Imitating Rogues

School for Scoundrels (1960 film)

Forthcoming Market Research Training Course? Image via Wikipedia

Over the years, I’ve often given mid-level researchers one or other version of a workshop I call “How to Advance Your Research Career – and still have time for a Social Life”. As you might guess, the title touches a nerve – it’s one that never fails to attract interest! Its genesis is a frustration that both David and I share: that far too many researchers do far too much work on things of far too little value. It’s something that we believe is not as inevitable or hard to change as we often imagine, but it’s also a topic that cannot be summarized in one blog post. Instead I want to touch on one small part of my talk: a consideration of  successful senior market researchers I’ve known who’ve “made it” without 80 hour weeks or working themselves into an early grave. Yes, they are a minority in our industry, but they do exist and they have some lessons for the rest of us.

I start my talk with a segmentation model (I am talking to MR execs!) in which I suggest that to succeed in market research a senior executive has to evolve tactics to handle two types of inputs and challenges. Big Stuff and Little Stuff. Complex, I realise, but bear with me. By “big stuff” I mean that we are confronted both in terms of research and business with issues of strategy, positioning, integration of information and so on. “High-level” thinking challenges. But senior level market research rapidly leads you into lots of “little stuff”: detailed analysis of business and marketing issues, dealing with minor  operational challenges, searching out complex process issues in our services or helping clients with tiny, granular problems of customer behaviour. In other industries it is easier for senior executives can float above the little stuff, but that’s hardly a recipe for success in research. The details confront you everyday, and you need to evolve tactics to handle them, while still devoting time to bigger issues.

The next layer of my segmentation is how successful MR professionals deal with this combination of challenges. My claim is there are three basic ways:  (1) Work incredibly hard and do everything,  (2)  become efficient at prioritisation and process, or  (3) find ways to safely divert “low value” work onto others.

The bulk of the workshop deals with the second of these paths to glory of course, as the latter has an unfortunate air of the Machiavellian and senior people who follow such a course are popularly regarded as “Rogues” – in the mischievous and somewhat manipulative sense of that term – at best charmers, at worst cunning and ruthless. In an industry where “hours worked” sometimes seems to be the prime way we value executives, it can seem suspect to suggest to mid-level executives that they should identify “Rogues” in the leadership team (they’ll be there, somewhere) and make a study of their methods.

Yet, while I don’t advocate following the “rogue route” wholesale, I do think they provide some useful lessons. I’ve known quite a few of these types (most of the charming variant) in my time, and they tend to have some characteristics in common. Firstly they don’t avoid work indiscriminately: they focus on the “big stuff” above, and they do this well because they exhibit the “three “S’s: Style, Substance and Strategy. They are self-confident, willing to take a few risks. They develop presentation, meeting and personal relationship skills and see these “style” attributes as being as relevant as research skills. They think about – and care about – strategic issues, prioritising these. Finally, they will possess one key area of substantive expertise, often research focused but perhaps business or marketing based where they have a genuine knowledge advantage over others. The latter may seem like “hard work” for people with this approach, but they know that this is an entree point to meetings and important for differentiating themselves from other executives and gaining respect (David has covered why this is important in an earlier post: “Master Your Craft & Bullet-Proof Your Career”).

The three “S’s” are the skills that let them succeed at the “Big Stuff” noted above. But where they achieve a lighter workload is in combining these (especially style) with two “D’s” – delegation and diversion – to avoid most of the “little stuff”. By charming, fooling or twisting the arms of peers and subordinates, they have worked out ways of skipping a lot of the nasty details.  But unlike those who are simply lazy (and who seldom succeed), they will have some clearly thought out tactics for skipping work without damage to themselves or the organisation. Firstly, as noted earlier, they have a firm grasp on the 80/20 principle. They don’t delegate any big stuff where their  style, expertise and strategic skills can be highlighted.

The Rogues I’ve known, also tend to have a good recognition of their personal weaknesses. This doesn’t impact their self-confidence, they simply regard these as gaps to be filled – preferably by someone else! And that leads me to their final area of strength – they have good people skills in three key areas:

  • A recruitment eye. If you’re going to delegate and divert, you need the right people under you – ones that fill the gaps in your skills or personality profile.
  • Coherent motivation approach. Rogues adopt differing motivation tactics, but they know motivation is important if you’re going to divert the boring work – and they adopt a coherent approach to how they do it. They don’t blow “hot and cold”.
  • They can cope with “difficult” people and a diverse team. Good market researchers are rare. If you want to avoid too much work, and recruit people who complement your weaknesses, you can’t be too picky: you’ve got to work with all sorts and make the best of the talent pool available.

Now, I’ll admit I’m guilty of caricature here: there are few that are “total” Rogues all the time in market research.  Many of the top leaders in our industry necessarily combine extreme hard work with efficient work practices and many of the so-called Rogue skills I’ve noted. Yet the characterisation contains some strong elements of truth: I’ll bet many of you have been nodding as you read this, and can think of some examples not far from home. What I hope you’ll also notice though is that some these “Rogue” practices are not quite as bad – either for the individuals concerned or the organisation – as might be expected from people who seem to get by with so much less effort than the rest of us. As an industry we need to to move on from seeing colleagues who work late every night as virtuous and those who finish quickly as lazy. We need to move to genuinely valuing quality, not quantum of effort. This shift in emphasis mostly requires us to re-examine issues of the kind and quality of work we do and the processes within our businesses.  But it may also help to look at the Rogues in our midst with a less jaundiced eye: they have some lessons for us all.

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