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Sol Rashidi, Chief Analytics Officer, Estée Lauder, on messy work, data culture, rugby.

“I was a phenomenal athlete in high school, I was barely mediocre at the collegiate level. It was a good piece of humble pie."

If there is one learning to have come from the ongoing disruption that is challenging our economies, organisations, and people, it is this: crisis demands action. It demands decisiveness. It demands movement and choice. In moments of crisis, our pace of ideation and implementation is challenged.

We realise we were kidding ourselves as we implemented ‘perfectly’ designed operating models; the flaws of which we can no longer tolerate. Opportunities stare us in the face. We realise that our survival relies on seizing them, writes Christina Hammond-Aziz. In such moments all eyes turn to a different cohort of leaders.

They turn to those amongst us who have spent their entire careers in relentless pursuit of making our organisations better. Those constantly focused on identifying where we should act and why. Those brave enough to imagine what an organisation could be, while grounded enough to roll up their sleeves and make it possible for their teams and colleagues to get there. In this series I am focused on sharing their insights: the hard-won knowledge of the challengers, the agitators, the reformers. Or as I call them, the Changemakers.

Sol Rashidi: Changemaker

Among them is Sol Rashidi, the Chief Analytics Officer of Estee Lauder – the $100+ billion by market capitalisation global leader in prestige beauty, with a portfolio of more than 25 brands sold in 150 countries and territories.

Sol, (who has been awarded seven patents, with 21 more filed), was previously CDO for Sony Music; Chief Data & AI Officer for Royal Caribbean; and AI, Data & Analytics Partner at EY. (In another life, she was also a professional rugby player, although you’d be forgiven for a moment’s disbelief, until you saw the photos…)

Sol sat down with me days after a new report from MIT and Databricks emphasised what so many know: bold ambitions for data-led enterprise strategies are not always delivering the goods.

Just 13% of over 350 senior tier data and analytics respondents said their organisation excels at delivering on its data strategy; with many organisations wanting to skip the walking (or even crawling) stage of deploying machine learning and go straight into running: a recipe for poor ROI. Because it takes so much more than a token hire, or an expensive stack to drive intelligent, data-led transformation in an enterprise. It takes leadership, culture, buy-in; it takes real organisational change. Here are some of Sol’s key lessons in making that change happen.

You have to see through the 'mess'

Anyone who has broken ground on a new site, will understand that building anything is disruptive, Sol points out.

“You have to ringfence it with fences; you have to put caution tape all over the place; you're drilling; you're pissing off the neighbours;  you got construction workers all over the place; sometimes they leave trash after lunch and dinner; ‘is that really going to be a building?’ And often, when you're in the midst of a construction site, all you know about is the delays. All you see is the cement and the barbed wires and the coppers and like the zoning and the permit. In our case [as data analytics professionals], it's the ETL; the data ingestions; the pipes; the analytics; the models… you don't get to see the beauty of it until many months, if not years later.

Make sure the business is prepared to accelerate

"I have also learned that when it comes to adoption, it’s really not about the UI or UX (although of course they help).  Several early adoption failures left me realising that there has to be a go-to-market team with everything I generate, and that we have to walk the businesses through it step by step.

“You can't just build and then toss it over. Because the average timeline to get critical mass on anything we have ever developed is 14 months. But making change, however long the critical mass takes, can cause friction: I have a faster cadence of working. That causes healthy friction at times.

"I can move as slowly as someone wants to a certain point, but [at a certain point you have to say] ‘We're four years behind. So, either we catch up and we accelerate the pace, or we have to be okay with the fact that we're going to make incremental change only, and not exponential leaps forward – although what you're asking for requires exponential and provocative ways of working, and it doesn’t sound like you’re ready for it.'”

Build a strong hub-and-spoke model

As a Changemaker, make really sure you’ve got support and buy-in for what you need to achieve – ideally from the highest levels. As Sol notes: “It's not a person or a team that's going to help the corporation pivot.

“This is fundamentally an investment that has to happen enterprise-wide.

"If you're going to bring in an evangelist, or a CTO or CIO – whoever is supposed to lead the charge – then one: you have to give them the budget to set up a team of experts, build a community of practitioners, who in turn, will start spreading the word on what insights can be gained from the initiative” she says, adding “you would be amazed at how many times companies skip that step.”

“Two,” she notes, “you have to invest in the talent base, not just within the group, but across the organization. Otherwise, it's always going to be tapped into the centre, which is not a good supply and demand model, because the supply for analytics is always going to be greater than the demand that that team regenerates. And you're just going to end up disappointing a bunch of folks.

"The intent isn't that that team does everything, the intent is that team will drive, but you need a very strong hub-and-spoke model. The spokes are driving too, and you feel this lift.”

You need a “backbone, not a wishbone.”

Relationships are key, says Sol, so that when you’re ready for deployment, you've got a user base that trusts you.

