Coding, Statistics… and, Better Working Relationships

11 Nov 2018 1:06 PM | Anonymous

Andy De Marco

I suppose the theme of this story is essentially around teaching old dogs new tricks. However, that was really the presenting issue, with the real value taking shape around increased trust, meaningful conversations and top talent retention.

Recently I worked with a large department engaged in some of the most advanced data analytics work in its industry. Senior leadership “grew up” around manual processes and literally checking data quality for publication. Speed was part of their work and culture, but in recent years automation redefined speed as nearly instant. There was a new game in town, focused on generating insights, finding new patterns and delivering unexpected value to sophisticated clients based on the underlying data.

A few of the senior managers proactively upskilled themselves and their groups, while most struggled to survive amidst increasing demands; some leaders decided to leave or took their existing skills to roles elsewhere in the organization. Meanwhile, the division president and HR seeded the workforce with a small army of entry level and experienced hires who possessed the data science skills needed for the business. After several months, we started to see some of the best and brightest data scientists resigning. Theories on why this was occurring abounded:

  • are we paying enough?
  • are millennials just flighty?
  • are the jobs structured correctly with the right work?

  • Management and the HR team could find a bit of evidence for each of these potential causes. What should we do to stem the losses of these highly skilled hires?

    One day, our HR team was reviewing exit surveys and a write-up from one of the departing data scientists caught our eye. The writer said how much they liked the company and the work challenges, but was leaving because his leader just did not “get it”. They went on to write that their leader did not understand the technical barriers, was not engaging around the details of their work and that, overall, “my leader doesn’t understand me.” At this time, the idea of providing intensive technical training (statistics, Python coding, data visualization, etc.) for 20% of senior leaders with potential was our top idea for an intervention. Considering this newest exit survey, our HR/OD team hatched an idea: what if, in the course of this rigorous technical training, we conducted short modules to work with leaders about what this new technical knowledge could mean for changes to team meetings, 1:1s and their behaviors as managers? (We later expanded this idea to ask about interactions with internal and external customers as well.) The intervention was simple: over lunch sessions and module wrap-ups, facilitate dialogue and capture insights and actions around what this new technical knowledge implied for leadership behaviors.

    We measured perceptions of 1:1 leader-employee conversations and customer interactions in pre- and post- participant surveys, but the real measure was visible in the lists of creative and new ideas that mangers took back to their jobs, the increased understanding and trust in 1:1s and an absence of “my boss doesn’t understand me” in exit surveys. In fact, retention increased dramatically (we still lost some data scientists to obscenely high Wall Street offers).

    At the end of this first cohort’s training, I sat with the division president. For months, he had been hyper-focused on upskilling his senior leaders, which was needed (and, delivered). But in this meeting, measures of technical training effectiveness took a back seat. He said that “the noise on the teams is down”, noted that his fears of retaining top talent were decreasing and we both acknowledged that the newly acquired technical skills – for all their sophistication – seemed to achieve something really simple: managers and their teams getting along better. Technical skills were the bridge to the most basic elements of trust and understanding.


    Andy has 20+ years of strategic, commercially-focused experience, driving complex change to support new market opportunities and workforce transformation. He has held both external and internal partnering roles, focused on OD as well as core HR. In recent years, Andy has helped AMEX and Bloomberg meet the challenges of digitization and disruptive technologies. Major initiatives have included: upskilling global marketers, fostering innovation in alternative payments and integrating automation, data science, and a “big data” mindset into a global analyst workforce. Andy relies on a foundation of organizational diagnosis and change management principles to design and deliver human capital plans that span selection through retention – pulling all HR levers. His primary focus – and, passion – is around equipping leadership teams with the skills and approaches needed to lead transformation in their organization. Andy also has 12 years of internal and external experience, holding positions at Chase Manhattan, Merrill Lynch, PriceWaterhouseCoopers (PwC) and an internet start-up. Andy graduated from Villanova University with Bachelor or Arts in Psychology and then earned a Master of Arts in Organizational Psychology from Teachers College, Columbia University. In 2013, he completed an Executive Masters in HR Leadership at Rutgers University.


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