May 12, 2021

Anna’s adventures in making a bigger impact (chapter 1 = Questioning)

By Paul Laughlin

The brilliance of the sun glinting off all that glass and steel almost made the office beautiful. Anna sighed. It was good to be going back. She’d felt conflicted at first when they got called up. But walking over the bridge on this crisp sunny morning she felt a smile on her face.

Anna Liszt, along with so many others, had faced a challenging last 12 months. Home felt like a sanctuary from a killer virus but was cramped and not designed for her and Dominic both trying to work there. They had fought more than ever in their relationship, with too many harsh words shouted and sulks poisoning the air. Yes, they needed space. Anna sighed again and quickened her pace.

Entering the lobby she was immediately reminded that all was not yet normal. Those minor irritants from the supermarket had invaded her work time castle too. Hand sanitiser confronted her, as did a temperature checking security guard and one-way system. “Next!” yelled the frustrated looking guard. Someone’s having a great day already thought Anna, sarcastically. ‘Note to self, make an effort to smile today, I can do better.’

Facing Marcus (the difficult stakeholder)

As she reached her desk, Anna heard a much more welcome voice. “Hello, stranger.” Bob’s dulcet tones were coming from a face with a lot more hair than she remembered. “Hi Bob, loving the COVID hair.” After a good chuckle over both their WFH outtakes, Bob and Anna settled into their socially distanced desks. She found she quite liked the feeling of more space to spread out while working.

“Welcome back everyone!” A chill ran down Anna’s spine. She would know that overconfident public school accent anywhere. Sure enough, into view strides Marcus the Marketing Director. The man who just loved showing off his bright blue BMW 7 series and being heard across the open-plan office.

She couldn’t help herself, Anna’s unhelpful cycle of rerunning past mistakes whirred into action as the movie in her head. It was early 2020, before the first lockdown. She could still see Marcus’ face red with fury. His cool calm facade discarded for once as he tore her off a strip in front of the rest of the office. He might have apologised later, but the memory of shame still stung.

A lesson learned (don’t just do what’s asked)

The cause of the altercation was a frustratingly common misunderstanding. Marcus had asked for a report on the performance of his ‘brilliant’ marketing campaign. That briefing had taken all of 5 minutes, with the only clear part being a deadline of bringing the report to the Marketing Board the next week.

Her defence counsel was busy arguing her case in her head. She had delivered what was asked. She had hit his unrealistic deadline. It was his bloody fault if his marketing campaign was crap!

Anna sighed once more, a reflex she expanded into some deep calming breaths. “Ooooh has someone gone all meditation guru on us?” Bob was laughing but with kind eyes. “Go on then, this should be fun. Let’s start our days with some deep breaths & maybe a mantra for the day? Haha. Though I can see why you might need it on seeing Marcus. Plonker!” He always could break the tension.

Training and the potential of Socratic Questioning

“Actually, I’ve got a new tactic to help me with Marcus” replied Anne. “I went on this Softer Skills online training course during lockdown & I’ve been practising…. Drum roll please” (Bob obliged with a collection of stationary & surprisingly skilled digits) Socratic Questioning!”

“First guru Anna, now philosopher Anna, are you sure you’re not an alien pretending to be my friend?” Anna laughed. “Actually it’s a really good idea. The trainer likened it to stopping being an order taker and asking challenging questions to get to the real business need not what is asked”. Bob looked unsure but interested. “What’s more I’ve made a promise to myself. I’m going to try it on Marcus.”

“Really? Marcus?” Bob’s frown was visible. The previous dressing down from Marcus had been witnessed by the rest of Anna’s team. They all knew how angry he had become, even though they agreed with Anna’s defence.

“Yes, I’ve been reflecting on what happened with Marcus, during the lockdown.” Anna was suddenly struck with how antiseptic the office smelled now & how more clinical she felt. Detached. Empowered. “It was that course that got me thinking. Seeing that there are things I could do differently. I need to try them and Marcus feels like my Nemesis that I’ve just gotta face.” Anna smiled. Bob’s concern was touching but she had been preparing herself for this.

Questioning Marcus (the challenge of getting started)

“Looks like you’ll get your chance” mumbled Bob as the over groomed Marcus swept into view.

“Hello Anna, good to see you back. How are you doing? Glad to be back in the office?” Marcus almost managed a sincere tone, but something imperceptible was missing. “Yes, glad to be back with the team”, Anna smiled.

“Good, good, actually I have some work for you. I need last month’s marketing effectiveness analysed ready for Friday’s Council. You’ve seen the reports I take there haven’t you, Anna? Of course you have. Anyway, same again please, I’m going to get them all fired up and ready to invest for the massive bounce back we will get this year!”

With that and without missing a beat, Marcus spun on his heels and began to pace away like a victor from the field. “Hang on Marcus, I have a few questions.”

