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Guest: Asha Saxena, a serial entrepreneur, computer science engineer, and certified Six Sigma Black Belt Professional. Asha also served as Entrepreneur in Residence for Columbia Business School and is currently a faculty member for Graduate Business Studies, where she teaches graduate students about entrepreneurship, big data, and data analytics. In addition, Asha is a member of YPO, and a coach for CEO Coaching International.
Episode in a Tweet: CEO Coaching International’s Asha Saxena explains how to use big data to make BIG happen.
Quick Background: Asha is a self-described data nerd, but she preaches the importance of using data as a tool, and not as a whole solution to a business’ challenges and opportunities. Unfortunately, too many struggling CEOs don’t grasp that distinction. Even worse, some CEOs put so much stock in what the numbers are saying that they ignore the human ingenuity and intuition that companies need to adapt to an ever-changing business landscape.
On today’s show, Asha discusses combing data analytics with your top-level CEO judgement to ask better questions about your business, and make smarter, more profitable decisions that will help you make BIG happen.
Transcript: Download the full transcript here.
Key Insights on Using Big Data
1. Take calculated risks.
Asha started her career as a programmer at a consulting firm. She quickly worked her way up to a management position and grew her department from a team of two to a team of 80.
Then the company was acquired. Her boss told her that she should take this as an opportunity to start her own consulting firm. At the time, Asha was 24 and pregnant with her second child.
“I’m looking at him and saying, ‘You know you’re crazy. I’m way too young to start my own business,’” Asha remembers. But she took a calculated risk, started her consulting firm, and made it big.
Of course, not all risks are equal. That’s where big data comes in.
“It has to be a calculated risk,” Asha says. The good news is, you can look at the data and make an informed decision. Decisions that used to be made simply from gut instinct can now be supported by rigorous data and reduce your risk.
2. Goals first, data second.
So how can you use data to distinguish a smart bet from a potential money pit?
Asha says one common mistake is CEOs chasing after and collecting data that they don’t know what to do with. What’s the point in blowing cash on studies and surveys if the numbers aren’t going to help you achieve something concrete?
“It really starts from the top, Asha says. “What are you trying to get to? What is your strategic goal for five years, for three years, for one year? Those goals will lead you to understand what kind of data you need to collect.” Once you know the problem you are trying to solve, then you can determine the data you need to collect and the technology needed to collect it.
For example, are you focused on high employee satisfaction and retention? Then, like our clients Task Us, you might want to focus on gathering and improving your employee net promoter data. Have you identified world-class customer service as a key metric for growth? Build a better survey platform and find ways to incentivize participation. Could a customer loyalty program turn small repeat buyers into bigger, more dependable customers? Try a pilot program in a key market and study the results.
At CEO Coaching International, our best practices emphasize the importance of using quarterly and annual planning sessions to set these kinds of goals. Taking a few days every year to assemble your team, assess your company’s progress, and realign your activities as necessary is the best way to make sure every facet of your company is pointed at the same target. Without those targets, all that expensive data you’re hoarding is just a cart full of numbers in need of a horse.
3. Data is the intelligent assistant, you are the boss.
Inevitably, there will be times when the data in front of you says one thing, and your gut says another. If you’re wondering, “Who wins?” then you’re thinking about – and potentially using – your data all wrong.
“The technology and the data can only be an assistant,” Asha says. “Technology’s going to help us become smarter about everything we do. What products we should be launching. What industries we should go into. What vertical, or what horizontal, we should really invest our time and money in. Really making sure we’re asking good questions, and then going back, and saying, ‘Do I have the right data to answer that question? If I don’t, how do I collect that data?’”
Let’s say your data tells you that business is good, and your company is profitable. Does your gut tell you that good is good enough? Are you going to let those good-enough numbers deter you from innovating, changing, and evolving? Or do you see something on the horizon that the data doesn’t reflect?
Think about Blockbuster. Their data told them that millions of people were still walking into brick and mortar stores all over the country to rent movies. But their data didn’t lead them to an essential question, “What’s coming next?” By the time Blockbuster did start asking that question Netflix had already answered it.
On the other hand, what if your data tells you that a legacy satellite office isn’t profitable, but your heart just won’t let it go because it was your dad’s brainchild before he passed the torch?
The head and the heart, the person and the data, are never going to agree 100%. Ultimately it falls to you, the CEO to gather all the relevant info, ask better questions, and make decisions that are going to push the company forward.
4. Sacrifice growth, not people.
“When your company’s growing really, really fast, it is so hard for you to take your eye off the growth,” cautions Asha. Many companies get so excited when their growth soars that they’ll grab anyone they can to help with the bigger work load, and churn out as much product as they can to meet increased demand. They don’t stop to ask if they’re hiring the right people and providing the right goods and services to the right customers. “Then you keep saying, ‘It’s going to work out. I can’t fire people right now because I have so much to deliver,’” Asha warns. “You forget that you’re sacrificing quality, and it’s going to hurt your growth.”
Like me, Asha is a big fan of Jim Collins, whose book “Great by Choice” advises that by putting the people who are essential to your business first, you can achieve steady, sustainable long-term growth, and avoid unsustainable staffing and customer acquisition frenzies.
“Serving your customer will bring you money,” Asha says. “Servicing the people on your team will let you keep that money. But if you don’t have the right people, the money will go really fast. And if you don’t service your customers, they will leave really fast. Make sure that you’re keeping your eye on servicing your customers and people, and then building processes around that, and then worrying about the technology. Technology is the easy part.”
1. Never settle. A business that never takes risks or changes is just dying in slow motion.
2. Let your goals be your guide. The data you need is the data that’s going to help you hit your targets.
3. Technology comes last. Hire A-list employees, satisfy your customer base, and then explore the technology options that will help you keep both.