Of course, numbers can offer you a lot of information, but human connection remains the key.
15+ min read
The opinions expressed by employees are personal.
I didn't know it at the time, but I was about to enter my last “performance calibration session.” It was the end of 2018 and I was managing Instagram director , and these sessions had been a common part of my life, just like in many other companies. They are a time when senior managers analyze the performance of their team members, applying corporate standards at different job levels. Human resources specialists moderate these sessions twice a year, and sometimes every quarter. In concept, there is nothing strange about calibration sessions, but that is only at the concept level.
I had had senior marketing positions on YouTube, Spotify, Google and Instagram , so I had to enter many of these sessions. And the reality is this: a group of bosses with many opinions, and usually eager to talk, meets in an armored room before the eyes of others. The majority meet physically, others usually call or make videoconferencing, making it virtually impossible for everyone to participate at the same level. The HR representative says a few obligatory words, and then the verbal swords are drawn. During the following hours, we walk around the room, see screens and make calls to show why a team deserves a rating “above expectations” (It's a rockstar!), While another team deserves the “meets what was expected ”(“ It is good but has not gone to the next level ”) or worse, that a team deserves the dreaded“ meets almost everything expected ”(“ His teammates say it is difficult to work with her ”). During a particularly memorable calibration session I had at Google, a young person's qualification was in scrutiny because his boss said that this employee should “have more eggs.”
From time to time, HR intervenes to suggest that the group should lower a few people because the goal is to achieve a normal distribution of qualifications. We are not looking for a perfect curve (very few people have the lowest or highest qualifications), but this curve cannot have all employees with the highest qualifications either. Although this method is positioned as a fairly objective one to assess employee performance, I have discovered that calibration is an almost subjective experience, and one that usually has terrible consequences. A below average rating means fewer bonuses; Two in a row starts a performance improvement plan that usually ends in a layoff.
But I will be honest, for years, these problems never made a dent in my brain. I was a data devotee; I thought it was the best way to reach customers, and of course, I thought it was also the best way to manage my employees. The data was essential for my doctoral work and for the things to which I had dedicated my career. And even when I had been emotionally shaken (a few years ago, when I lost my father tragically) I reacted by immersing myself even more in the analytical world, dictated by data, free of emotions. That space made sense to me.
But during this performance calibration session, something inside me began to break. And I thought: by evaluating performance on a normal curve, we are treating people as information points, not as human beings. I had been connected to this session through a videoconference and suddenly I felt the need to leave. So I turned off my camera, and sat, thinking. I did not know how much time had passed when I turned on the camera again to meet again with my Instagram companions. I analyzed the looks of silent victory or resignation on the faces of my classmates, most of them sitting around a table in the boardroom in Menlo Park, California, side by side. He had entered a strange moment of silence, as if everyone was inclined to listen to the secrets barely whispered by the universe.
And there I knew that I could no longer. I could no longer with Instagram. I could no longer with the career I had been building for 20 years. I could no longer with the notion of converting everything into data, especially human beings, because doing so is personal and professionally harmful. It was time to do better.
At 20, like many university students, I was looking for some kind of “truth.” Mathematics and science were beyond my mental capacity, so I settled for cognitive psychology, focusing on language and reasoning. This was a fixed point about people's abilities, but backed by brain biology and a lot of statistical analysis. I fell in love with the vernacular of objectivity. People who participated in my experiments became subjects. I was told that to be published in the field, I had to be in constant search for statistically relevant results. I learned to do exams and analysis of variants and other mathematical things that allowed me to abstract from individuals to talk about populations. This was a version of the truth with which I could identify, and with which I was hooked.
After college, I entered a master's program in psychology. I found new ways to experiment with the subjects. By the time I was 26, I already had my master's degree and my doctorate. Then I entered the world of advertising where I was a kind of corporate unicorn, the guy with a doctorate in quantitative psychology who uses a data-based skill set to help sell mainstream products like Cheetos or Slim Jims. This was fascinating, but I wanted more. So after a few years in advertising agencies, I jumped into a position in marketing on YouTube, later on Spotify. With the well-known missions of organizing the world's information in another way, there seemed to be no better space for someone in love with the hunt for truth and objectivity.
I arrived on YouTube in 2011, and my time was perfect. He had been investing data for a long time as truth, and suddenly, data became the central currency of the corporate world. The subjects in which he had deepened as a doctoral candidate (A / B testing, artificial intelligence, rational decision making against emotional) became the common jargon of business. Everyone started talking about adopting data-based approaches to do everything, and I watched leaders from all industries start asking for more and more data to inform, and in many cases guide, the most critical decisions of their businesses.