Silence reigned.

You could cut the air with a knife as Marcus spun again and walked slowly back to Anna’s desk. No-one and I mean no one ever talked to Marcus like that. Anna could feel the beginning of a blush building & silently cursed her body’s betrayal. But she took a calming breath and continued…

Questioning Marcus (putting the theory into practice)

“I want to make sure this report gives you what you really need, Marcus, so could I just ask you a few questions?” Anna gestured to the now empty seat in the adjoining desk. Marcus walked over and bang to sit, now with a look of amused curiosity. Clearly, the experience was new for him too.

“When you say you want marketing effectiveness analysed, what do you mean by the term? I have seen the reports you’ve taken to Marketing Council before, you’re right Marcus, but they vary as to the media and metrics they include. What do you and the Council want to see in a marketing effectiveness report?” Anna had managed to control her pace and felt relief at getting the first question out.

“Actually, that’s a good point, Anna.” Marcus’ voice went up at the end as if asking himself if he could answer those questions. He began to lean forward. “The quality has been a bit variable and we agreed at the last meeting that we had wasted too much time either seeing incomplete views or just last touch attribution. Ok ok, yes, let’s include all the media used and have marketing attribution considering all channels and the media mix contributions agreed at the start of the year”.

“Ok, that helps” Anna nodded as making a quick note. “Are you assuming that we can get data for all media and that attribution was agreed for the contribution of all media, Marcus? Do you know if there’s a record in the Marketing team for all the media used last month?”

“I bloody well hope so” Marcus laughed and began to kickback.

I only ask, Marcus, as last time we tried to build an econometric model the biggest data limitation was the gaps in records of marketing activity”. Anna kept calm but stayed quiet now to let the challenge sink in.

Marcus mused. His face revealed a suppressed impulse to go defensive, but she had made him think. He found himself saying words he never thought he would utter to Unreliable Anna as he had nicknamed her in his own head. “That’s concerning to hear, Anna, what do you recommend?”

Earning the right to recommend (acting like a trusted advisor)

“Well, could you start by telling me more about what you’re trying to achieve, Marcus? You mention investment for a big bounce back. What are you assuming my report will prove to enable you to get that investment?” Anna spoke more slowly and calmly than she could ever remember being in the presence of Monster Marcus (her own nomenclature).

“Well Anna, I’m hoping it shows that our email campaign was the reason for the big growth in online sales we saw last month. That should make the case for investing in the personalisation capability I’ve recommended.” For the first time in a long time, Marcus felt a shred of doubt.

“What do you think Nigel (Sales Director) would say about that? I only ask as he already published some data attributing that income to the efforts of his sales team despite imperfect leads.” Anna was careful not to sound like gloating of judging – she knew how fragile male egos could quickly turn into an attack.

“Cheeky Bastard! Sorry Anna, no that’s a good point. Well, well how can we prove him wrong?” And there it was staring them in the face for the first time ever, the use of ‘We’. Never before had a humble analyst been a We with Marcus. That term was for the directors and CEOs that formed his golf or lunch buddies. But now he was crowning Anna with the term, she felt like blushing for a totally different reason.

Collaboration (the goal of aligned understanding)

“Well, would it meet your need if We” (she couldn’t resist using it) “just focussed on the email campaign effectiveness and measured the uplift against both the control groups and the previous email campaign designs?”

Marcus actually smiled. “Yes, good idea, but while you’ve got the bonnet open so to speak, could you also check a theory of mine? I think our email marketing it also prompting more mobile sales, without click-throughs, just going to the main site. Could you attribute those too?”

“I can certainly check all that Marcus. Now, I really don’t want you to be disappointed and those results can be quite volatile. So, shall we have a catch-up at the start of next week and we can review the raw results of my modelling before We agree on the story and focus for the slide deck?” Anna’s coup was nearly complete.

Appreciation (the surprise outcome from questioning others)

The surprise was Marcus’ reaction. He was beaming. “Yes, yes that would be great, Anna. Thanks. Please also let me know any problems you have in getting the marketing data you need. I’m looking forward to thinking this through. Now, I’m off to beat up Nigel!” His normal persona descended again as rose to leave, but the smile at Anna and the sparkle in his eye told her what she needed to know.

The trainer was right. It can actually be welcomed by your customers to challenge their thinking and ask questions. It felt so good not being an order taker for once. Anna felt taller and lighter as she stood up. “Bloody hell, Anna, have you been to assertiveness classes or something? That was brilliant!” Bob was mock applauding while carefully checking that a distant Marcus wouldn’t hear. “Now let’s have a cuppa and you can tell me all the goss…”

I hope you enjoyed that use of fiction as a media for addressing a serious challenge for analysts everywhere. Please let me know if you’d like to hear more from Anna et al. If I get enough requests, her story will unfold…