlucky, you might not get to use your skills!

    The nice thing about smaller companies is that they’re often far more flexible than their larger counterparts. So, what you might be missing out on in terms of mentoring, you gain in freedom to innovate.

    It might be worth looking into whether or not they’re currently doing champion / challenger process comparisons. If not, that’d be a great project to take ownership of or propose. Segmentation is always a good one, as is doing some form of campaign results analysis. There’s plenty of interesting questions that they may not have answers to. What’s their actual conversion rate? Does deal size / offer acceptance rates change in different segments or geographies? Are there any offer characteristics that increase the odds of sales conversion (i.e. by channel, time of day, frequency of contact, etc)?

    Analytics can help answer all of these. The best thing about a small company is that you don’t usually have to deal with the politics that go along with bigger companies. Trying something new might be as easy as talking with the right person about your vision.

    Outside of that, the best way to find new opportunities is through networking. I don’t know where you are, but SAS has user groups in most locations. There are also quite <a href="" <a href="" LinkedIn groups where people can discuss what they’re doing.

    Here in Australia, we also have a professional association dedicated to business analytics professionals. If you’re in the US, <a href="" is a great way of connecting with other analysts. There are many similar associations in other countries – often, the best way to find about new jobs is simply by extending your network.

    Hope that helps!

  4. Miguel Maldonado
    Posted August 15, 2012 at 7:13 pm | Permalink

    Great article!
    It completes the phrase “Analytics is an art and a science” now adding: “and a team sport!”
    Best of all Bob, you sound like a one cool dude.

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