Marketing Research and Insight Excellence Awards finalist Shelley Ahrens, chief customer officer and senior vice president, The DRG

Editor's note: Shelley Ahrens is a finalist of the 2022 Fearless Leader Award which is a category in the Marketing Research and Insight Excellence Awards. To find out more about the awards click here.

What makes a good leader?

Job one for me is to put people in the best position to help them succeed. It’s never about me. I dedicate a significant amount of time to developing my teams and I do this in an encouraging, empathetic, empowering and authentic way. I always make sure to listen to employees to ensure they feel heard. Then I try to infuse their perspective into the path forward.   

I resist any temptation to “just do it” instead of “teach it.” In fact, I’ve had many employees tell me that in a moment of challenge, they were frustrated with my questioning and never giving them the immediate answer. But then in the next breath, they would tell me that they realized – after the fact – that my approach helped them grow in meaningful ways. The path of least resistance would have been easier in the short term but that would not have served them well in their development and training. And that ultimately would not serve the company or our clients well in the long term.   

Naturally, a good leader is one who sets the example for what they want to see. I work hard. I’m committed. I don’t give up and always work to solve problems. As I continued to grow in various leadership positions, I have been able to learn how to be a better leader. It’s not something you achieve and then sit back and think, “I’ve got this leadership thing all figured out.” It’s a daily pursuit, full of ups and downs, successes and learnings, but always knowing tomorrow may bring the most significant leadership opportunity yet.   

Good leaders also know that they don’t have to invent the wheel – look to and learn from the demonstrated leadership skills of others. I’ve expanded my network to surround myself with a diverse group of talented leaders. I enjoy discovering more about their approaches and what works well for them so that I can tailor and adjust my approach. I’m constantly trying something different to see what works well and what will be the best fit for those around me.   

I tell my employees that I do not want to stand in the way or become a roadblock to success and I encourage them to be honest with me if they see it happening. Leadership is a two-way street. I’m learning from my team just as much as they are learning from me. A good leader has to seek out that kind of dialogue and feedback and react accordingly.    

I would be remiss in addressing the topic of leadership, if I didn’t acknowledge the unique time we have all lived and led through. It has been a heavy two and a half years for people professionally and personally. In such weighty times in our world, there are so many people who need encouragement to spread their wings or to simply get through the day. They need that boost of confidence. They need to know you are in their corner. The simple leadership act of providing continued, sincere and intentional encouragement has been like oxygen for employees.    

How do you see research and insights changing in the next five years?   

Research is becoming more of a commodity product, so it’s going to be more important than ever in the coming years to continue demonstrating the value of research, especially at the higher levels of the organization. I believe that one of the best ways to meet this ongoing challenge is through storytelling. This means taking the research results to the next level in terms of synthesizing them with other research – even non-primary research and business intelligence – to tell a more holistic story that helps businesses with strategic improvement. I feel that this will need to become our default position as researchers when it comes to how we deliver results.    

Another trend that I see continuing to dominate the landscape for research suppliers is the need to view our role more as client-side marketers. That means thinking more broadly – beyond just one research project – to view the work through the lens of the entire ecosystem of information available to an organization.  Over the last few years, our industry has been cultivating data analysts – people who are adept at understanding data and working with it in the various enterprise feedback management systems that have become well used in our industry. That has accomplished the goal of providing quick access to data. But that alone won’t be enough to meet the needs of the future. Organizations still need to understand what the data means by delineating between an observation and an insight. This approach will be the key to moving forward to tell that engaging, action-oriented story that drives business change to improve a client’s customer experience, brand experience and/or employee experience. With that in hand, collaborating and consulting with the end users to implement strategies will ensure the value of the information being collected. Researchers of the future have to maintain a mind-set of, “What’s in it for the client?” This is how research will continue to have a seat at the table when developing and enhancing products, services and experiences. 

What advice do you have for someone entering the industry?  

One of my company’s core values is “every day is a chance to grow smarter.” That’s great advice for anyone in this industry, regardless of experience level, but it’s particularly valuable for those who are just starting out. We encourage employees to always be curious and learn from every experience. Having an open mind and not taking anything at face value is a critical skill in being able to develop and deliver research insights.   

I’d also tell someone entering the industry to be comfortable with pivoting.  As speed and technology continue to advance the playbook we use, it’s important not to get too comfortable with the status quo. Change is becoming more constant in every aspect of our lives, including within our profession. I only see that trend becoming more prevalent and pronounced. That’s why the phrase “be comfortable with being uncomfortable” really has resonated with me over the last few years. I would encourage those who are new to marketing research to try to embrace that.    

Lastly, with so much data and information at our fingertips, it can be easy to get stuck in analysis paralysis – unable to see the data forest through the trees. I would encourage more junior colleagues to take a moment to step back from the day-to-day routine to see the big picture. How does the task I’m doing fit into the larger puzzle? How does that one data point figure into the 360-degree view? What is the business ultimately trying to solve for? 

With that said, I am excited for the future of the industry and to see the next generation of insights leaders emerge.