Ep.47 – Gemma Turner and Michelle Williams – The power of introversion in data professionals

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Karen: I am joined today by Gemma Turner and Michelle Williams, respectively Analytics Manager for Digital Products and Data Product Owner at The Very Group.

In this episode we explore introversion in data professionals. You will have the point of view of two leaders coming from different perspectives. While Michelle covers what it means to lead as an introvert, Gemma brings the point of view of an extrovert who leads a team of introverts. They talk about why careers in data and analytics and engineering are attractive to introverts, as well as the benefits of having introverts in data teams. They also share how introverts can perform and progress in their career, and how leaders can support their team members, especially when it comes to meetings participation.

You will find that my audio isn’t as clean as usual in this episode, and I am really, really sorry about that. It’s just that, I’m still trying to navigate hybrid working, and my setup is clearly trying to figure it out too! So, sorry about that again, but let’s listen to Michelle and Gemma.

Hi Michella, hi Gemma, welcome to the Women in Data podcast!

Gemma: Hi, thank you.

Michelle: Hi, thanks for having us!

Karen: It’s such a pleasure! I have been looking forward to recording this episode, and I can’t wait to hear everything you have to say.

Today’s topic is definitely all around introversion and working in data as an introvert, or working with introverts, which is a massive topic because most data professionals are introverts, but there are some that are not, and we have to work with people who are not, and society is not that kind to introverts most of the time. Although, I’ve read a few articles – I don’t know if you’ve seen, but with the lockdown and everybody working from home, there have been so many articles around ‘the rise of the introverts’ and how the lockdown benefitted them, although I’m pretty sure we all had it really tough; but it feels like it was easier for us and made us shine a bit more than we used to. So it would be great to have your views on that.

Michelle, you are an introvert, and you are a leader, so you are a data leader who is an introvert, and Gemma, you are an extrovert, but you work with a lot of introverts; so we have two different points of view here covering a few different topics, and I can’t wait for that.

But before we dig into it, could I invite you to introduce yourself and maybe give us a bit of background on your role and responsibility?

Gemma: Yeah, sure. I’m gonna go first; so I’m Gemma Turner, I lead the digital analytics team at The Very Group, and our role is to support data-led decision making within the digital customer experience tribe. So I sit in quite a nice spot really, reporting into the data function, specifically our broader BI and analytics team, but working alongside digital product teams. My role involves coordinating a team of data analysts as we support all levels within the digital product tribe. So that could be understanding how the customer interacts with their journey, helping to understand how the changes we make on-site and in-app are received by the customers, and I guess overall the value that we’re driving.

So from a personal background perspective, my background is kind of mathematical; I did a brief stint in a marketing selections role elsewhere, and as with a lot of people in data roles, I kind of fell into analytics. But retail and specifically digital has for some time now been a real passion of mine. I think the sheer volume of data available to us, the immediacy of the action you can drive through your recommendations, and I guess the ability to really understand and interrogate the changes that we develop on-site through testing and experimentation, is just a really exciting challenge, and no day is

really the same.

I’ve been at The Very Group for 10 years; I’ve been afforded many, many opportunities to progress through the team since joining as an analyst. And yeah, that’s probably about it! I’m really excited to be with you today, so thanks very much for having us.

Karen: It’s my pleasure, and your job sounds so exciting. How about you Michelle?

Michelle: Hi! So I’m Michelle Williams, my role at The Very Group, alongside Gemma in the data team, which is now rebranded as data insight action, DNA, so a very key function of The Very Group. My role within there is Data Product Owner. My role as the Data Product Owner is very much looking after the portfolio of the DNA function; so setting and driving the roadmap for what DNA wants to do, what’s on the horizon, what are those data products and services that we’re going to go after and prioritising a lot of the initiatives that we have across the function. In my role, I’m not in any particular team, so I’m very much a hybrid of, I’ll work with analysts, I’ll work with the data scientists, I’ll work with the data engineers, I’m really bringing them together to work out how we can create a data platform that is trusted and built and ready for all the data analysts, and really creating that bridge between the two functions, owning that product lifecycle. Recently a lot of my initiatives that I’ve been working on have been working very much with the analytics and the data engineers as we’ve been migrating data sources; so making sure that the data source is now in a new environment with the data engineers, but also trusted, so working closely with the data analytics to make sure that they can use the data and that it’s there.

From a personal point of view, I’ve been with the company nearly 20 years now…

Karen: Wow!

