Bryan Pearson has spent the majority of his career unlocking the full value of data as a key source of competitive advantage. As the current President and CEO of LoyaltyOne Inc, a global provider of loyalty strategies, Bryan is an internationally-recognized thought leader in the fields of consumer analytics, enterprise loyalty and coalition marketing.
Bryan began his career as a marketer at Quaker Oats Company of Canada before moving on to what has become an almost 25 year career at LoyaltyOne. Through a series of progressive roles in the organization, Bryan became the President & CEO in 2006. Since then, he has championed the organization’s commitment to creating enhanced customer experiences, and building stronger, more valuable relationships. Bryan has spearheaded several of LoyaltyOne’s global expansions, making loyalty strategies and solutions more accessible than ever.
Bryan is the author of two books, including Loyalty Leap: Turning Customer Information into Customer Intimacy, has presented all over the world, and contributes regularly to numerous national and international publications.
Odgers Berndtson recently sat with Bryan to discuss big data, industry trends, and his leadership journey.
Tell us about LoyaltyOne, and what makes it relevant in the industry today.
This company started by launching AIR MILES in Canada but it really had a promotional focus at first. What we quickly realized was that the underlying database provided critical insights into consumer behaviour and allowed us to help our clients fly under the radar with their targeted marketing activities. All this was before the internet, email and mobile marketing. So, you can imagine that as we approach our 25th anniversary, we have leveraged our competencies to develop a much broader business model – one that not only focuses on loyalty programs but, more importantly, on the data analytics space. We are leaders in the use of transactional and behavioral data as the key to understanding customers, making us more relevant than we have ever been to our clients’ business objectives.
In an environment that has become increasingly competitive, the ability for organizations to connect with customers in a completely authentic and relevant way is the only way you are going to competitively differentiate yourself. Our ability to understand the customer, help our partners create a strategy around specific customer segments, and then to mobilize an offering and brand proposition around this strategy is where we add value. While big data is dominating many conversations, just helping companies use existing customer information to transform the way they do business is a huge step forward for most organizations.
Your undergraduate degree was in Life Sciences and initial career goal was to become a doctor. How, and why, did this change?
I guess I really had a limited exposure to anything other than the sciences when I was growing up. Both my parents were doctors and the entire universe I was surrounded with was filled with engineers and medical professionals. But I always had a business streak as part of everything I did as a kid. I loved having my paper route. In university I ran my own painting business, and I used to sell clothing, and other products and services to make money. So, while I was a science student, I clearly had an entrepreneurial element driving what I did. As I was nearing the end of my undergrad, I started looking at other opportunities beyond science since medical school held less of an appeal by that point.
That led me to doing my MBA and it was pretty clear from the start that I focused on strategy and consumer communications. I graduated and pursued a career in Marketing but it was only once I was active in the industry that I discovered direct-to-consumer marketing (which sounds so dated now). Ultimately, the marriage of art and science in direct marketing is what connected me to loyalty and it was on this path that I knew I wanted to pursue a career that changed the way people thought about marketing.
Who has shaped your leadership style and how has your leadership style changed over the course of time?
When you find something –an industry or a type of work – that really plays to the core passions you have, it is a powerful motivator and a success accelerator. Loyalty, for me, was a cross between marketing, math and scientific method – all topics that I loved from my days in school. Everything we do at LoyaltyOne is measurable. So, loyalty marketing and data were a perfect fit of skills and capabilities that allowed me to grow as an individual and as a contributor to our business growth. But, the reality is that at some point you can make that turn from being a meaningful part of the machine, to leading the machine. In that way, there are two lessons on leadership that have stuck with me.
One is that I don’t believe in leadership anymore; I believe in followership. If you can’t create followership to your ideas and your vision and engage others in the process with you, you aren’t going to be an effective leader. Leadership isn’t anointed by virtue of getting a title. It is vested upon you over time by the people that work with you.