Particularly, the marketing field is the one that has adopted the quantitative mentality. Partly because we are correcting the advertising era of “Don Draper”, in which the great transformative ideas materialized at the bottom of a martini glass. There is some logic behind this: marketing used to depend on the wishes of a few, but now we have the technical capacity to understand the interests of the majority. And this, on the other hand, has allowed us to record and calibrate exactly the way in which people will react to different messages, a perfectly reasonable interest for any business. Then, this ability was democratized: Facebook and Google, along with other technology platforms, have facilitated access to business so that people can speak directly to a scientifically accurate point.
These massive digital advertising platforms have quickly changed what it means to be a successful publicist. It is no longer about establishing real and human connections with people as consumers, assuming that that was the goal once. Today, the holy grail of advertising can be described as the encounter between personalization and attribution. This is the mechanical process of delivering highly relevant and valuable communication to customers (customized to some extent), and then understanding, in great detail, the impact and result of that effort while obtaining new ideas (attribution). Therefore, it seems that simply thinking about buying pants can result in Chinese following you on the Internet until you give up at the click. The data generates statistically relevant results.
I understand this. I built new tools and strategies to optimize it, and saw the results. And then: my own data set changed.
When I was coming home after a work trip, just before the plane took off, I received a call to let me know that my father was in the hospital. They had found him that morning in the backyard of his house with two shots in the head, and there was no chance of his recovery. My father. Murdered? So it seemed, although there were no witnesses or enough evidence to know. By the time I landed, I was already dead, and I had no idea how to process the harmful human cocktail of denial, anger, sadness, fear and pain.
I gave myself the task of handling these emotions like an unbreakable robot. I ate the minutiae of the procedure as a delegate to feel anything on a human level. I was not very aware of the change, but I began to see the world objectively divided into two parts. There was the task of conquering the sudden loss and there was the task of showing the world that nothing, not even a tragedy of this magnitude, could stop me. The idea of dedicating myself entirely to work came to me so naturally that I didn't even have time to think about it.
This did not make me an especially nice companion. They ran me from Spotify. Then I went to Google, and then to Instagram … a believer in data as a corporate strategy but also, personally, as a method of separating my work from my humanity. I was not ready to merge both.
But then I realized that this is exactly what we have to do if we want to succeed in business (and for that matter, in life itself). We will never relate well to people if we only focus on the results. We are never going to build really big brands if we don't connect with people as individuals. So to start, I quit Instagram.
Image Credit: Doug Chayka
After corporate life, I did what everyone does when they have a professional crisis: I worried. Then I relaxed and traveled a little, discovered the value of sleep, and enjoyed silent mornings that didn't start with hundreds of emails in the inbox. I learned that there are more things in this world than the narrow band I had been working on. I started talking to other people who also felt stuck or were looking for a change. I confronted the issues I had been putting off; I lived my father's duel and began, little by little, to learn to talk to others. And then I tried to find my new place in this world, which meant starting with new ideas.
As an oversimplification, I have begun to think of business activities – encompassing departments, companies, even entire industries – as if they were two-dimensional axes. On the one hand there are the operational, tactical or transactional aspects of companies and the way they do things. In marketing, these are activities such as creating an advertising piece, managing a story through public relations, creating experiences for the client, or deciding how and when to have promotions. These and other tactical activities can be easily measured to know if what we are doing works or not.
On the other axis are the foundational elements of how a business operates. For all companies, this has to do with investing time creating or reviewing the authentic mission and vision of the company, the core values it holds and the way in which the business is positioned for greatness in the world, beyond basic. This work is based on telling human stories that are emotionally empathetic, and not just rationally, and because of this, this type of foundational work is much harder to measure. And this makes it more complicated to consider.
All the points in these transactional-foundational axes contribute to the success of any organization, but the corporate obsession with Big Data has made it very easy to ignore the foundational elements of the entire business. After all, it is much easier to focus on measuring KPIs and creating success stories by relying on metrics that are sometimes arbitrary.
For a long time, I didn't see any problem to this. Who needs to resonate emotionally when you have metrics? But once I left corporate life and began to observe business as a regular consumer, with feelings, without a job and in a grieving process, I began to appreciate the lack of connection.
When businesses ignore the foundational elements of relationships, it can result in failures of epic proportions. Only in recent years, the world of marketing has offered us a constant flow of alerts. In 2017, Pepsi launched an expensive announcement that featured Kendall Jenner and had nothing to do with the company's values or mission; That same year, Audi released an announcement in the Super Bowl talking about empowering young women while its board of directors was composed only of men; and recently Gillette produced a commercial that tried to address the toxicity of masculinity without worrying for a second about how he was going to make his primary consumer feel: men.
All these stories came out in the news and were discussed as false steps, but I know what they really are. These are cases in which it was decided to blindly pay attention to the data (“52 percent of people say that a brand must believe in something bigger than its products or services”), without recognizing that these people are human and that those humans They have a great stupidity detector. This is what happens when companies run without clearly defining or aligning their operating system, which includes fundamental elements such as the main reason why the company exists (beyond making money), why it does what it does, and how it It will show itself to the world.
