The Real Intelligence team interviewed Heather Fitzgerald, Senior Vice President of Distribution Intelligence, Data, and Salesforce at Jackson. Heather discusses her career journey and how she grew a passion for data storytelling within her work at various companies, industries, and roles. Heather also provides her framework for building a data story, discusses the importance of mentorship, cultivating a natural curiosity with data, and much more!

Listen to the full episode on marketing data and analytics below, or wherever you listen to podcasts!

Interview Transcript


[Anna]: Welcome to the Real Intelligence podcast! You’re on today with Jason Harper, CEO and Founder of RXA, and Anna Schultz, Marketing Coordinator at RXA. Our guest today is Heather Fitzgerald, Senior Vice President of Distribution Intelligence, Data, and Salesforce at Jackson.

Heather is a data visionary and analytics leader stemming from Chicago, Detroit and Silicon Valley with over twenty years of experience in driving innovative global solutions and data driven insights. She has deep expertise in business automation, data technology platforms, digital transformation, sales, marketing, and storytelling. Heather holds a BA in economics from Michigan State University, and an MBA from the University of Detroit Mercy.

Her professional passions surround providing holistic data measurement and insights, to tie online and offline platforms together and to drive insight-driven storytelling. Additionally, she enjoys building teams to meet varied client and corporate needs, as well as mentoring junior staff. Welcome to the show, Heather!

[Heather]: Thank you, Anna and Jason for having me.

[Anna]: Thank you for joining. We like to start off the podcast by getting to know the real you. So, I have a few questions that we might not find the answers to in that professional bio. So one of them is, what’s the most interesting thing you’ve read lately?

[Heather]: This was a really interesting question that made me quite honestly, over the last few days, go back and think too about what I have been reading. But one that I, probably for the last year or year and a half, that I’ve really been a little, quite honestly enamored with is Dr. Edith Eger, E-G-E-R is her last name. She has a couple different books out, but in particular, her first book called ‘The Choice’.

She’s a 96-year-old, still alive, living in Southern California who actually grew up and was in Auschwitz. So, she grew up during the Holocaust, her sister and her survived, her parents didn’t. They all were taken together, but it’s… Again, coming back to the title of her book ‘The Choice’. It’s how she learned to live and thrive and, you know, in her 50s, she went and got her PhD, for example, here in the United States, got married, had children. How she ended up thriving after going through something so obviously, horrific as World War Two and, you know, what was happening in Europe.

But really translating that into each one of us, in more of a public sense, in a public realm, in terms of what we can control on a daily basis, in terms of the choices that we make. Whether it’s in business, you know, in our professional lives, or whether it’s in our personal lives, we control how we react to every single situation that happens. And looking at being able to start to turn things on their head and flip the script a little bit, even in really horrible situations, and how to have a positive outlook that can get you through some of those times. So that really…

Her second book is called ‘The Gift’ after ‘The Choice’. So I’d really encourage anybody to read those, to read those books, she has some really great stuff on her website too. So I would definitely encourage everyone to learn about her.

[Anna]: Awesome. Thanks for kinda walking us through that. And I think, like you said, that has a lot of applications in personal life, in business and in strategic leadership and everything like that, so that’s really interesting. We’ll definitely have to check it out.

My second question for you is, what’s something within your industry that you consider maybe underrated?

[Heather]: I… Probably some of the theme of probably a few things that I’ll talk about today. But absolutely that last mile within data and analytics is something that I’ve been really passionate about and has been really important to me in all of the different roles that I’ve been in and the teams that I’ve led.

And that last mile is how to actually translate the data that you’re finally able to access, that you’re finally able to get your hands on – how can you actually translate that into actionable insights? Into a data story using visuals, using a narrative, obviously using data, to really influence and impact decisions that are being made within the organization. And, you know, helping senior leadership with strategic recommendations as well.

