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Data, strategy, and digital transformation: a conversation with Rhea Fox

Tom Woods spoke to Rhea on the Venari Podcast

For Rhea Fox, ‘the tool kit is the tool kit, regardless of industry.’ It’s a straightforward approach that has served her well as a digital lead across a varied career at businesses including eBay, Aviva, and Paperchase. Recently an Interim Director at Monsoon Accessorize – and now Director of Digital at Ted Baker – Rhea sat down with Tom Woods, our Senior Digital & Technology Consultant, to discuss her career in digital transformation, team building, and the future of her sector.

 


 
Customers and data – two sides of the same coin?

The fundamentals for digital transformation across industries, according to Rhea, are the customer and data. Business strategy and customer strategy should be seen as ‘one and the same,’ she notes.’ ‘Delighting customers or correcting for their pain points is the thing that drives the revenue. So, my start point is always at that end-to-end order of the data available’, followed by filling in any necessary gaps to ensure you know just what the consumer wants, and how that tallies with your offering. For Rhea, this starts with data before developing the necessary strategy. Rather than thinking of strategy as an infallible entity with a capital ‘S’, she recommends approaching it as ‘a business planning tool that helps you achieve your goals [...] for me, strategy is very much a living, breathing thing.’ Making this mindset work means offering deliverables quickly while continuing to build confidence and trust in the business.


Managing transformation and data across different roles

Rhea compares interim positions as being more akin to ‘babysitting and holding the baby’ than the kind of direction-shaping, transformational job specs that full-time roles offer. In any case, it’s essential to establish this directly with the client or employer. She admits that ‘it’s easy to overreach. My inclination will always be to turn up and kind of dust off the strategy and rework it, and that might not be the brief.’ Applying this vision across varying scopes of work – as well as during potentially truncated periods of time – has been key to her success as a digital lead.


For digital leads starting new roles, where to begin with the company’s data – especially in huge multinationals like eBay – can be a challenge. While many people would advocate for starting ‘with what’s there to see what you’ve got’, Rhea adds that honesty about what is not there is also crucial. ‘There’s an enormous belief in a lot of C-suites that we’ve got tonnes of data and there must be some magic in there: “If only we could track what we’ve got then we’ll crack it.” Well, yes and no.’ Online data, however much you have, will not necessarily provide all the answers when it comes to strategy; besides, not all businesses have what Rhea describes as ‘brilliantly clean or warehoused data’. At points like this, external data – that is, market data, customer insight, etc. – can fill in any gaps that might exist.


Making hybrid working work for team building

COVID has shaken up hiring and team building – but Rhea believes that her background in working for regional teams for huge global companies gave her a head start when it came to adjusting to the new normal of hybrid working. ‘For eight years of my time at eBay and Aviva, remote working was just normal,’ she recalls. ‘You get on conference calls, you might be speaking to someone in Switzerland, you might be speaking to someone in Norwich [...] I was used to working with people across markets and in different time zones. I think I probably have a much rosier view of multi-sited working than a lot of clients.’


Nonetheless, she notes that if teams can’t operate at least semi-remotely, it probably means that trust and productivity are low – which is why she places massive importance on building trust among her teams. This entails a blend of regular check-ins and one-to-one meetings with in-person gatherings to make sure the team know and can relate to one another. ‘I am a great fan of off-sites, workshops – anything innovation-related,’ Rhea says, while noting that such activities need to be in-person to be effective.


Effective hiring strategies

Remote working certainly has its benefits, but it requires a little more effort to run smoothly – and it’s no different when you’re hiring. Rhea looks for what she calls ‘screen presence’, though she admits that ‘no one’s ever themselves completely when they’re in interviews, so I always like to give candidates a task that will at least show how they present both in written form and when they’re naturally more on show.’ She also looks out for smaller clues for assessing interpersonal skills – for example, email and LinkedIn etiquette – as well as body language to try and optimise the team building process. ‘If you really tune into your empathetic streak, you can learn an awful lot about how someone’s feeling from how they carry themselves and their expressions,’ Rhea states. ‘You don’t necessarily need to be in the same room.’


Looking to the future with merging roles

As for the future of digital transformation, what does Rhea foresee? ‘Omnichannel isn’t new, but it’s still very far from cracked,’ she says. Rhea believes that businesses that want to have a strong physical presence over the next 10 years need to focus on omni now. ‘I’m actually seeing omnichannel leader roles coming up. And I think that can only be a positive thing.’


The days when Retail and Digital Directors were totally separate roles may be coming to an end as omni becomes the norm, rather than the exception to the rule. ‘I could totally see those two roles merging over time, almost more like an old-school Ops Director,’ Rhea predicts. As marketing and customer service experiences become increasingly focused on digital, she believes that there could be further scope for combining roles such as Chief Marketing Officer with digital positions. ‘The Chief Customer Officer and digital roles could merge, and that’s only to the good.’ She’s noticed a trend for roles that combine trade aspects of e-commerce with strategy and digital marketing, with leaders coming from different backgrounds. There is still a tendency, Rhea believes, for businesses to think of CDOs as ‘nerds’ doing IT, ‘a bit of digital stuff’, while the ‘real money’ is made elsewhere; eventually, digital and marketing and/or strategy roles could well be merged to exciting effect in the future.


How these scenarios play out over the next few years will certainly be interesting – not least given recent advances in AI, and how this might impact companies’ data policies. While Rhea is convinced that ‘open source AI isn’t going to change the world for business professionals’ as it provides no competitive advantage, the game changer will be when clients with large, well warehoused, and easily accessible data systems begin to harness AI’s power. Still, it’s hard to say definitively when this might happen; as Rhea notes, ‘I think there are fewer of those clients right now than we think there are.’


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