How has Insight leadership changed?

If you lead a corporate Insight team, how have you approached your role during lockdown?

Have you prioritised the same tasks as before? Have you adopted new habits and changed your focus?

Have you made explicit decisions about how you spend your time, or have you adapted as required without being conscious that there were choices to be made?

At the IMA's online Insight forum this week 26 Insight leaders from organisations as diverse as Kraft-Heinz, Santander and Sainsbury’s in the UK, eBay in Germany, Colgate Palmolive in Moscow and Dublin Airports Authority in Ireland discussed Insight leadership and the unique challenges which it presents. 

To help structure the conversation, we introduced the IMA's leadership model, and looked at how we spend time and energy in 6 different roles.

Framing our view of Insight leadership

I'd like you to picture a 6-box matrix. The first axis divides the time we spend working with our Insight team or producing our own content from the time we spend with the rest of our organisation. 

The second axis was inspired by Michael E. Gerber's E-myth books about the challenges of running a small business. 

Gerber highlights the role that small business owners play as technical experts - the owner of a bakery who is a great baker, the owner of a florists who is brilliant at arranging flowers. 

It is natural for the people who are expert technicians to lead businesses that rely on that technical expertise. The problem is that being a great technician is not necessarily great preparation for running a company.

Gerber stresses the importance of other aspects of a leader's role - the managerial and the entrepreneurial - and how they require just as much focus but very different skills and mindsets. More than anything, he believes that it is a leader's role to work on their business not in it. 

There is a clear parallel here with running an Insight team. The most likely reason for Insight leaders to have been appointed to their roles is their technical expertise in research, analysis, influence and communication. Great skills to have, but only a small part of what it takes to be an Insight leader.

The 6 roles of the Insight leader


Combining the Internal – External axis with the Technical – Managerial – Entrepreneurial axis gives a matrix with 6 distinct Insight leadership roles.


Technical (internal): this is our role as the expert researcher or analyst, the one best placed to decide on the right approach or methodology. If your Insight team is small or you have had to make big changes to its ways of working, your expertise here will have been invaluable in recent weeks.


Technical (external): this is our role as the Insight team’s expert witness, communicating findings and representing our team when key decisions require customer knowledge. If your organisation has been crying out for more consumer understanding then you may well have found yourself playing this role more often.


Managerial (internal): this is our role supervising and supporting our people, updating resource plans, managing suppliers and budgets. All the leaders at the Insight forum are spending more time supporting their team, helping their people deal with the isolation of the lockdown and adjustments to their working patterns.


Managerial (external): this is our role managing demand, negotiating priorities, and representing our departments at management meetings. As demand has increased, some Insight leaders are having to spend more time agreeing priorities and explaining what can and cannot be achieved.


Entrepreneurial (internal): this is our role envisioning a better future, critically analysing the role that our function plays and whether it is currently fit for purpose. I have never known a time when more Insight leaders were reflecting on their Insight strategy and how it needs to change. But how easy have you found it to create proper time and space for that reflection?


Entrepreneurial (external): this is our role selling our vision to the wider organisation, spotting new opportunities, and improving the positioning of our Insight team in the hearts, minds and processes of our companies.


Everyone at this week’s Insight forum agreed that this is Insight’s moment in the spotlight, a time when there is the opportunity for our analysts and researchers to step forward and shape decisions. But how easy are you finding it to grab that opportunity if you are still working from home?


To lead an Insight team, we first have to lead ourselves


If you haven’t really thought about Insight leadership before, I’d like to set you a challenge. I’d like you to think about the 6 roles in the IMA’s Insight leadership model and which role you perform most often.


Has your time and focus changed during the lockdown? Which of these new habits will you maintain?


Have you made explicit choices or just adapted as circumstances changed? What does this say about you and your view of Insight leadership?


Can we help you?


If your organisation has an annual membership and you have an online account with us then you can read our 10-page guide, IMP602: How to lead an Insight team. Please click here and remember that you will need to be logged in to read our member content.


A recording of this week’s presentation on leadership will also be made available to all those who normally attend our Insight forums


We can also offer coaching, mentoring and support to anyone who leads a corporate Insight team, so please feel free to contact us whenever you like.


James Wycherley

Chief Executive, IMA