But a lot of organizations, and, Jason, you probably have seen this quite a bit, where so much of the energy and time, rightfully so, needs to be focused on extracting and getting ahold of that data, and getting it into a usable format for analysts to be able to do those types of, you know, last mile analytics activities. But a lot of organizations tend to really stop there. And what I love to be able to do, is to take that last mile and bring it to life. And I think that that really has been a little underutilized, due to all of the technology and innovation that have been coming into the marketplace and coming into this industry, that that piece sometimes gets ignored. And I think that it’s really important because it really closes the holistic circle.

[Anna]: Absolutely. And I think, kind of, that storytelling aspect is something that you’ve really highlighted within your career and kind of made a point to really cultivate that at organizations that you’ve worked at, it sounds like.

Heather’s Career Journey

[Anna]: So can you kind of, in your own words, tell us a little bit about yourself and your career journey for our audience?

[Heather]: Absolutely. Sure. So, when I say the number of years, it often frighten me a little bit. When I say that I’ve been, you know, doing analytics, data analytics, air quoting there, since 1996, so quite a long time. But if you think about just that 25, 26 year period, what this industry has gone through, it’s been quite incredible.

[Heather]: You know, when I first came into data analytics, it was really just taking any piece of information, whether it’s sales data or survey research information, and trying to actually do secondary research on that and kind of turn that around from an insights standpoint. But what we’re able to do now is really measure, obviously, much much more, but the small things.

So way back when, you know, big data was kind of… 10+ years ago, big data was really the phrase and the couple words that everybody really, you know, it was being talked about everywhere. But what I really think that big data is, it’s the ability to measure the small things now. The really minute, small things in each individual person versus macro groups, versus, you know, macro types of behaviors and activities. But we’re being able to get down to these really, you know, intricate levels.

And I think that that’s really some of the exciting things that I’ve seen take place over the last 5-10 years. Things that we kind of dreamt of being able to do a decade ago, we’re actually being able to do now. And being able to see just this natural progression with technology in the data and analytics space has just been completely fascinating to me. And I’ve really enjoyed that over the last, you know, couple decades, two and a half decades if you will within the industry.

So, while I’ve done that and, you know, you kind of mentioned it, I started off in Detroit for a long time, then Chicago, then out to San Francisco, and now here in Nashville, really driving a lot of those same activities within the teams and the organizations that I belong to. But also being able to put a lens if you will, on all of that work that is encompassed by having experience across multiple industries, across different types of verticals, and really bringing home best practices that can be utilized, you know, whether it’s a tech company you’re working with, a CPG company, a financial services company. And that’s again, really what I’ve tried to hone in on and what I truly enjoy doing.

[Jason]: Love that. And thank you, Heather, so much for making the time today to talk to us. We really appreciate you being able to share, you know, what you’re sharing today and your story I think is, you know, especially given, you know, the different places you’ve been and worked and experienced, being able to share that now is… We’re really grateful for that.

The Importance of Data Storytelling

[Jason]: I think one of the, one of the themes that in our discussions, and what you’re sharing so far, we’re talking a lot about storytelling. And I think I would even when we think about that last mile of analytics today, one of the things that I really believe in is sort of that human-in-the-loop part of intelligence, or human-in-the-loop here, where there is all this technology.

And it’s super great and saves a lot of time, but I think having folks spending time to analyze things and that last, the way you’re phrasing it as the last mile, I like that. It really, it makes a big difference in what actually translates things from a really fancy data science project that we can all look at and reflect on how great and complex it is. That’s what translates that into something that we actually use to make different decisions on, and that’s where that last thing helps.

I wonder, kind of thinking about that through the lens of storytelling, you know, could you maybe talk a little bit about some of that insight driven storytelling and some of the impacts that that’s had?

