How to be a successful people analytics leader

Colleagues in analytics meeting
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In a three-part series, Jonathan Ferrar – Founder & Managing Director of Ochre Rock – explores the discipline of workforce analytics. The substance of the articles is derived from The Power of People: Learn How Successful Organizations Use Workforce Analytics To Improve Performance, co-authored by Nigel Guenole, Jonathan Ferrar and Sheri Feinzig (Pearson FT Press, May 2017). The series will offer insight to HR professionals on the skills needed in a workforce analytics leader, how to demystify analytics and data storytelling.

During the last four weeks I have met over 60 workforce analytics leaders in the US and Europe in my pursuit to learn more about and help advance the discipline of workforce analytics.

The companies they represent are some of the world’s most well known brands – banks, tech firms and retail companies among many others. You will most likely have used at least one of their products and services already today.

During these meetings one conversation stood out from all the others.

Sunita (not her real name) is the workforce analytics leader for a large financial services company with operations in dozens of countries. She reports directly to the chief human resources officer (CHRO) and has a specific remit to improve the experience of the organisation’s employees and return value to shareholders through workforce analytics.

Here is a snippet from that conversation:

Sunita: “You mean that not every workforce analytics leader reports directly into the CHRO?”

Me:  “That’s correct. In fact most of your peers in other companies do not.”

Sunita: “How do they influence other HR leaders and business stakeholders? How do they create impact? Indeed, how do they get anything done?”

Sunita was shocked that others didn’t report to the CHRO. To her it was normal to sit alongside the other leaders and create an analytical culture across HR from within. Upon deeper discussion, it soon became apparent why Sunita was successful.

This substantiated aspects that are discussed in The Power of People on why the workforce analytics leader should report to the CHRO and what skills are most important.

Forward-thinking CHROs will want to have the workforce analytics leader report to them and be accountable directly to them.

Reporting directly to the CHRO

The internal positioning of the workforce analytics leader is of critical importance in terms of both the kinds of analytics projects the team will undertake and how the rest of the organisation will view its output.

The workforce analytics leader needs strong HR connections, as well as ready access to other parts of the organisation.

Reporting to the CHRO addresses these requirements and also sends another message: the CHRO is putting analytical decision making at the heart of the HR function.

Luk Smeyers, Co-Founder of iNostix by Deloitte, recommends that the workforce analytics leader be a part of the HR leadership team itself in a 2016 HRN article: “How can you even consider tucking a key role like this away in the reporting or HR systems department? After all, if you ‘hide’ your analytics leader away there, the analytical reflections of your company will, inevitably, stay limited to everyday HR matters.”

With this advice in mind, forward-thinking CHROs will want to have the workforce analytics leader report to them and be accountable directly to them.

With that reporting structure, the CHRO has the best opportunity to create an analytically driven function, have more impact in the C-Suite and be more responsive to a globally diverse workforce in a data-rich world.

What skills does the workforce analytics leader need to be successful?

The Power of People outlines ‘Six Skills for Success’ required across the analytics team. These include business acumen, consulting, human resources, work psychology, data science and communications.

Of these, business acumen is the most important for successful leaders to have. This skill includes financial literacy, political astuteness and awareness of both the internal organisation and the external marketplace.

The leader must help the team navigate the business environment successfully; otherwise workforce analytics projects will be, at best, sub-optimally implemented or, at worst, ignored.

For the workforce analytics leader, business acumen can be split into two categories:

1. Political astuteness

This is most important in the HR function where established departments like training, recruitment, reward and employee relations have to feel that ‘new’ activities like analytics, digitisation and employee experience bring something better than what they already have.

These new activities are changing the approaches of decades-old practices and policies.

In addition, the analytics leader needs to influence senior HR business partners who have managed, for years, to build credibility through experience, building strong business relationships and by having a ‘sixth sense’ as to what is right.

The workforce analytics leader needs to navigate both of these groups of leaders with sensitivity and purpose. If done well, this will create ‘friends’ for the workforce analytics function and with that the ability to influence.

2. Business impact

For analytics to be understood, implemented and beneficial to the business and employees, the leader needs to demonstrate impact.

An analytics leader who is financially literate, understands the internal environment (financial measurement, key performance indicators, product and service lines, key stakeholders etc.) and takes an outside-in view (with regards to stakeholders, competitive landscape and general market awareness) will have a better chance to align analytical projects to business outcomes.

For example, a recruitment analytics project that stays in HR will just be rolled out as yet another HR programme focused on simple metrics like ‘time-to-hire’.

Whereas a recruitment analytics project with business sponsorship can have lasting impact on the  organisation (increase innovation, improve performance, decrease risk, increase revenue and lower costs) and at the same time benefit new employees (create a greater bond with the company, improve individual performance and prolong employment).

We need more like Sunita

While researching for The Power of People, and from my recent experience in discussing this topic with over 60 workforce analytics leaders, I found that such a leader will be most successful if he/she:

  • Has a large dose of business acumen by being politically astute and creating impact through his/her financial literacy, awareness of the internal and external business environment and taking an outside-in view
  • Reports directly to the CHRO

Turning back to my conversation with Sunita, I found that she had all of these. She had the respect of her colleagues and peers and was changing the culture of the HR function to become more analytical through her political awareness.

She was also creating impact in multiple ways through taking an outside-in approach to workforce analytics and challenging the status-quo.

In addition the CHRO knew that, to create even more value, be analytically influential in the C-Suite and bring a better experience to the employees and workers, he must have Sunita in his direct leadership team.

Next time I meet a group of workforce analytics leaders, I hope there are more like Sunita.

Additional Note

Several elements of this article were reproduced from The Power of People: Learn How Successful Organizations Use Workforce Analytics to Improve Performance. Guenole, Nigel; Ferrar, Jonathan and Feinzig, Sheri. Pearson FT Press, May 2017.


About Jonathan Ferrar

Jonathan Ferrar

Jonathan Ferrar is a respected consultant, speaker, author and business advisor in Human Resources, strategy and analytics. He advises clients on how to establish strategies and plans that will improve business performance through the power of people. 

He has considerable global experience in Human Resources, People Analytics, Strategy & Transformation and Product Management.

Jonathan was listed as one of the global Top HR Analytics Influencers on LinkedIn in 2014, one of the People Analytics Experts to Follow in 2016 by Jibe, and one of the Top 20 Experts in People Analytics in 2017 by Sage People. Before he started his own consultancy business (Ochre Rock Limited), Jonathan worked for more than 25 years in corporate business in both the United Kingdom and the United States.

He holds degrees from the University of Cambridge and a postgraduate diploma from Kingston Business School. He is a Chartered Fellow of the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (Chartered FCIPD). 

He is the Co-Author of the book, The Power of People: Learn How Successful Organizations Use Workforce Analytics to Improve Business Performance (Pearson FT Press, May 2017)


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