How did you get there? Stephen Lavery

Great to hear from Stephen Lavery who is Senior Impact and Insights Manager at The Earthshot Prize, a global prize for the environment designed to incentivise change and help to repair our planet over the next ten years. Before this Stephen worked in a variety of charity and FMCG insight roles and is vice-chair of the Institute of Fundraising Insights Group. Stephen is also passionate about health & fitness and has an online personal training business called Step1 Fitness”.

So, how did you get into the industry, and take us through how you got to this point?

Like others in the industry, it wasn’t particularly planned. While searching for jobs after university I saw a role at Kantar Worldpanel that caught my eye. Having a Physics background made me fairly good at dealing with numbers and analysis, but I was, and still am, interested in the psychology of how people make decisions and a job in research seemed like a perfect mix of both of those things. I’m not sure if I was seeing it as a long-term career at the time but I went for the interview, got the job and moved to London.

Kantar was a fantastic place to learn about the industry. I learned commercial skills, how to work with clients, how to deliver presentations, and how to take data and use it to tell stories.  At Worldpanel we had an amazing dataset and a lot of our focus was on how to bring the data to life – storytelling, data visualisation, presentation delivery – all skills I still use almost daily. I remember being terrified about delivering presentations to start with but by the end of the first 6 months I had done so many that it became almost second nature.

After 6 years at Kantar, I went client-side to a food company called Winterbotham Darby and loved the freedom of having different kinds of insights, tools and methodologies available to me. I still got to use Kantar data but it became one tool in a toolbox of many. Now I was able to pull in different types of insights and combine them to tell better, more impactful stories. I immediately saw the value of being able to combine the quant with the qual and how numbers and data would resonate with some people while personal stories and anecdotes would resonate with others. I also got to see how insights landed with the end users, in our case mostly retail buyers and NPD teams. At agency side it’s difficult to get that feedback and it can feel like your work goes into a black hole, but when you’re there presenting to a buyer who is ultimately the decision maker you get to see in real time what gets them excited, and what they’re not interested in.

After a bit of soul-searching, I decided to move away from FMCG and get into the not-for-profit sector. I started looking at charity insight roles and that led to managing a research team at Macmillan Cancer Support which was a steep learning curve in the first year. Macmillan were asking bigger, more strategic questions than I ever got while working with the retailers and were hungry for insight. I had a fantastic team, a good budget and a complex web of stakeholders to deal with and while I often felt out of my depth at the beginning, I thrived in that environment thanks to a supportive culture of passionate people and being able to work with talented & inspiring research agencies. We formed a really high-performing research team there and went on to win a number of awards over the years. The highlight of these was the MRS award for Social Impact and the Liz Nelson Grand Prix for Social Impact, for research we did looking at how people with cancer had been impacted by Covid. As great as the Macmillan job was and as much as I loved my 5+ years there I got offered a dream job at The Earthshot Prize earlier this year which was too good to turn down. For a while I have been interested in the challenges around climate change, biodiversity loss and other related environmental issues and wanted to do more in this area. The Earthshot Prize job has been the perfect opportunity to combine my research and insight skills with a topic I feel passionate about, and I’ve loved my first few months there.

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?

One that immediately springs to mind is when I first joined Macmillan Cancer Support. We had a new brand leadership team who were asking how we should best position Macmillan to appeal to our multiple external audiences and set ourselves apart from other charities in the same area. Although I didn’t fully realise it at the time the brief was very woolly and there wasn’t really a clear reason to change things. There were also lots of stakeholders interested in the project including most of the brand team, a few of the comms team and 4-5 people from an external creative agency. There was a real sense of pressure to do a good job, partly because of the number of people on the project who were new to Macmillan and because the insight team hadn’t worked with brand on many strategic projects up to that point.

With all of this going on I didn’t manage the project well and looking back I realise I didn’t have enough stakeholder and basic project management experience. A member of my team was running the project day to day and was struggling to navigate the demanding group of internal and external stakeholders. There was also a real challenge with decision making by committee, our key internal contact was junior and escalated every decision up the chain, which then required a meeting with all the stakeholders to sign off each decision. This slowed things down and meant the project took longer than planned. I still have a vivid memory of the project kick-off meeting with about 20 people crammed into a tiny room and me doing a terrible job of facilitating the session.

There are three specific learnings I took from this.

Firstly, get the business question right – If the brief feels vague or there are no clear decisions to be made then push back and challenge it, even when it comes from someone senior. This feels scary at first but often the person who has written the brief just hasn’t thought it through well enough and will appreciate the critical thinking from your side once the project kicks off. If I can’t clearly articulate what the big question is, why the stakeholder is asking it, and what they plan to do with the results then it’s not yet ready to start yet.

Second have a clear project plan and get it signed off – It sounds boring, but a good project timeline and RACI can make or break a project. I’m convinced we could have avoided many of the issues on the project if we’d spent more time up front mapping out the key milestones, accountabilities and got it signed off by the key senior stakeholders. I’ve done it on all the complex projects since then and not only is it a useful tool to get everyone on the same page, and it helps to hold stakeholders accountable when they veer off the pre-agreed plan

Thirdly, if it needs commissioned out then get a strong agency partner – We commissioned Britain Thinks to lead the project and they put together an extremely thorough and robust research plan. They did such a professional job with the recruitment & fieldwork, run, herded together all the many stakeholders and we ended up landing the project well mainly because of the skills of their team led by Ben Shimshon and Vic Harkness (now at Basis Social). They plastered over a lot of the cracks that I couldn’t and ultimately saved the project, for which I will be forever grateful.