But this is exactly the direction we have to go if we want to succeed in business, and more importantly, succeed as human beings.
Today, I am a consultant. I know, I know: it's a cliché and it's what everyone expected, the man who left corporate life and now serves his former masters in another way. But I find satisfaction in the fact that I can now enter places where the data takes me and say, STOP.
In corporate life, we are tempted to separate human emotion from business practice, just as I separated information from humanity. But I have realized that the line between both is completely arbitrary. Making a clear distinction puts us at a great disadvantage as companies and as people. I hope I'm not the only one who thinks this, and most likely it isn't. In the summer of 2019, it was encouraging to see executives of the Business Roundtable affirm, for the first time, that companies need to invest in the welfare of customers and employees, instead of focusing solely on shareholder value. We'll see how committed they really are to do it. But if nothing else is reached, this is a great way to start the conversation.
The reality is that advertisers have long understood the need to build and nurture meaningful emotional connections between companies and customers. The quality of these relationships helps define the most iconic brands in the world. But as technology, data and metrics have come to the forefront of corporate discourse, the context in which these emotional relationships are established has changed. The net result of the connected world is that people are producing more signals about who they are, what they talk about and the things they like. So temptation, one that I understood too well, is to move from individuals and look for human patterns in the tangle of data. And of course there is value in this, I do not say that advertising is useless, or that personalized marketing does not work. What I am saying is that we cannot confuse those tools with what it really means to build relationships with humans.
So how do companies do the most important work? First, they must recognize that there are living and feeling human beings at the beginning and at the end of each transaction , and that a change of thinking should be employed to build real emotional connections with their clients. For example, I have begun to think about how companies can build an “arc of business relationships” to help simplify their marketing goals.
Every time a person interacts with a brand, they experience milestones or feelings. It is exactly the same as what happens when they interact with a person for the first time. At first, a consumer will only know that the brand “exists”, they see it, they may try it and form an early opinion about it, but that will be all, just like when you meet a person at a party. Over time, the relationship can develop. Consumers will assign some deeper meaning to some brands, or think of them in a certain way, or give them new meaning. Now the arc of the business relationship is developing. Things get more interesting as they move up the arch, where customers can incorporate a business or product into their lives, or think of the brand as something that shapes or defines them. Very few companies (or people!) Can take the relationship beyond that, to a point where they are indispensable and not forgotten, no matter what. But it is possible.
The most successful companies are those that find ways to get people above the arch, those that simply exist to be something that others care about, and something that they will defend. This requires thinking about what moves us as humans, not just what motivates us as a group.
Businesses must also establish what I call the brand's “operating system.” In technology, operating systems support the basic functions that allow the existence of more complex tasks. Similarly, for companies, an operating system is what offers a clarity of purpose to inspire and catalyze the potential, power and humanity of any business. At the heart of a company's operating system is the core essence of the brand, a central idea. It's what the company is about, and it's something internal, not a slogan or a campaign.
For example, in Nike there is the central belief that “if you have a body, you are an athlete.” This is the heart of what Nike is, serving as a guide for the way it operates and communicates as a company. With this established, Nike can build a holistic operating system that includes details about the reason why it exists, what it is trying to achieve, the difference in value it offers to its customers, the fundamental beliefs offered by decision-making standards and the collection of characteristics that represent the style in which it communicates. These are precisely the ingredients that make us unique as individuals, and that are essential for building businesses that mean more to people than the things they do or sell.
Belief is at the heart of any company's operating system. But these beliefs cannot be established without good leadership. So, this is where a company looks inward, where it takes its philosophy for customers and applies it to its own employees. The data gave us these “performance calibration sessions.” But a focus on humanity is what can make us get somewhere.
Many employees, at all levels, care about what they do beyond what their position dictates. They may not do everything right, but they double their strengths, reaping successes from the things they are good at. Performance calibrations, as I have experienced them, are rarely about identifying or evaluating strengths. They seem designed to eliminate employees who defy expectations or who do not check all the mandatory boxes, however arbitrary they may be. There has to be a better way to make the most of the human workforce.
So consider the advice they gave me years ago. Originally intended to apply to the qualities of leadership, I think it applies best to the way in which we can cultivate human talent at work and in daily life, beyond any traditional evaluation method: large or small, have a vision . People need to understand why you get out of bed every morning. Then, discover and describe the passion in that vision. If you don't really care what you're doing, nobody else will care. Without persuasion (the ability to attract others), vision and passion fall on deaf ears. This means fighting the tendency, derived from the data, to commit to being right and close defensively.
Humility means being curious about others, being open to what they offer and realizing that we all have much to learn about what motivates us. It took me a while to get there, but now I think this can make a big difference in allowing us to treat ourselves properly and not as information points, but as human beings.