Michelle: Yeah, and similar to Gemma, I’ve moved around the roles very much, but always within the data function. I started as a graduate analyst many years ago in the retail function, and then have progressed throughout different areas of data, so from retail into our operational area, into our customer care area, but always on the analytics side; it was only five years ago that I moved into a product owner role, looking at building our data lake within the data engineering function. But having that data analytics background, moving into a data engineering world, not necessarily being a ‘techy’ as such, but it gave me that opportunity to bridge between the two. So, really knowing as we’re building something in the data engineering area how that is going to impact the data analytics and the BI areas and the data scientists, and also create some kind of communication between the two as well, because it’s two very different worlds, two very different needs.

Karen: That’s exactly what I was going to say, because there’s been a lot of talks around the role of the data translator, and all these things, because we always speak in different language, not per se, but we all communicate in a different way, and I guess in a company as big as The Very Group, it’s very important to be able to make the teams communicate and avoid working in silos, and having you as a role jumping from one team to another and making sure they work together effectively and communicate properly is very important.

Michelle, you are an introvert, and you are actually a leader in the company. What does being an introvert mean for you, and how does that translate in your role?

Michelle: People seem to think that introversion is about: “I’m shy and quiet, I don’t have friends”, and that is not what introversion is at all. It’s about needing quiet time, needing time to reflect and understand, really contemplate the questions before coming back with answers; think things through properly and respond. As an introvert in the company, yes it’s a massive company, but yes, I don’t like the limelight, which is why I’m quite nervous having this podcast today, because it’s very much out of my comfort zone! And I’m not the greatest salesperson unless I’ve got something that backs it up,

unless I’ve got that data, the work that I’ve done that backs it up.

Quite a lot of my time at The Very Group has been about really building that network; an introvert might appear shy and quiet, but we make great friends, we make great relationships, and a lot of The Very Group has been about creating my network and getting people that understand me and trust me, so that they give me the time I need, or won’t make me do the big presentations because they don’t need me to do that sales pitch. They trust the work, and it’s really about having the background and a lot of the work I’ve done talk for itself – people trust the output that I do. But give me space and time; and I’ve had some great leaders who’ve understood that and given me that freedom to do that.

Karen: I remember when I was living in Paris, everybody was saying that being an introvert is bad and it’s going to damage your career. I feel like we have these stigma around introversion that is so false, because, because you’re an introvert it just means that this is your personality – well, it’s not even your personality, it’s part of your personality, and how is that making you a person that can’t progress in your career? Because, as you said Michelle, if you have the space to develop, your work will speak for itself and make sure that people see the great work you do. Although, I have something on that, because sometimes having your work speak for itself is really hard, and you do have to push to make sure people see what’s going on.

So you said you had some great leaders; would you say that these are the ones that helped you progress in your career? What’s been the impact of being an introvert?

Michelle: I think from a progression [perspective] – so I have been at the company 20 years, so I’ve got a lot of time here where I’ve built up that network and had people I know, and yes had some great leaders. I would say that being an introvert meant that that progression was probably slower than an extrovert, because like you say, having your work talk for itself, it takes time for that to happen, it’s not an overnight thing. Had I been a great salesperson, I probably could have stood up and gone: “Look at my great piece of work everybody, it’s amazing, give me a pay rise!”, but that’s not me, and I wouldn’t ever be able to do that. So it has been a much slower progression path.

But when I say I’ve had some great leaders, I’ve had some leaders where I’ve been able to go: “Actually, you need to give me time to come out of this meeting and think about it”, and we’ve built that relationship up to understand that that’s what I need to go and do it. And they wouldn’t put pressure on me in sessions to say: “Give me an answer now”, they’ll know that I need to take it away and come back with an answer, because I need time to think about and come back with a considered approach, rather than a quick approach.

I mean, as a leader, it’s very difficult being an introvert, because you’re not the loudest person. But I could’ve really gone out of my comfort zone, sold things, really done the sales pitch, but that’s not true to who I am, and I try to always remain true to who I am. Yes, it’s a slower progression, but I wanted the work to speak for itself. I didn’t want to have all mouth and no trousers, as they say. I needed to have that backing me up, and that understanding that that’s how I’m going to progress, and even though it’s been a slower path, I think it’s been the right path for me.

Karen: Yeah, and I’m not going to say no, because look at the way you are today, and you are even getting out of your comfort zone recording this podcast with us.

Gemma, I know we’re meant to discuss this a bit later in the episode, but because Michelle really pointed out the importance of the leadership being understanding and giving you space – this is your position at the moment, you’re leading a team that is full of introverts – can you give us a bit of an overview of what this leadership style looks like, and how you are helping your team to really feel fulfilled and be able to perform to their best?