Another lesson came from a former CEO of LoyaltyOne, who I worked with for the better part of 15 years – John Scullion. John taught me two important things. The first being how to carry myself in a way that would allow people to listen to the ideas I had. The second was understanding that you don’t have to be the smartest person in the room. I have the opportunity to provide context, guidance, and when needed, that tie-breaking vote on what needs to be done. But it is by allowing the leaders within the business to drive the critical projects that the real magic happens.
The most effective leaders I’ve seen don’t take themselves too seriously. They are able to connect in a meaningful way with everyone in the business, from the front-line customer care agents and data analysts, all the way through to the senior executives. We work hard here to create an environment that inspires individuals to bring their best ideas, where they will be acknowledged, celebrated, and often executed upon.
You employ thousands of employees. What tools and strategies do you personally use to communicate with them and keep everyone engaged in the mission and vision?
That’s a great question since it’s so critical to an organization’s success and you need personal commitment from the top down to make sure this happens. There are several ways we press this agenda forward at LoyaltyOne. We take opportunities to get in front of every staff member by engaging in open conversations via all-company town halls or even smaller group meetings. We also have a robust digital and publication-based communication network so we can make connections between strategy and the work that is actually happening across our business.
I, and a number of senior executives here, also love to get right down to where the work actually happens by doing “pizza sessions” with front line staff. So we get a group together, buy a pizza, and ask them three questions: 1) If you could change one thing about the business to make it better for customers, what would you do?; 2) If you could improve the business for employees, what would you do?; and 3) If you could do that for our shareholders, what would you do? When we do these sessions, we never put supervisors in the room so everyone feels comfortable sharing their thoughts and anything that comes up is shared openly with the leaders across the company.
A recent McKinsey study projects that, by 2018, there will be a 50-60% deficit of deep analytical talent. What changes are you seeing specific to the talent and leadership in the industry? What can people do to become leaders in this industry?
It’s already hard to find great analytical talent, so I don’t think it’s a 2018 problem, I think it’s a 2016 problem. But I also believe there are a number of ways to deal with this dilemma.
The first is having the best “toys”; your data analytic environments, the data, and the diversity of work that you can do has to be such that someone will be excited to come and work with you and your organization. Next, you need to build a strong culture that celebrates the value of analytics to the business. And, lastly, you need to farm the talent. Make your reputation so strong that people will come and want to build their careers with you, so you can grow your future talent from the inside. So, sometimes it’s not just about hiring experience – it’s hiring inexperience and knowing you can develop the type of skills and leadership you will need over time.
Smart connected products are affecting industry structures, strategies and the competitive landscape. How does big data help drive innovation?
I’m a strong advocate that smart connected products and the data that comes out of those elements should create a differential ability for companies to guide innovation. The RFID tags used at Vail are a great example of them. Whenever you get on a ski lift, they track what lift you get on, how many lifts you get on in a day, and which hills you ski on the most. They also link that tool to use as a payment vehicle, so they know what you eat, how we often you stopped, and what restaurants you used.
Disney does the same thing with the Disney Magic Band. You register the band to child’s name and as you walk around the park they are able to create a very unique experience for you. You use that band as a room key, to get into the park, pay for souvenirs in the park, and they even use the animatronics to get the characters to speak to your kids by name, giving everyone a truly valuable, customized and unique experience.
There is immeasurable value to capture with data, and it will be very interesting to see what the customer experience will look like in ten years time. We will either become a very privacy-obsessed environment. Or, will we become an environment where real value propositions are being created by companies on the strength of permission-based environments – where data is shared willingly with organizations as part of a healthy customer journey.
Last question: What do people mostly get wrong about you?
That I’m an extrovert! Truthfully, I probably live somewhere in between introversion and extroversion – a chameleon flipping back and forth when I need to. I am perfectly happy being at the cottage hanging out but I get excited about things and can connect with people because of my inherent curiosity. There’s a part of the job which is being a public face for this organization and its employees, and there is a part of it that is about thinking deeply about the strategic issues.
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