patti phillips blur hero.jpg

Patti Phillips: Why Data is "the New Know"

Patti Phillips, Ph.D., is the president and CEO of ROI Institute and Chair of i4cp’s  People Analytics Board . A renowned expert in measurement and evaluation, she helps organizations implement the ROI Methodology in 60 countries around the world. Her work has been featured on CNBC, EuroNews, and in over a dozen business journals. She, along with her husband Jack Phillips, contributes to a variety of journals and has authored many books on the subject of measurement, evaluation, analytics, and ROI.

Patti will also co-present our upcoming i4cp  Exchange Fall Forum  in Dallas, TX as part of i4cp's ongoing People Analytics Series.

LL: What in your opinion is the most critical challenge facing business leaders today?

PP: There are two big challenges. First, finding the right people for the job. Second, onboarding them in such a way that they buy into the organization sooner than later. All too often, when a person with the right skills and disposition is hired for a job, the onboarding process is so dysfunctional that they lose interest quickly and start looking elsewhere immediately.

Do you have any observations about the challenges women face in a traditionally male-dominated field like research -- have you faced gender-related headwinds at any point in your career?

This is an interesting question, and I have so many thoughts about it.

Women do face challenges in any male-dominated field. Some of the challenges are no different than what we faced in 1980s. However, women are much smarter about those challenges than we were in the ‘80s and I think we have less tolerance now for the same behaviors of our male colleagues than we did back then. I also think leaders have lower tolerance for gender-related nonsense—be it poor behavior or bad decision making.

I work in the field of measurement, evaluation, and analytics. While there are few women who work in this field, there are some who are quite accomplished.

Yet, when you read articles and interviews about the thought leaders in my field, there are four to five names that always comes up—and they are all male. These men are not necessarily any smarter technically than women in this field, but in many respects, they are smarter in how they work. Men delegate work so they can put themselves out there. They will position their thoughts as if they are the only thoughts that matter, even when those thoughts are not very well thought out. They are fearless. And they like to play together, so there is bonding that takes place, and that bonding feeds the beast, so to speak.

Women, however, do more and delegate less. We are more thoughtful in our actions and we lean toward perfectionism. So, we either miss out on or fail to take advantage of opportunities. Like a headwind, this approach slows our progress.

So, what do we do about it? We have to continue taking risks and putting ourselves out there—however hard it is. But what we don’t do is accept less than what we deserve. We have to say “yes” to tasks that are outside our comfort zones. And we have to say “no” when asked, “Can we get her for less?”

What's your view of work/life balance today?

This question came up recently during a panel session I was part of at a conference. I chose not to have kids, so I don't know what it's like to raise children and work as hard as those women who have children. I watched my sister do it—she and her husband served in the Air Force, got their MBAs, and later transitioned to corporate, all while raising two daughters. She’s an executive VP in a health care organization. What she accomplishes every day makes me look like I’m on holiday.

I've never separated work from life. I just live, and part of that life is serving others through teaching, consulting, coaching, mentoring, writing, and research. It just happens to be on the topics of measurement, evaluation, and analytics. Sure, I have to take care of the business side of my company, and that of my home, and at some point will take care of my mom, (although she is still going strong).  But I don’t compartmentalize work and life. I just live life, and that life includes work, play, family, friends, and all that goes with it.

What's your opinion about the notion that women and men lead differently? Do you think it's more about personality rather than gender?

I think it’s a little of both.  Jack and I are similar in that we're both Type A personalities and we have the exact same expectations of our team. But there are differences in our personalities, which I do think comes into play in how we approach the team. For example, we are both introverted, but I am also naturally shy, so I’m not a social butterfly. When I’m working on a project, I’m not going to go have lunch with the team until I’m at a stopping point and get myself ready to interact. Then I can really connect with the group. Jack, while introverted, is more social. So, he will go into the office and have lunch to connect with the team even if he’s in the throes of a project. He’s the fun boss; I’m just the boss. But in addition to personality differences, our gender differences also come into play. We see things differently, we react differently to situations, and we lead differently.

Besides Jack, who else over the course of your career has had influence?