And sometimes you’ve got to chomp down on your gumshield to make this happen.

“Understanding how things get pushed past the finish line in some organisations is exhausting. And I always say in this position, you need a backbone and not a wishbone. Because things just aren't given to you very easily.”

With the world changing so dramatically, if enterprises don’t evolve, the sun may set on them faster than many imagine. But any Changemaker can get bogged down by politics, or managerial obstreperousness.

Read this: P&G CIO Vittorio Cretella on leaving school at 17 to join the Italian Army, hiring diversely, and what it takes to build a strong team

“Activation is so difficult for some organisations,” says Sol.

“If the board of directors and the CEO say ‘yes, we need a new leader; we need someone with energy, with pizzazz; someone to disrupt the current ways of working, a disruptor, and a maverick!’ what happens? They hire you, but you end up not working with them --  you end up working with middle managers who never got the memo, and who have been at the company for 20 years, 30 years: they don't want to get disrupted. They may have no professional training in data and analytics, though they may have been tasked with it, and no aperture of how the rest of the world is operating, and what's going on behind the curtain.

“How is the rest of the organisation going to shapeshift to accommodate the new type of leaders that you want to bring in? This activation is not an easy thing for companies which is why most don't do it – and it’s also why the average tenureship of a CDO is currently around 19 months,” she notes bluntly.

But know your shelf life in an environment, don't stick to something and grit through it

“I thought I was going to be a professional athlete. I went from playing waterpolo for Cal to Berkley to playing at NCAA in my sophomore year. Then my coach and I had a discussion.

“I was a phenomenal athlete in high school, I was barely mediocre at the collegiate level. It was a good piece of humble pie. My coach said ‘listen you’re 5' 3" on a good day, the other girls are 5' 10". You can rely on power, which is what you've done, but only to a certain degree. Some of what you need is just natural. You can't force it. At best, you'll always be second string and you're going to be on the bench. You have to decide if it's worth swimming five hours a day to be on the second bench.

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“I decided my water polo career was over that same day, I was walking down the street and a lady tapped me on the shoulder. Her name was Kathy and she asks “do you play a sport?”  I said “Well, up until a few hours ago, I played water polo.” She's wanted to know if I had heard of rugby. She explained that there was a lot of form and skill involved, that she was running the women's national team, and that she thought I’d be a natural.

It turned out that what was a deficiency in water polo, my height, was a phenomenal strength in rugby. I had a low centre of gravity. I was extremely difficult to tackle and I had phenomenal ball handling skills because of all my training with water polo. So I was forcing Water Polo, but I was a natural at rugby. So I joined the team and within a year and a half, I became captain and then I played on the women's national team after a few years. That’s where I learned to ‘know your shelf life in an environment, don't stick to something and grit through it. If you're just not content and you're not getting anywhere at some point in time, you got to, you got to call the game.’

Ensure the environment you are in enables you as a Changemaker to thrive

Which led our discussion into what I believe is one of the most important lessons businesses need to recognise today. Like so many Changemakers, Sol plays to her strengths with that self-awareness she developed since childhood. She knows who she is and the value that she brings. She also instinctively understands the environment she needs to do that. In turn, she knows when she needs to get out.

Sometimes, she suggests, there’s no solution other than to walk away. The organisation wasn’t really ready for, or didn’t really want to make the changes it thought it needed. As she puts it: “I have been in companies where I just felt like I had handcuffs and I couldn't breathe without asking for permission. That just couldn’t work.

“There’s a specific cross-training exercise where you have to run as fast as possible while tied to a weight that is holding you back. That's what it can feel like every day, and yet you still need to move forward. This can have nothing to do with the company, or the culture or skill sets or any of those elements. It is sometimes just the reality for any company trying to take on something new, when the organisation’s talent base hasn't caught up.”

Sol Rashidi: "The time to lean in is now"

This is where organisations can change. Not all are born equal, at least not when it comes to transformation, but they can choose to lean-in. As Sol Rashidi notes: “Certain financial companies have been at data-transformation longer; that's what they were born to do - crunch through the numbers and come up with the best price at the best market level. But if you look at companies with phenomenal brand equity such as Adidas, Puma, Estee Lauder, L’Oreal, IKEA, Disney, you name it, these are all creative-based companies. They have always depended on their content or the product and it has worked for them. They haven't had to operate like financials, because their brand equity was based on their creativity.

“History doesn’t change overnight. You have executives who have created success by focusing on the customer experience, and the product and the content. They haven't had to worry about anything else. And you don't want to take the creativity out of the company. However you can't grow or sustain or maintain the business based on the current way of operating. So, things have to change. Covid was really interesting because it really did put a lot of businesses out of business. And for corporations, you got to see who leaned in, versus who leaned back, in terms of investments in the space. Right now if you want to compete, you need to lean in; hard.

See also: Federal Reserve CIO Pam Dyson on digital disruption at the Fed, and starting out in graphic design.