Delighted to have had a chance to catch up with the CEO of the Insights Association, Melanie Courtright, who has served the industry for nearly 30 years and considers her professional community to be her extended family. Melanie took up the role of CEO of the IA in January 2020, and has been helping lead our industry through the challenges of Covid-19, and gearing us up to burst out through on the other side!
I first met Melanie at IA’s CEO Conference a few years ago, and only because Dan Foreman and Steve Schlesinger engineered for me to be hauled up to the front of the conference and thrown on the infamous ‘Hot Seat’ to be interrogated by none other than expert interrogator, Melanie Courtright, about all things Opinium. Since then we have kept in touch and now collaborate on the annual Opinium US research and insights workplace mental wellbeing audit, of which she is a huge advocate.
Good morning Melanie, great to catch up again, as always! Let’s dive right in shall we? So, how did you get into the industry, and take us through how you got to this point?
After college, where I studied languages and music, I served in the US Army. Out of the Army, I worked for Texas Instruments on a DoD team, where I worked until I had my third child and decided to take some time off. While staying at home, I worked in the evenings and weekends as a translator for a local research firm, and when I was ready to go back to work, they offered me a full-time role. I spent two years(!) cleaning and coding verbatim comments before being allowed to move on to other reporting and project management opportunities. Since then, I’ve held nearly every role in almost every function in research. But I found that what I LOVE the most is fixing things that are broken. In research, that can mean fixing operational issues, or finding and addressing bias in design, sampling, analysis, and interpretation. That journey led me to research on research, conferences, speaking, and leading. As a “fixer” I found lots of opportunities with my employers and clients to solve problems, and talk about those lessons with the industry. Having created that industry voice, when the opportunity to lead the Insights Association came around, it felt like the exact right next step.
And if you had to distil everything you’ve achieved right down, what would you say are three secrets to your success so far?
I am a Brand, I am a Product, and I am a Human!
I am a brand, and every choice I make professionally, and even personally now as at relates to social media, builds that brand. Every action, reaction, and outcome adds to my brand story. I should be intentional about what brand I am creating.
I am a product, and I need to make sure my product brings value to my industry and employer. My product needs to stay relevant and marketable. As a product, I need to watch my product life cycle and keep reinventing and evolving myself.
I am a human. I have hopes and fears. Good days and bad days. And I work with other humans. Who need to be respected and understood and supported. I must never forget that I am a human working with other humans to understand human beings. We are people first.
So, come on, if you’re allowed to say, what’s the most interesting, crazy, fun project/initiative you’ve ever worked on?
I worked with a company that made foam cups, and the research process was outrageous. The goal of the research was to show that people prefer foam over paper cups. Note – the goal was NOT to find out WHAT people prefer, rather to prove that they DO prefer foam. That should have been my first warning sign. We started with focus groups, and argued about everything from the discussion questions to the color of the straws that would be in the cups on the table. At one point the client and I were driving in my car to fast food restaurants all over town looking for the strongest green straws we could possibly find – they had to be strong and they HAD to be green?! When we moved to the quantitative portion of the project, the research showed that while women did prefer foam overall, men actually preferred plastic cups because they were less likely to crack or puncture. We had to re-field the research multiple times, revisit the analysis, and rewrite the questionnaire. But every time the client didn’t get the outcome they wanted, we started arguing all over again. It was like a bad marriage! That ultimately ended in divorce. And yet, I learned more from that one very long project than any other. I learned about setting objectives, boundaries, and expectations. I learned my own values and limits. And I learned how to talk through problems with a client with both transparency and respect.
Not being in the office and around colleagues, it is incredibly challenging, for younger researchers to stand out. What two bits of advice do you have for a junior researcher, working from home in lockdown, on how they can best stand out, thrive and impress their teams?
Find your Passion, and then Find your Voice.
Many people, when trying to stand out and contribute, take the approach of commenting on everything, and picking every battle. Instead, pick an area where you want to develop an expertise. Something you love and want to talk about and learn for your entire career. Next, hone that expertise through education, reading, experience, and with a mentor. Then, whenever that subject comes up in meetings or conversations, Find your Voice and dive right in. Make listening to you easy by speaking with accuracy, respect, and passion. Over time, they will listen more and more, and you will become the person they turn to when they need advice on your area of expertise.
And thinking more long term now, what two things should junior researchers focus on as they progress in their careers?
Stay current, and stay objective.
Staying current on technology and methods, and people in general, is crucial to being a successful researcher. Our job is to be the voice of the population in the board rooms as decisions are made. To do that, we have to connect with people, and do so in ways that are comfortable for them. That requires the use of technology. Our profession is also constantly improving our technology.
So all of us should not only be good research practitioners, but good technologists as well.
Staying objective will be one of the hardest things you do as a researcher, but is the most important goal for us professionally. Avoid the tendency to let personal values or preferences shape your hypotheses or interpretations. As a profession, we are also human beings that bring our own selves to work each day. But as researchers, we must separate ourselves from the population we are studying and not let our own minds betray the people we study.
As CEO of the Insights Association, how would you say young researchers can make the most of their membership?
Building a network is one of the easiest, most important things you can do for your career. But it does take a commitment of time, discipline, and a tiny bit of bravery.
Show up to every event you can and say at least one interesting thing to at least one person, whether its virtual or in-person. Build a network of people you actually know, not just names and check boxes. Engage with the content, with the people, and with the activities. Don’t short change yourself by missing the opportunities to learn and grow.
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?
There is a village of people I could thank. I have to start by thanking my husband, who never put me in a box, and never clipped my wings. He always supported me and allowed our personal world and roles to evolve as my career did. And then my first two mentors, Pam Borders and Kathy McGregor. Pam mentored me on my presence, and actually bought me my first business suit! And Kathy was my research mentor. From there, it was every person who came beside me to encourage, persuade, push, support, and take a chance on me. When I succeeded, when I failed, when I doubted, and when I felt like I couldn’t go on, there was always someone there to cheer me on. You all know who you are – My tribe and my professional family!