The Story Beyond the Spreadsheet

Data is like electricity, says Rishad Tobaccowala. It’s necessary to business success, but it’s not sufficient. Its power lies in how it’s used.

Tobaccowala, who was for many years the chief strategist and chief growth officer of global advertising behemoth Publicis Groupe, celebrates data’s power to create opportunity, wealth, knowledge, and understanding. At the same time, he worries about how companies’ focus on short-term performance and financial metrics has led to increased polarization, accelerated inequality, and decreased trust in both institutions and individuals.

Cover of Rishad Tobaccowala's book: "Restoring the Soul of Business"

Tobaccowala argues in his book, Restoring the Soul of Business: Staying Human in the Age of Data, that the “sweet siren call of optimizing numbers” has made it temptingly easy for leaders to focus on the spreadsheet, quantifying things to increase efficiency and productivity. In doing so, they risk overlooking or ignoring what he calls the “story” – the human thoughts and feelings that allow organizations to tackle softer challenges like how a certain policy affects employee retention or what is causing friction in their vendor relationships.

We asked Tobaccowala to discuss the dangers of focusing so much on numbers that we lose sight of our purpose – what he calls “data blindness” – and how leaders can foster connections among their people during a global pandemic that has left many of us isolated in home offices, communicating entirely through our phones and computers with no sense of when that may end.

Businessman checking stock market data on mobile phone

Q: What do you mean by “data blindness”?

Rishad Tobaccowala: Data-blinded companies allow all of their programs and policies to be dictated by the numbers, no matter what it does to employees and the corporate culture – like laying off 10% of your staff to maintain profit levels even though that destroys morale. Data blindness leads to bad decisions. A bank that creates fake financial transactions might bump up its revenues, but eventually it will get in trouble with regulators. A social media company may juice engagement statistics by giving a platform to white supremacists and conspiracy theorists, but it will eventually have a hard time recruiting talented engineers who don’t want their work to support those people.

Once you have data, you have to ask, “And then what?” Are your profits up this month because you had a successful marketing campaign? Or is it because you introduced a new incentive program for your sales team? Or is it just an anomaly? Data is a valuable resource for fostering customer insight, spurring improvement, and delivering a competitive edge. But it isn’t enough to generate meaning – brand reputation, satisfying customer service, a company mission worth respecting, a place where employees feel valued and rewarded fairly. And meaning is a key part of the story your organization tells.

Q: You write in depth about how being data-obsessed can lead companies to make bad decisions – and rationalize bad behavior – in pursuit of good numbers. What’s the most important thing leaders can do to protect their organizations from that or to reverse course if they’re already headed in that direction?

Tobaccowala: Think long-term about the ramifications of your data-driven decisions, get opinions from diverse stakeholders to inform those decisions, and most of all, never forget that whatever you do could end up as a headline in the Wall Street Journal at some point!

Leaders are asked to lead because someone has to make difficult choices. You have to balance the spreadsheet and the story to make those nuanced judgment calls. If they could be made based on data alone, you wouldn’t need to make them in the first place. They would make themselves.

Diverse team working together

Q: What does connected, human-focused leadership look like in an environment that, due to COVID-19, is probably going to remain highly distributed and disconnected for some time to come?

Tobaccowala: Five qualities make a good leader: competency, integrity, empathy, vulnerability, and inspiration. These things are all about character, and they’re relevant no matter where or how the work is taking place. You have to be good at what you do. You have to face reality and be transparent about how you make your decisions. You have to understand what people are going through. You have to understand you don’t have all the answers and surround yourself with people who can help you. And you have to lead through personal example and storytelling.

Right now, people aren’t so much working from home as living at the office, which is incredibly stressful. Leaders need to dial up those character qualities to ask how they can help and to give their employees more control and clarity over what to do.

Q: How has your advice about limiting screen time changed, given that the screen has become the primary or only tool for connection in many workplaces?

Tobaccowala: We don’t really have the option of controlling our screen time as much right now, so I’ve been rephrasing what I was previously calling “the darker side of brighter screens” as “managing the distributed workforce.” But the advice itself is still the same: focus on connecting on a human level. People should try to have one-on-one or very small meetings where people can look at and talk to each other instead of looking at dozens of faces or someone’s shared screen. They should minimize the use of slides and spreadsheets. And they should make sure at the start or end of every online meeting to spend a few minutes making conversation that’s not about work. That makes meetings more meaningful and memorable instead of boring. Hopefully, it helps people feel more valued as employees and more excited about the tasks you’re asking them to perform.

Group of people have a video conference

Q: What about your advice to schedule more meetings and make sure they’re meaningful and relationship-focused, given that the “new normal” has packed 13% more meetings into an average workday that’s almost an hour longer?

Tobaccowala: We’ve all had those “stare-a-thons” where we’re looking at our screens and someone is droning while everyone else is moaning. A video call is a way to educate and interact, but it’s not very engaging if one person is spewing facts and figures while the rest passively take it in. Make video meetings matter by saving them for things that require face-to-face contact and interaction, like brainstorming or finding out how people are doing.

Here’s an example from Publicis Groupe’s own global senior management training sessions. We used to have guest speakers talk for 30 minutes, which left just 15 minutes for live interaction. We recently had a speaker record her speech so we could send it to people to watch ahead of time, which let her spend the entire 45 minutes of the live session answering their questions. More interactive is more engaging!

Q: Between the pandemic and the U.S. election, a lot of us have become even more fixated on data and the spin around it. Are we getting any better at applying data meaningfully, and is that carrying over into our business decisions?

Tobaccowala: I don’t think the situation is making us any better at applying data, because when we get lots of numbers, we believe none of them. We get overwhelmed and run out of oxygen while we think we’re swimming. If everyone really believed in the data, they would wear a mask without thinking twice about it, right?

I actually think it’s been a bit of a shock for senior management to see their employees at home, outside the context of the workplace, surrounded by their families and pets and personal belongings. It’s a reminder that everyone we deal with is a carbon-based, feeling creature, and that even in a highly polarized society, nobody is safe from this virus. So everyone is thinking about, and possibly rethinking, things they never had to think about before – like how hard or even impossible work–life balance has become for some of their employees and what their company can or should be doing to support them. It’s hard to say how that will play out, but the answer isn’t going to be found in data.

Woman looking at data on large screen

Q: Has the pandemic made companies more or less likely to be data-blinded?

Tobaccowala: A little of both. With everyone working remotely, almost all interplay has become transactional and measurable. We can see how often someone is on the company VPN [virtual private network], how many emails they’ve sent, how much time they’ve spent on video meetings, and so on. It’s tempting to try to connect the dots to how well the business is doing. A lot of the softness in business, like lunches and hallway chitchat, has vanished. But it’s also shown people that data matters less than they think and that the real issue is fragility. Employees and customers are anxious about their health, fearful about the future, and uncertain when this will end. Dealing with that requires human skills like empathy, compassion, and patience, not data.

The reality is that a new society is emerging from this crisis. Data is usually backward-looking, and when the world has changed, backwards pattern recognition means nothing. To innovate and come up with something new, you need people.