Gemma: I think for me, it starts with open discussions. I’ve worked with an introvert in my team previously that tried their absolute hardest to appear extroverted to others, and that at times was being at the mercy of their own wellbeing, because it was exhausting for them. But what I think I learnt in that situation, and what I like to take the time to understand, particularly with new-joiners in my team is: you know, everyone is different, everyone’s got slightly different preferences for how they work, how they recharge, the type of work that they like to do; and I think once, as a leader, you take that time to understand the people that you work with on a regular basis, I think it gives you a good grounding to then build from that, and build that confidence with the individual that you want to alter your style to support them. But I think showing that interest, and showing that aspect that you care, and you do want to alter your style, I think it provides them with that psychological safety that it’s okay for them to be open with you. As Michelle has done with her leaders in the past, to say: “Actually, I need a clear agenda before I go into a session, I don’t like to be put on the spot, I need time to maybe take that specific question away, and I will come back to you with that considered approach”.

I used to work with someone in my team who used to schedule dog walks after she had quite a big meeting or presentation, and she put that in her diary, and we were quite open about it; but she knew that following a session where she was in front of a lot of people, she was exerting energy that was potentially outside of her comfort zone, she needs that time, because she’d feel drained after it. And I think as a leader it’s about normalising that and encouraging that with your team. Trust is one of our values at Very, it’s a big part of the culture here, so I think highlighting examples of things like that, encouraging others to know that that’s okay, when potentially it might be a bit earlier on in their career and they’re thinking: “Well, can I take time out at eleven o’clock? I’m not on my lunch…”, or whatever. But it’s almost – if you see other people role-modelling that, they can think: “Oh okay, that might be something that’ll help me”.

Another aspect that I try to think about is being particularly thoughtful of the makeup of a team when you’re planning meetings and workshops. It’s nothing revolutionary, but ensuring that you’ve got detail, agenda, and background there ahead of time, so those people that like to do that thinking in advance have got the ability to do that. And I think, think about your role as a facilitator in a session to get the best out of everyone. So if I’m running a session with a broad group of people and it’s predominately a data group, I might think: “How is this going to be received? How am I going to get the best from extroverts and introverts?” – so whether that’s small breakout groups, whether it’s using online whiteboard functions where you can say: “Get your ideas down and then we’ll discuss them after”. It’s just being conscious as a facilitator, and I think because what I generally find is for an introvert, it might be hard for them to contribute in a conversation when there are those bigger voices that are first to speak, want to be heard. It might be discussing techniques with the people that are in your teams around how you can tackle things like that, different approaches.

But I guess in reality, Karen, I don’t always get it right. And I think that’s something that I reflect on regularly. I’m conscious that at the minute in my team, there’s cases where, particularly at the start of the week, people are in back-to-back meetings, often on Teams, lots of context switching, and that’s really tough. But I think it can be a hard balance, particularly working at a fast-paced digital retailer like Very is. We’re in one of the peak trading periods of time where that fast-pace and decision making is important.

So I think it’s just trying, as a leader, to be reticent of the makeup of your team. But I guess, above all, it’s just trying to create that culture in your team where people trust in good intention, they’re open and honest in their relationships, so that if things aren’t working for particular people, that they feel safe enough to air that, and we can have conversations around how we do need to alter things.

Karen: You mentioned a few things there where I could relate totally. The example of being in a

meeting and not being able to speak because there are the louder voices – this is something I’ve found myself against so many times in my career, and even outside, so when you’re with friends or when you’re in a social situation and you have all these people talking, I’m always thinking: “I need a bit more time to think and process the information!”, but no one gives you the time. So making sure that as a leader you remember that, you know who the introverts are in your team, and I like the example of the person from your team who was putting in the calendar the dog walk – we don’t all have a dog, but definitely getting out of there, stretching your legs, taking some fresh air is so important.

Michelle, tell me if you are the same: if I spend one afternoon in meetings without being able to go out or be by myself without talking with anyone, don’t count on me the next day, I will not perform to my best! Do you have the same thing?

Michelle: Oh, completely. I am constantly in back-to-back meetings and, from what Gemma’s just said, I need to put more time in between them because I don’t have the time that I need between the meetings to think about it. So, unfortunately, I spend probably most of my evenings then thinking about the day and going back through all of the meetings and spending time to do that contemplation and that understanding. But yeah, say I’ve been in an all-day workshop, the next day I’m like, I don’t want any meetings today because I am just exhausted and need some time to think.