What two things should junior researchers focus on as they progress in their careers?

I can do even better than that I can give you a top 5

  1. Get to know yourself. Understand what motivates you, your strengths & weaknesses, what your values are, and the environments you do your best work in. This is difficult but important because it doesn’t matter how quickly you climb the ladder if you’re not on the right ladder to begin with. Are you more suited to quant or qual, do you like big picture or detail, is there a specific sector you’re drawn to, do you need people around you to bounce ideas off or do you prefer quiet time for thinking, analytical or creative work? Whatever it is will be unique to you but take time to really think it through and write down your answers. It’s a cliché but you’ll spend about one third of your total waking hours on your job, so what you do could be one of the most important decisions you’ll make. A very valuable exercise is to sit down with a pen, paper, a list of good questions and no distraction. I can recommend a few good resources to get you started on this; ‘Finding your Element’ by Ken Robinson is fantastic, as is ‘How Will You Measure Your Life’ by Clayton Christensen, and I’ve seen what looks like a very good practical write up on choosing a career on Waitbutwhy. You can also do quick online personality tests such as PrinciplesYou or Myers Briggs to help you build a better picture of yourself.
  2. This might not be a perfect analogy but try to think of your career more as a long marathon and less like a sprint, then pace yourself accordingly. I’ve seen many promising, energetic people who take on too much at once and within a few years they get burned out or become completely disengaged. This seems to be even more of a challenge agency side where you have demanding clients and it can be difficult saying no. When you know you’ve got to run a marathon being slower but consistent is fine, and sometimes you might need to stop and catch your breath from time to time before continuing. There is more awareness of mental health issues now than when I started which is fantastic but there is still work to be done by many organisations.
  3. Prioritise ruthlessly, pay attention to what you say yes to and what you say no to. The trap many people fall into is to allocate their time to whatever or whoever screams loudest and while de-prioritising the more important but less urgent things. That’s harder to escape when you’re starting out, but you can develop the habit by prioritising your weekly and monthly task lists and delegating upwards from time to time. As you progress through your career this skill becomes more important as the list of things you could be working on gets longer. I got introduced to the Eisenhower matrix early in my working life and it’s still a useful tool for me. There’s a lot to be said for getting your calendar and emails organised, planning out your week, and being clear on whether you’re working on the urgent tasks or important tasks. As Eisenhower said, ‘I have two kinds of problems, the urgent and the important. The urgent are not important, and the important are never urgent’
  4. Actively learn as much as you can from as many sources as you can. I like to read non-fiction, mostly on topics unrelated to my day job and I’ve been surprised how often this helps with daily decision making and working well with others. The world of research & insight doesn’t operate in a bubble, it overlaps with marketing, psychology, economics, maths, science – if you gather a basic understanding of these wider topics, you have an advantage. Charlie Munger calls this having a ‘latticework of mental models’. Another way to learn is from all the projects that go wrong and the mistakes you make along the way. We each have weaknesses and we all make mistakes but usually we are happy to ignore them and move on. Here’s something to try instead; Every time you feel psychological pain it’s a sign that something hasn’t gone as well as it could have, and you may even have partly caused it through your own blind spots. Pay special attention to those moments and reflect on them. Ask yourself what went wrong, what was the root cause, what did you do that made it worse, and most importantly what would you do differently next time.  Ray Dalio summarises this as: ‘Pain + Reflection = Progress’
  5. Follow your interests. I’ve never found it very helpful to have a long-term career plan. As my skills have developed and interests have changed it has opened new opportunities that I wouldn’t have thought about before. Many of my career choices have been based purely on what I thought I would be an interesting thing to work on, which sounds obvious but in some cases that has meant effectively taking a pay cut as I moved to a new job or working on something that was engaging but not very high profile. The way I think about it is that every job and every project will have good days and bad days, if you work on something you’re genuinely interested in you’ll feel really engaged on the good days and the bad days become much easier. Conversely if you work on things you aren’t interested in the bad days will be terrible, and even the good days will only feel average regardless of how much money it will make you at the end of the year. This is linked to points 1 and 4.

How do we ensure that students and those leaving school aspire to join our sector?

I think we need to show young people how interesting and diverse a role in insight can be. There is a whole spectrum of insight jobs out there with something for everyone, and the skills you learn are so transferable that you never know where it will take you. A few years ago, if you’d told me I would be working for the most prestigious environmental prize in the world I would have thought you were crazy. I also don’t know of many jobs like an insight role where you get to interact with all the different parts of an organisation in different sectors and get to help them with their big, strategic questions.

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 are loads I could mention here, as there have been many moments of kindness and support along the way. At Kantar I learned a lot about decision making and communication from David Buckley, and as a senior leader in the organisation he was always very generous with his time. Sally Dudleston supported and pushed me from day 1 of my career and is still one of the best people I’ve ever seen at building strong client relationships. Simon Day at Winterbotham Darby was a joy to work with and taught me a lot about marketing, and how to bring a sense of fun to my work where my natural inclination is to be more serious. From Macmillan I am grateful to Clara Avery for taking the chance on employing me, for her focus on team wellbeing and generally for her strong leadership. I’ve learned as much or maybe even more from people that have worked alongside me and in my teams. I have lots of blind spots – I am introverted, I struggle with too much detail and tend to think about tasks more than people. When I have others around me who aren’t like me and who are strong where I am weak then everything works better. Rachael O’Leary, Clara Miglio and Rachel Moriarty come to mind as colleagues who were always there with energy and good ideas, and able to help compensate for the areas where I was weaker.