Great to hear from Charlotte May who is the Group Head of Research at Legal & General. Charlotte has had a varied career, holding agency and client-side roles across a number of different sectors. She has recently won the 2022 Aura Inspiring Leadership Award and hopes that her own story might inspire the next generation of researchers.
So, how did you get into the industry, and take us through how you got to this point?
As a student, I explored a career in Marketing and was fortunate to work for a year as a Student Brand Manager for The Guardian and then at a summer Internship at Boots in Nottingham. Whilst at Boots, I discovered Market Research; for me, it seemed the most interesting aspect of marketing! I loved how the agencies surfaced the ‘why’ behind consumer behaviour and it sparked my interest in a career in the industry.
I specifically focused my post-university career search on Market Research roles, which I know isn’t the norm! I gained a place on a graduate scheme at Millward Brown (now part of Kantar). It was great to be part of a large cohort of new researchers and we all benefited from the highly experienced researchers we worked alongside. Alongside foundational skills and an understanding of brands and comms, over the years I cultivated team and people management skills. It was also valuable to experience how a relatively large, corporate environment works.
I then moved to a very small agency; a real contrast. It gave me a deep appreciation of the challenges small businesses face and practical exposure to roles that you would never do in larger agencies, from dealing with billing and cash flow, acting as an HR partner, managing operations and even locking up the office each evening. I also observed how not to effectively manage and motivate people; years later, my experiences still inspire me to be the best people manager I can be!
My next step was pivotal; I decided to seek a client-side role. I had enjoyed my agency years but wanted something different and to leverage my strengths; in particular, thinking more laterally and using multiple sources to find the bigger picture. Agency projects were relatively narrow in scope and whilst part of a bigger picture for the client, this view was rarely part of the brief and frequently limited by project costs. A shift client-side opened up the possibility to become more immersed.
My first 2 client-side roles were in food service, covering everything from customer experience measurement and product development to market trend analysis and ad hoc research pieces. I also gained valuable B2B research skills, chefs being as critical an audience as end-customers. These roles enabled me to get closer to a variety of business functions and understand how insights shaped decision-making.
From food service I moved into financial services; rather a contrast but my agency years helped me feel comfortable switching; I was happy moving from Lego sessions to meetings about Butter! My role at Legal & General has evolved significantly over the past 8 years, with my remit expanding to cover more sectors and markets. My focus is now as a leader and manager versus a hands-on researcher, so I’ve remained continually challenged.
Exploring Norfolk last summer. I do love a good long walk in the countryside and my husband thought this monument quite apt!
Career paths are rarely without challenges. Can you share an honest moment from your career when things didn’t go quite according to plan, but the lessons remain with you to this day?
Respond, don’t react. Be curious (not just frustrated!) about why things aren’t as expected.
Several years ago, a very senior stakeholder stood up in front of their whole leadership team and wrote wider reports and dismissed the research, encouraging everyone to just go out and conduct DIY street interviews, as this would be enough to help them shape business decisions. Needless to say, this was a heart-sinking moment!
However, it’s a great example of why being curious can help you respond and not just react. In this instance, once the initial shock had passed (I’m not saying we didn’t react in private!), assessing what was behind the stakeholder’s view was invaluable. Our current approaches weren’t fit for all purposes; they were too expensive and time-consuming for early-stage idea validation.
This appreciation became my impetus to expand and reshape our offering. As a result, we onboarded new, agile approaches that were quick and low-cost but delivered reliable insight upon which to make business decisions. They proved a real hit and we saw a 360-degree reversal in that stakeholder’s perceptions of research. They were excited about the solutions and became advocates. We even became an integral part of subsequent leadership workshops. So certainly a valuable lesson in understanding the why behind a comment or opinion.
I’m a big fan of wine and wine tasting, both here in the UK and also in France… It’s all about getting a robust sample size!
What two things should junior researchers focus on as they progress in their careers?
Gain a fully rounded appreciation of research and analytics
Whilst you may well specialise in a particular area (qual or quant for example), an appreciation of other areas can help you identify when other approaches might present a better solution to the research question at hand.
