Three Tough Conversations When Managing Market Researchers

Three Tough Conversations When Managing Market Researchers

Managing market researchers is a very rewarding experience.  However, it can also require tough conversations periodically.  Many of the young managers entering the insights profession in recent years are smart and often they are used to finishing first or near the top of the class.  When they enter the business world, they often find out quickly that the talent level around them is also smart and extremely driven to be successful.

Another realization they have is that the business world is centered on financial metrics and delivering profit to shareholders.  In order for companies to deliver their commitment to shareholders, they have to be financially successful.  In order for companies to be financially successful, their employees need to do their jobs in a very efficient and effective way.

As my first boss told me several years ago, “We are here to make money for the company, and the sooner you understand that the better off you will be in your career.”  I admire him for being the kind of manager who was unafraid of having tough conversations with his direct reports.  I employ that same approach when managing market researchers.  If you are in a role where you are managing market researchers, here are three tough conversations I encourage you to have:

Tough Conversation #1,  Managing Market Researchers Who Need to Stretch Themselves:

“Growth and comfort cannot co-exist.” Managing market researchers is a responsibility that I take very seriously.  When opportunities come up to improve myself, I look for ways to grow as a leader.  A few years ago at the Berkshire Hathaway shareholders meeting, I took the opportunity to spend 10 minutes with Ginni Rometty, CEO of IBM.  IBM had a Watson Jeopardy booth set up for the purpose of educating the people attending the Berkshire shareholder meeting about Watson and I was standing there looking at the booth. Ginny walked by and I struck-up a conversation with her.

One of the questions that I asked her was what is the key to managing other people successfully?  She told me a story that really resonated with me to this day.  She began by saying, “Growth and comfort cannot co-exist.”  She explained how in order for employees to grow, it is necessary to push them out of their comfort zone.  One of her strong beliefs is if you are comfortable, you are likely not growing as an employee.

“Growth and comfort cannot co-exist” is one of the simplest yet most powerful statements I have ever heard a business leader make.  When you are managing market researchers, this guidance from Ginny could help you determine if your market researchers are growing as managers and leaders.  My counsel would be to push your direct reports to look for ways to take risks in their careers.  Remind them that building brain power often means putting yourself in job assignments completely outside your circle of competence and comfort zone.  This is necessarily uncomfortable.  You may get push-back.  The most important thing is to push them further than they knew possible.

Tough Conversation #2, Managing Market Researchers Who May Be Disappointed With Their Year-End Review:

“You had a good year but other market researchers had a better year” – Many companies used forced ranking systems to determine salary and bonus adjustments.  Conceptually, this is a very difficult conversation to have with market researchers because they struggle to understand how they can have a good performance year, but finish in the bottom 1/3 of their peer set.

We all tend to focus on what we are working on individually and how we are performing against our commitments.  In doing so, we often forget that other people are also motivated to succeed and are working very hard on their projects as well.  Since we don’t have complete visibility to all of the projects others are working on, it can feel like we are blindsided when told, “You had a good year but other market researchers had a better year.”  I have personally had this message delivered to me and have also had to deliver this message when managing market researchers.  I can empathize with the fact that it is a strange feeling to not land were you thought you would land during evaluations.

As a manager, you can’t back down and you can’t betray the confidentiality of your other reports performance.  That said, don’t apologize and don’t be defensive.  Focus on your direct reports’ strengths.  Use conceptual examples from high performers to emphasize the behaviors your direct report needs to exhibit.  Lastly, offer a proactive plan for next year.  Identify two to three projects as “Grand Slams,” and really set your direct report apart from competition.  Compare that future vision to current performance and re-direct that negative energy they feel about their surprise rating toward delivering a great year next year.

Tough Conversation #3,  Managing Market Researchers Who Are About to Get Their Budget Cut:

“We have no research money left this fiscal year” – We have all experienced this sinking feeling when our business partners need our help on a project, and we have an idea on what will help drive the business forward, but our manager tells us we have no budget.  By no budget, they mean no budget — not even for a reliable, yet inexpensive solution.

This is a tough conversation to have when managing market researchers.  This one is especially because they often have very good ideas on how to add value to their business with good research.  Unfortunately, good research typically costs money.  The reality is, when you are working for companies that have financial goals, you often are unable to find available market research funding for projects.  This is frustrating for some employees.  At the same time, it is also a great opportunity to teach them how to deliver against the objective in a more efficient and cost effective way.

These teachable moments are often the most rewarding for the market researcher as well since it gives them an opportunity to be creative and try less expensive (free) research alternatives. My counsel is to be creative and have fun when you find out that research dollars are not available to help you on a project.  Take it as a challenge to deliver for your business partners and company anyway.


We live in a world of profit (and loss) and at the end of the day we should remember, “We are here to make money for the company and the sooner we understand that the better off we will be in your careers.”  We should strive to push ourselves outside of our comfort zones and look for assignments in areas completely foreign to us.

We should also remember that we are not working in a vacuum and companies often evaluate talent in a forced ranking system which means we can have a good year but still finish in the bottom 1/3 of our peer set during evaluations. Further, living in world of profit (and loss) means there will be times when we don’t have any research funds available and yet we still must help our business partners deliver against the business objectives.

Embracing these challenging moments of limited budgets in a positive creative way can often be the most rewarding projects of the year.  Having tough conversations with our market researchers should not be something we dread but instead they are opportunities for us to be leaders and when we approach these conversations with humility and integrity, things usually work out for the best.

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