• Dr. Karen Bartuch

Seeing the Potential in People and Data: Leadership and Artificial Intelligence with Nancy Hensley

In her current role as the chief product and marketing officer at Stats Perform, Nancy Hensley leads the product and marketing teams working to revolutionize sports with artificial intelligence. Previously as the chief data officer at IBM she ran a global product marketing team focused on business intelligence, predictive analytics, data warehousing, data integration and database technology. IBM had been through many stages of evolution, from hardware to analytics to helping customers leverage AI and making that technology accessible and consumable to everyone. Today IBM uses AI to help companies optimize and they create solutions like virtual assistants and virtual chat bots using natural language recognition.


A natural-born innovator, Nancy discovered her love of tech working with McDonald’s and started in sales at IBM 16 years ago, constantly thinking about things the company could be doing differently. She moved into a leadership role when she pitched an idea to her general manager about patternizing the work they were doing for more consistent quality and the manager said “OK, build a team. Go do it.” The common thread that ties together Nancy’s passions, from criminal psychology to data and analytics, is finding out how things work (the human brain, real estate patterns, marketing funnels) and asking “What else could we use this for?”


Leadership Style

Nancy takes much the same approach with her team when it comes to leadership: optimizing her team for the best performance. As a leader, it’s her job to enable her team; to understand their talents, understand the work and then create an organizational structure that optimizes that. She also watches out for people who aren’t a good fit for their role and sees it as her responsibility to move them to somewhere they can thrive. Building a sense of safety and trust so each team member isn’t afraid to try an idea and fail is crucial, according to Nancy, in order to have a high-performing team.


“What’s worked for me is really understanding what motivates people, what their superpowers are.”


Because failure usually comes before success, Nancy embraces a “fail fast” philosophy that she fuels with kindness. Although one of the perks of being a tech leader is that she can “win arguments with data,” Nancy still believes that “at the end of the day, kindness always wins.” One of her biggest inspirations in this area is Simon Sinek. Many of her team members who had a reputation of being lazy or ineffective in other positions have transformed when they realized that Nancy believed in them. According to Nancy, “there are ways to inspire people to transform on the things they’re weak on, and it’s rooted in kindness and trust.” One key way she builds trust with her teammates is being there for them when they fail and helping them learn from the experience.


Another one of Nancy’s favorite leadership methods is telling stories to create empathy with her team. She shares stories of her own failures with her managers and uses stories from other organizations to set the mood on all-hands calls. She tells her team to “find the Jӓgerbomb;” hear this story and some of her other favorites around 19:15. She stays on top of industry trends and finds these inspiring stories through Twitter and Medium, multi-tasking to read, watch and listen while she exercises.


Problem-Solving and Growth Hacking

Throughout her career, Nancy has experimented with technology, market demands and surprisingly old research to find out what works. Oftentimes innovation is about finding new applications for old algorithms and optimizing systems for consumability and accessibility. For instance, the FCC ruled that conversations that happen during online games need to be accessible to people with impaired hearing, so natural language recognition programs were developed to translate voice to text instantaneously. This opened up other possibilities like managing player toxicity and getting a deeper understanding of what players talk about during game play to drive new experiences.


Coming up through a traditional company like IBM, Nancy saw the software launch process work in a very linear way; growth hacking takes the same principles and continuously applies them to grow a business alongside its product. They aim for product-market fit, in which the company knows their product’s differentiator and exactly which slice of the market will be interested. The term “growth hacking” comes from the extreme first wave of this business model where actual hackers re-routed leads to their own websites from Craigslist, which is illegal. Now it’s a combination of marketing and product development in a culture of experimentation to get growth. The team constantly runs experiments, hunting for little pieces of growth that add up to big success, and applies data to automate their findings.


“There’s no one thing that causes growth. There’s like fifty.”


Growth hacking covers all aspects of the customer journey, keeping their product and marketing intertwined. This means starting without much of a marketing budget, unlike a more traditional software launch. Instead, the team shoots for a minimum number of people that they need to try the product in order to get enough feedback; they break down the customer journey and find opportunities to experiment across it for bits of incremental growth over time. For instance, places where people stop using the software, transcripts from chatbots that might reveal patterns to drive content experience changes, a Net Promoter Score (NPS) calculated from in-app surveys or even reviews published elsewhere online.


Women in Tech

It’s no mistake that Nancy has built a successful career innovating at IBM. Because they understand how bias affects data, IBM makes diversity a priority at every level. “It really is ingrained in the culture,” Nancy says, “and it goes back, decades and decades of IBM being extremely inclusive with women.” When Nancy became a single mom and thought her career might be over, IBM didn’t see that as a limitation and she got promoted into her executive rank soon thereafter. She doesn’t think that would have been the case at most other big tech companies.


Nancy found a mentor at IBM who was also a single mother, and she has taken it upon herself to be that mentor and role model for other young women who are interested in tech as a founding member of Hire Tech Ladies and through other programs. She’s particularly sensitive to young girls who get excited about STEM in middle school and then lose interest in high school. She adds that the industry needs to inspire women to not just come into tech but stay in tech.


For women who want to find success as leaders, Nancy believes the key is to be your authentic self and set boundaries so people know what’s important to you. She acknowledges that it’s not always safe to be authentic, but for her, it all balances out; she has been burned, but it’s made her a more inspirational leader and built the trust she needed to build. She observes that women in particular obsess over showing up in the way that people want them to show up, but in the end, “people want you to show up as you.”


Listen to the whole conversation here or read more of Nancy’s thoughts on Medium.


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© 2020 by Karen Bartuch