I spent much of my early career as a quant researcher, but over the years, I’ve deepened my qual knowledge and can make more balanced recommendations as a result. Equally whilst I will never make waves as a data scientist (the thought of all those complex equations gives me shivers!), I am so grateful to the brilliant analytics experts who have helped me appreciate how their tools and models can surface critical insights.
Know your audience to really make an impact
You can’t underestimate the value of understanding your client and /or stakeholders; it’s the key to ensuring you engage people effectively (and avoid unexpected pitfalls). Putting yourself in their shoes and knowing what motivates them is invaluable. Considering their challenges and key questions, means you pitch your content appropriately to gain the best reception for your recommendations. This is especially important if your insights aren’t going to be easy to hear; context and framing are everything.
Knowing how much your audience needs/wants to know is essential. A 50-60 slide PowerPoint is not always welcome, a 1 pager is often more powerful. Time-poor, double-booked senior managers rarely have a schedule that allows for an hour-long plus debrief (and you’ll struggle to accommodate their diary alongside everyone else’s anyway!), so land the critical insights quickly.
I also advocate minimising surprises. I abandoned the ‘big reveal’ approach to storytelling long ago; it rarely helps engagement. Sharing headlines before a session to build buy-in or immediately outlining salient points, can help you manage the message more effectively. Anyone worried about results gets them swiftly; you can manage any challenges immediately and, hopefully, allow them to engage constructively with all the content, rather than them nervously waiting to see if things ‘look bad’ (in front of their boss) and not paying attention to anything before that point!
How do we ensure that students and those leaving school aspire to join our sector?
This is a tough question! Sadly, we’re a hidden profession. At school, I was unaware of much of the business world and its various roles, with school careers advisers seemingly limited to well-known professions like teachers, doctors, lawyers etc – essentially things you might see in TV dramas!
I guess it’s about how we create opportunities for students to find out more, be that through work experience, apprenticeships or grad schemes, as well as helping people make lateral moves later in their careers. Over the last 18 months, I’ve been mentoring a number of students on the Avado FastFutures scheme (FastFutures at FastLink (avadolearning.com)). I’ve really enjoyed supporting my mentees and helping them consider a broader horizon of possible career paths. Sadly, no one so far has been actively seeking a market research career but it’s been great to tell them about my own experiences and help them consider a wider range of options. It would be great to see the MRS a little more active in this space.
I’m also fond of a nice Beach – this was on the Welsh coast.
Do you have any advice for our sector?
I think as a sector we’re not especially visible; I still come across people who think my job involves standing on the street with a clipboard! It’s in part a reflection of the people who tend to go into research (we’re not as showy as our marketing counterparts!) but it can mean we miss out on the esteem other disciplines seem to gain both within businesses as well as externally. Marketing, advertising, customer experience and data analytics all seem a little more prominent. I’d love the same for research and this in turn would help with inspiring the next generation to join us.
And do you have anyone who has helped your career so far that you’d like to acknowledge and say thanks or give a shout-out to?
In the early years of my career, Dan White & Dave Chantrey at Millward Brown were influential. Hugely experienced directors that I observed creating brilliant data stories and managing clients sensitively, in particular reading audiences and handling tough questions with ease. They successfully co-lead a large team by complimenting each other’s strengths to deliver great leadership. I still draw on how they lead that diverse team and it was a great blueprint to observe early in my career.
Throughout my career, I have been immensely fortunate to have many brilliant line managers, who have all given me a safe, supportive space in which to try, fail, learn and develop. My current manager, Kirsty Button, has really embodied this. She has helped me build effective, more nuanced stakeholder relationships and facilitated access to pivotal leadership training and self-discovery. She also introduced me to a brilliant and instrumental book, The Leadership Pipeline by Ram Charan, Stephen Drotter & James Noel, which helped me understand my own career path and wider business structures.
Finally, I’ve had the privilege of working with and observing a number of strong, female leaders over the years. One stand-out example is Jenny Wilson, who was the marketing director at 3663 (my 1st client-side role). She struck a great balance of supporting and challenging those who worked for her. She was also brilliant at commanding a room and effectively steering an agenda, in a male-dominated, sales-led environment. It can’t be underestimated how valuable this is to see in action!