Three critical roles your company sorely needs
But that likely aren’t on your hiring plan (and how to fix that)
Modern knowledge work increasingly requires a dose of flexibility that organizations, by and large, aren’t ready for. Today, most companies hire using legacy approaches that we inherited from the industrial revolution. When planning new hires, we think in terms of full-time or part-time roles. Our planning processes are still heavily weighted toward the time put in to work, rather than results that are generated. Large companies, especially in big global markets such as the United States, prefer structure and hyperspecialization, and smaller companies often adopt the same hiring principles.
We’re overdue for a Renaissance of sorts. In “The Medici Effect,” one of the seminal books on modern innovation, author Frans Johansson argues that when fields and expertise intersect, we get to the most interesting breakthroughs. We know today, for example, that dinosaurs went extinct because a large meteor struck Earth and drastically changed its climate over a prolonged period of time. A paleontologist didn’t come up with that insight – it took an astronomer-physicist to suggest this as a possibility. Put simply, paleontologists weren’t used to looking to the sky for answers to their questions and did not consider that a celestial body – something astronomers spend a lot of time thinking about – could be behind the demise of dinosaurs. Throughout history many such critical advancements in our understanding of the world were accidental. What if we could embrace processes to deliberately engineer them?
To do that, we looked across our diverse client base and expert network and identified three types of roles that would have an outsize benefit on most organizations. These roles are rarely found in hiring plans and operating budgets. They are:
Data storyteller: Data-related functions usually occupy one of two extremes: On one end of the spectrum is data science, with its emphasis on deep competency, analysis, math, statistics, and engineering. Data scientists are in high demand and low supply, which means they are expensive hires. If your hiring manager doesn’t understand data science, it makes interviewing for competency hard – and defining success criteria even harder. On the other end of our spectrum of extremes, data roles take on a more quotidian, operational twist. They’re often about spotting inaccuracies, troubleshooting discrepancies, and mostly manually pulling together reports (read: Excel spreadsheets with many tabs) from multiple source systems that are then disseminated throughout the organization and left to individual teams to interpret and (hopefully) act on. Both approaches leave big gaps. Teams of data scientists frequently lack industry or vertical context and struggle with tying their analyses to concrete and actionable business results. Ops-oriented teams often lack market context and are reactive: Their main role is to collate and document what happened, not necessarily what can or will happen.
Enter the data storyteller. Their superpower is being able to interpret and put into context data explorations for different audiences. Deeply curious, they’re used to ingesting and synthesizing large amounts of different data inputs, from qualitative research to various market datasets and proprietary information housed in their companies’ own systems. They’re proactive and can identify and articulate why something has happened (or is going to). In larger companies, they can be a clutch asset in customer service, quarterly business reviews, and when trying to land a complex sale. On smaller teams they can help focus on activities with outsize business impacts. Across the board they focus on value and articulating it correctly to the right audience. While backgrounds vary widely, successful data storytellers usually possess a blend of tech acumen (e.g., super-user skills in a common tool like Excel or coding skills) and persuasion. Previous roles usually span management consulting, sales and value engineering, product management, and similar disciplines that require a lot of context-shifting and interacting with different audiences.
Supply chain optimizer: Every business has a supply chain of some kind. If you’re a brand, you’re keenly aware of what it takes to source materials and actually produce the products you’re selling (even if those factories and warehouses might be half a world away). If you’re a publisher who monetizes through ads, you want to make sure that your customers are reaching you through the most optimal channels and that you aren’t getting fleeced by various intermediaries (hello, supply-chain optimization [SPO] and similar yield management efforts).
You need someone on your team who understands your supply chain end to end. In complex organizations this may mean a team of people or different team members focusing on the lifecycle of different products. You get the gist: This is usually someone who is very process-driven, who can spot operational bottlenecks from miles away and promptly moves to remove them. In practice that may mean discontinuing or renegotiating partnership contracts, consolidating on a specific vendor, or preemptively preparing the organization for periods of increased activity (think complex events like the Olympics). If successful, this person will make many incremental improvements while devising ways to measure and interpret the success of these efforts (typically through proxy metrics such as cost or time saved, increases in satisfaction, etc.). As with a data storyteller, many backgrounds can be a great fit for this role; great candidates will have in-depth knowledge of how your company works, and they have often been part of different functional organizations in the same company.
Catalyst or instigator: As tired as the concept of digital transformation may sound, most innovation ultimately boils down to change management. Organizations are generally resistant to change – predictability and repeatability of process is vastly preferred. This natural preference for inertia makes innovation a challenge, especially for larger companies.
When we think of innovation, we usually have a mental model of disruptive innovation: a paradigm-shifting breakthrough that then fundamentally changes how an industry or vertical operates. The daily reality of innovative companies often looks quite different than that and has to do with continued improvement across various critical teams. Internally, this can be spearheaded by generalists in operational excellence – the type of folks who are really good at business process design, cross-team collaboration, and knowing how to mobilize the necessary resources within an organization. (If you subscribe to the GSD startup mantra, these are quite literally the folks who can reliably get sh*t done – a skillset that we’ll argue is even more impactful in large, global organizations.) Need to get better at customer service before a big new product launch? Want a more focused approach to strategic, high-touch sales? Need to map out entry into a new market? Tap the person who can be air-dropped into a team for tours of duty lasting six to 18 months and whose main mandate is to instigate and manage change. The most effective catalysts are often recruited externally, perhaps from the ranks of your clients and partners, or as neutral consultants without any existing political allegiances. Chiefs of staff or heads or strategy are often successful in this role, with one bringing a very ops- and project-based approach, and the other orchestrating myriad complex what-if scenarios, including knowing when to summon external experts – and, perhaps more importantly, who to call.
Why the disconnect?
All three of these roles sit somewhere in between traditionally defined functional areas, which inevitably brings up the question of which P&L they should belong to and under whose responsibility/reporting line. Nearly every week we hear some variant of, “We know this is important, but we can’t figure out how to fund it internally.” This challenge manifests differently in companies of varying size and complexity. In large companies, the gatekeeper is frequently a rigid organizational structure. In growing companies, the hurdle is often a lack of awareness of the potential impact that this cross-breed role can have. Smaller, more nimble companies have an advantage here: They can designate a special team, reporting to the CEO or COO, and carve out a dedicated budget easier than a large multinational.
Large or small, companies would do well to invest in roles that present critical connective tissue between different functional areas. We’ve often described the work we do as the necessary translation layer between different teams; several of our clients describe it as glue. Whichever metaphor you prefer, think of what kind of business results you could unlock if you had each one of the three roles we’ve described in your hiring plan.
If hiring for well-defined, traditional functional roles is hard, hiring for these hybrid roles can be like hunting for unicorns. How do you know if you’ve made the right hire, and what are the early signs that things potentially are not working out (while you still have time for course correction)?
Thanks for reading,
Ana, Maja, and the Sparrow team
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Founded in 2015 by Ana and Maja Milicevic, principals & industry veterans who combined their product, strategy, sales, marketing, and company scaling chops and built the type of consultancy they wish existed when they were in operational roles at industry-leading adtech, martech, and software companies. Now a global team, Sparrow Advisers help solve the most pressing commercial challenges and connect all the necessary dots across people, process, and technology to simplify paths to revenue from strategic vision down to execution. We believe that expertise with fast-changing, emerging technologies at the crossroads of media, technology, creativity, innovation, and commerce are a differentiator and that every company should have access to wise Sherpas who’ve solved complex cross-sectional problems before. Contact us here.