Karen: It’s just draining, and we’ve been mentioning before that introversion is not a bad thing, and we’ve touched on how leaders can help introverts feel better in the business environment and how you can actually be a leader as an introvert. But I would like to hear your views on what are the benefits of being an introvert in a team, and specifically in a team that works in data and analytics.

Gemma: In my experience, introverts tend to be considered in their approach; they favour not jumping in and offering the first idea, but they’ll listen, understand, step back, be methodical, and analytical in providing a recommendation. In terms of managing an analytics team, you can’t ask for any more than that really! That’s what you want people to think about, that end-to-end problem solving, and not just offer a quick recommendation of what they think. It’s about having that analytical, methodical approach, which I think is perhaps why introverts tend to over-index in data teams.

But I guess, secondly, from my observations of introverts that I’ve worked with, they tend to be exceptional teammates. They’re active listeners, they’re very perceptive, and they pick up on the dynamics within the team, perhaps before others do. They tend to be empathetic to how others are feeling, and I think although they might not have a vast array of transactional relationships across the breadth of the business, as Michelle said, they’ve got really strong, deep relationships with those around them, and they work to maintain those deep relationships with the people that matter. Those are the two aspects for me.

Karen: I’m listening to you and I’m thinking: “Wow, I’m very cool!” Thank you, definitely a morale booster!

So, this is interesting because very often when, in an interview – say you’re interviewing someone who comes across as maybe shy, which might just be introversion, and people are thinking: “Oh, they’re not going to be great team members because they are not going to be team players, or they’re going to keep to themselves”, and what you just said just proved the opposite. So thank you for highlighting that, because this is very, very important.

How about you Michelle; as an introvert, what would you say are the benefits of being an introvert in data?

Michelle: I think the benefits of being an introvert in data are very similar to what Gemma said. It’s

about the great listening and taking that time to go away and really consider your approach to everything. Certainly, yes we’re in a very fast-paced company, but I always find the benefit of going away, really thinking about it, not just jumping to my first thought. Very often, in quite a few projects throughout the years that I’ve done, that has probably saved time, because actually I’ve really thought it through and come up with different approaches, different ideas that I wouldn’t necessarily have done if I’d not been in that situation; if we’d gone to an extrovert’s first idea, we might have lost money, or lost time on something. Actually going away and having that considered approach and thinking about all the angles that you could do has certainly benefitted a lot of the work that we do, rather than just jumping in, necessarily.

I think, for me, one of the other benefits is giving other people time. So as a leader, as an introvert, I will let my team shine. I’m not saying being an extrovert leader is a negative thing, but being an introvert leader, I’ve let them come up with the ideas, let them shine and present their own stuff, and let them grow. I think that’s a real benefit of being an introverted leader, that you give them time. Gemma’s done a great job with her team, and talked about listening, but I think an introverted leader as well has great listening, and building that relationship and giving them the space, working with them to let them shine. I’ve had some extroverted leaders who always want that limelight and will take the stuff that you’ve done and showcase it, so not necessarily giving you the praise, but as an introverted leader of course I’ll be more like: “No, you go and have that conversation, I don’t want to have it!”. So it’s helped people grow and develop as well, and probably built up their skills.

Karen: That’s a very interesting point, I never thought of it this way.

Something I really would like to discuss is – I’m conscious of time – so some tips that would help introverts really shine in their role and work to the best of their abilities and show their true potential. Something that – I think it was Gemma who said that earlier, and I cannot believe I did not jump at the occasion of saying something, but I’m doing it now!

So you mentioned one of your team members who was pretending not to be an introvert; how draining is that? I feel like nowadays there are all these talks around coming to work the way you are and being authentic, especially when it comes to leadership. What is your view on that?

Gemma: I think there’s an element of: know you, know how you feel in certain situations, and understand what overly exerts your energy, recognise what you can do to reenergise, and importantly, know your boundaries. I think it’s important to be open with those around you and what works well for you. I think ultimately, we’re all looking to come to work and do a good job and do the best for ourselves and get the best out of our team, so I would hate to think that anyone feels that they need to turn up at work and put a façade on, and they need to be this extroverted character to get ahead. I think there is elements, but it comes back to this trick we talked about around recruitment recognition. I think as organisations we can do a better job at critically evaluating people’s capability when it comes to opportunities, rather than just pushing people into positions because they’ve built a good personal brand, or they’ve put themselves out there, or they’ve got a good profile. It’s about valuing diversity, whether that’s being an introvert or an extrovert or whatever level it is, and I think that’s become increasingly commonplace and increasingly more comfortable to discuss that at work. I don’t necessarily think it was the case when me and Michelle started out in our careers, but Michelle and I have talked at length – it almost goes back to when you’re a child. I’ve got an introverted son, and you go places and people go: “Oh, is he shy?”, “Oh that’s a shame, he’s shy”, and it’s changing the rhetoric around that; that it’s fine to be who you are and that doesn’t necessarily have an impact on your capability.