So many people, whether they know it or not have influenced my career. Jac Fitzenz has been an influence and a huge support of both Jack and me, so much so that he's become a friend. Of course, people like Kevin Oakes at i4cp and Rebecca Ray at The Conference Board have offered me many opportunities, and are two people who have had tremendous influence on me.

Going further back, there was a professor of mine who had great impact.

When I was an undergrad at Auburn I just hated statistics. This was back in the day when you didn't have your own computer, you had to go to the computer lab and use punch cards. You had your tests in a room with 300 other people and you had to fit all your formulas on one side of a piece of paper and figure out what you were doing. It was all so theoretical—I couldn’t deal with it.

But then I went to work at a utility company and we had to use stats, so application made it easier for me. During my master’s degree program, I had a statistics professor named Bob Slagter. He was the turning point for me in terms of my interest in statistics and data analysis—he and SPSS! I liked it so much I started helping teach the lab. It was that combined gift of practical experience at the utility company and working with Dr. Slagter that really pushed me in a different direction toward what I love to do today.

But of all the people, Jack has been of greatest influence.

It’s interesting that you would mention a teacher, because you’ve passed that same life-changing learning experience along to the people you and Jack work with. I've talked with professionals who have taken your workshops, and they all say the same sorts of things—that you made analytics make sense for them, and this new understanding opened up opportunities for them—changed their lives even.

Well, I appreciate you saying that. That's what I try to do. Measurement and analytics shouldn't be hard for people, it’s too important.

I really love taking huge concepts and breaking them down so that people do get them. These days you must know data and understand what the data say and what they don’t say. You don’t have to be the one who engineers the model, but you need to understand what the output says, because this is where we are now. It's the "new know"—knowing data. Having the skillset to take numbers and make them meaningful and practical is huge, and I love helping people gain that skill.

It seems like analytics has exploded—what’s your observation on the implications of this?

We have to use it responsibly. 

Recently, I saw a promotion for a technology platform and they were showing how they calculate the ROI of their product, but the formula they used was wrong—that’s not me saying it was wrong, it was actually wrong. You need to understand what you're talking about before you go to market with it, because if you're telling your audience that they'll get 450% ROI based on these inputs, but the formula you use is wrong, that’s a problem.

Analytics, whether it’s ROI or attempting to show a causal relationship between variables, is not new. But it is different because we have the technology, we have the data, and we have the know-how to do more of it. The scary thing is that you can do a lot and learn a lot with the use of analytics, but if you stray too far from the fundamentals —whether that is in the formula or the use of data, you get close to a red line that, when crossed, can be a serious issue.

So, fluency in data analytics is table stakes in terms of the skill set for business leaders now, right?

Yes. Everyone is going to have to get to a point where they are at least comfortable looking at a report and understanding what it says—everything is chockfull of data. It doesn’t mean everyone should be a number cruncher—that's a special skill set, but everyone should be able to understand the language and be able to notice patterns, like simple trends.

Understanding and monitoring data and using that critical thinking that's really lacking these days is so very important. Analytics is all about breaking things down and being able to say, "Here's what it means, and here's what we need to look for in the future." When someone puts data in front of you, you need to know the questions to ask.

On the other hand, the numbers are important, but you' must also be a keen observer of what's happening around the numbers.

I had an opportunity to interview Michael Arena [Chief Talent Officer, General Motors].  He has a team of quants—total numbers people, but even he said that the qualitative is important. In fact, he taught his team ethnography. He said even though you're looking at the data, sometimes you need to go out and study what is happening. You have to observe. So, they embrace, as do other organizations, the qualitative side of the research as well as the quantitative.

Patti, walk us through a typical work day for you.

I don't know that I have a typical day, but I do know that my day always starts with coffee and ends with wine.

What's the biggest professional risk you've ever taken?

What felt like a big risk for me was the first time I ever spoke at a conference. It may not seem like much of a risk, but it was for me. That was in 1997. I had facilitated meetings and small workshops before, but I'd always dreaded public speaking and I had never presented at a conference in front of 500 people in my life. I felt like that was risky because I was so concerned about things like, do I know enough? Do they know more than I do? Will I embarrass Jack? I was thinking all these things and it turned out fine.