Michelle: Yeah, I completely agree. My tips for an introvert for how to progress and stuff would be: be true to yourself, be honest, like Gemma said. The greatest thing I did was tell one of my leaders: “I need time.” And it just completely changed our relationship and changed my whole way of working.

Like Gemma said, the voice is changing – you said “the rise of the introvert”; people are becoming more aware of it, it’s not necessarily a negative thing anymore, so be honest, be open. It’s probably not in your comfort zone to do that but you’ll see the benefits for doing it. Really tell your manager what you need as well; and not just your leaders – people around you, your teammates, to get that understanding across as well.

But also, one of the biggest benefits I’ve had is building up that trusted network, building those relationships, to really work out what that ‘circle of influence’, we used to call it, is, and who you can go to to get what you need. I used to very often, if I didn’t want to do a big presentation, I’d go and talk to my network so they could disseminate the information out for me, because it was then trusted. So really work out what’s the best approach for you so you don’t have to do the big sales pitch if you don’t want to – find what works for you and how to still get that information out there.

Karen: Would you say that this is the best way to make sure your work is visible in the organisation?

Michelle: For me it’s been the best way, because I don’t want to do the big sales pitches. I do do them – so I just had to email the entire company about a piece of work that’s one of the initiatives that’s just gone live. It took me probably a day to write an email, which it shouldn’t do, but I agonised over it and reread it a million times, sent it to about 50 people to read before I even sent it out, just because it’s not me to go: “Everyone read my email!”, and it was to the entire company so that was really daunting, whereas probably an extrovert would have written it in five minutes and been fine with it. But again, like I say, I used my network to get feedback on it and understand the best approach for that.

Karen: I love this conversation; I had never put the writing an email taking forever and that you have to rewrite it and reread it – I never put that as a sign of introversion, and now I’m thinking: “This makes sense!” You cannot imagine how many times I’ve had my partner reading an email I had to write, and him telling me: “What are you doing? You don’t need to read the email, just send it!”, and I always think: “No! Can you please check it…”

Before we close this episode, could you share maybe any resource that you like to read or listen to that helps you in your career development and personal development?

Gemma: Mine’s probably short and sharp. I’ve got quite a big fangirl going on for Brené Brown, so any of her books: The Power of Vulnerability, Dare to Lead – she’s got a Dare to Lead podcast. For me, there’s a lot of things I’ve learnt from looking at her resources around showing up and being your true self.

Karen: What about you, Michelle?

Michelle: For me, we’ve had a great wellbeing programme at The Very Group, so earlier this year we had Dr Greg Wells who runs The Ripple Effect. He’s doing some great work with everybody at The Very Group on his programme. Lots of podcasts and blogs around the ripple effect, about how small changes, just the way you eat, sleep, move, or mindfulness, can have real impacts on you in the way that you are in each day and how it gives you the energy, and how it can change.

One of the also great things I’ve recently been listening to is a Ted Talk on the power of introversion by Susan Cain, and she talks very much about what we’ve talked about – about the bias of extroverts and how everyone’s been made to think that being an extrovert is the best thing and being an introvert is a negative thing. Even when we first chatted and you went to me: “You’re an introvert”, I was like: “How dare you call you an introvert! That’s a really negative thing to say!” It’s not a negative, but there’s that bias in the industry to say, actually if you label somebody an introvert that’s being negative against them. She talks very much about that bias and how we, not just in the workplace but, as Gemma eluded to, in the school, need to change the way of trying to make

everybody an extrovert; it’s not better or worse being one or the other, and it really reflected for me because I’ve got a daughter at school, similar to Gemma and her son, and I always go: “Speak up more! Talk more!” Because I know at school I didn’t talk, and I was probably left behind on some things – I probably preferred to just sit and read a book rather than engage in any social activities. But I’m now the one pushing her to be extroverted because I don’t want her to miss out, but actually it’s the school that needs to change, not her, to fit in with the agenda.

Karen: Agreed, and I am myself an introvert, and proud to be, although it took me a while. So, to all the introverts out there, just own it!

Michelle: Yes, definitely.

Karen: Thank you so much for joining me on the podcast today.

Gemma: Thank you for having us!

Michelle: You’re welcome, thank you for having us!

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