But anytime I get in front of people and teach ROI, analytics, and measurement feels a little risky. And the first time I put my name on a book felt like a risk. It's a huge responsibility to put your name on a book and go out on the speaking circuit and profess to be an expert. 

As you heard me say at the Business Writers Conference this year, a person must have that combination of passion, experience, and expertise before they impart their wisdom upon others. Because without those three things, it's not only a professional risk, but a personal risk, and more than that, you're positioning other people to succeed or fail, and that is a daunting responsibility.

When you were a kid—say, 10-years-old—what did you want to be when you grew up?

That’s easy–I wanted to be a teacher. And I am!

What achievement to date are you most proud of?

I am most proud of the relationships I have. I'm proud of the books, and I'm proud of the accomplishments of our company, and the brand that we've grown. But more than anything, it comes down to the relationships, because in the end, the business and the brand can all go away. If you don’t have those good relationships, those friendships, you don’t have anything.

Describe yourself in one adjective.


How many business books have you authored or coauthored—like 100 or so?

It depends what you count. If you count all the books we have authored, co-authored, and edited, it's about 125. I've authored or co-authored about 45.

What’s your latest?

We just launched one with ATD, The Business Case for Learning, that addresses the use of design thinking to drive results. And the third edition of my book, The Bottom line on ROI is coming out this month, which I’m really excited about. It won an award back in 2002 from ISPI and we think it was because it was the shortest book ever written on the topic of ROI. People like it because it does what you and I talked about earlier—it breaks our methodology down to the basics. 

If you were mentoring a young woman in her first professional job, what advice would you give her if she aspires to a leadership role at some point?

Be true to herself. Don't forget who she is and what her values are. Don't be afraid to work hard and to take chances. And keep learning—that’s good advice for all of us. Don't be afraid to take a class and learn something new. I've been in this field a long time and have a lot of experience, but there is new content coming out every single day and we cannot get complacent.

Looking ahead, do you figure you’ll be doing workshops and publishing books for at least another 20 or 25 years?

Short answer is yes, absolutely! I'm going to keep doing workshops, writing books, and living out of my carry-on, because what I do is fun, and it helps the people who need it.

More about Patti Phillips

Dr. Patti Phillips serves as chair of i4cp’s People Analytics Board and board chair for the Center of Talent Reporting. She is lead facilitator for ROI Institute’s ROI Certification process through which she teaches others to implement the ROI Methodology. She also serves as a facilitator for ATD’s Measuring ROI and Measuring Learning Impact workshops, and as professor of practice for The University of Southern Mississippi Gulf Coast Campus Ph.D. in Human Capital Development program. Phillips serves on the faculty for the UN System Staff College in Turin, Italy, where she teaches their Evaluation and Impact Assessment Workshop and Measurement for Results-Based Management, and she serves as an adjunct faculty member of   Escuela Bancaria y Comercial (Mexico City, Mexico).

Phillips’s academic accomplishments include a Ph.D. in International Development and a master’s degree in Public and Private Management. She is certified in ROI evaluation and has been awarded the designations of Certified Professional in Learning and Performance and Certified Performance Technologist. She, along with her husband Dr. Jack Phillips, contributes to a variety of journals and has authored a number of books on the subject of measurement, evaluation, analytics, and ROI. Titles include:  Investing in Human Capital (Business Writers Exchange Press, 2017); The Chief Talent Officer (Routledge, 2017); Real World Training Evaluation (ATD, 2016); Handbook of Training Evaluation and Measurement Methods, 4th Edition (Routledge, 2016); Accountability in Human Resource Management 2nd Edition (Routledge, 2016); Measuring the Success of Employee Engagement (ATD, 2016); and Making Human Capital Analytics Work (McGraw-Hill, 2015).

Lorrie Lykins
Lorrie is i4cp's Vice President of Research. A thought leader, speaker, and researcher on the topic of gender equity, Lorrie has decades of experience in human capital research. Lorrie’s work has been featured in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and other renowned publications.