[Heather]: Yeah! Great question and great, you know, just discussion points that you just made on all of that. And it’s kind of interesting, I still use… And Jason, you and I worked together, gosh 12+ years ago, 14 years ago? And working… You know, when we worked together, that was the very first data science model that I had seen come really to life, and the success of it that you know, that we were creating at that time. And I still use that story to this day as we’re starting to bring in data science models into production within the organization I’m at right now. So, absolutely, you know, I almost feel like I’m coming full circle from 12+ years ago in terms of what we started to be able to do.

And what I… What I think, you know, regarding storytelling, it’s really important for… And I teach a couple classes at Michigan State on it. In fact, two weeks ago, I was just up there teaching this as well to some of the data classes, the data analytics classes within the marketing, within the business school and marketing.

And one of the biggest things that you have to really understand, obviously, is your audience, but you have to also understand what you’re putting together. And it’s not just… At the end of the day, I always you know, say this, for probably just as long 10-12 years, you can’t just push something over the fence and say that the number is 8. What you want to be able to do and provide to your stakeholder, your senior leadership, whomever this… Whatever you’re doing is going to, whether it’s a report, a presentation, whatever, is describe everything going on around that number 8. What are all of the things that happen to make that number be 8? And then we can develop those strategic recommendations from there.

And I think it’s really important too that we understand as data analytics leaders and professionals, sometimes what you say isn’t gonna be a good story. But you… But that’s okay and that’s our job to not be… not have a bias. Everybody wants, you know, x campaign to work really, really well, or this sales strategy to work really well, or the launch of a new product. But being able to actually have that unbiased opinion and drive the necessary insights that will influence the direction of all of those different things, is really important.

And none of us should be afraid to be able… You know, none of us should be afraid to say that something didn’t work because that’s actually insight. So that’s actually us learning things as well, that’s going to shape future decisions and, you know, whether that’s feature strategies, product introductions, etc. So, there’s so many different instances where being able to add context to the numbers is going to really drive impact and influence within your organization. And I think another component of that is also understanding, you know, along with that ‘don’t just say the number is 8.’

Along with that is understanding that business decisions are made not just from logical sense, but we as humans also have an emotional side of our brain that works unconsciously, that we may not be aware of, is helping us make decisions on a daily basis. So with our insights and data storytelling, again, utilizing the data, the narratives, the individuals and playing to both the logical and the emotional side of any human’s brain is actually going to drive the strategic decision-making that you’re aiming to do with your results and your numbers.

[Jason]: I think, yeah. Reflecting back on our time that we worked together at Organic, the ad agency. I think that was super transformative. At least… I mean, for me, it sounds like for you as well, with regards to, like, consciously thinking about storytelling in a business setting. And one of the most valuable pieces of, there were a lot, but one of the most valuable things I took away from my experience at Organic was the Moth Storytelling training and those methods of setting the stakes, starting in the action, you know, landing the spaceship. Like, all of these sort of like, fundamental to storytelling kinda tools and methods and framing when it comes to giving a presentation or helping walk a client through a report.

How to Build a Story With Data

[Jason]: I wonder if there are any kinda, tips and tricks or methods that, you know, you might be using today that would help do this.

[Heather]: So these are kind like the four points of data storytelling that I like to teach my teams and teach folks about, but the first is obviously defining your story. What is the main thing in your presentation or your report that you want to get, you want to get the message across? What is the business decision that’s going to be made at the end of the day based on what you’re bringing to life? That’s going to help you define your story.

The second is display. And you’ll kinda notice that each one of these four sections here, you know, has one word and it begins with D. So, we’ve got define, now we’re on to display. And it’s, what is the best data visualization to be able to use? Is it an image? Is it an infographic? Is it a table? Is it a graph? Is it an impact picture or image, for example? So, there’s a lot of different things that you can do based on, not only your audience, but what type of information you’re trying to get across as well. So, displaying the best visualization would be the second.

The third is declutter. So that’s really removing any distracting or unnecessary information. And I go back to a lot of the days when we would do market research surveys, for example. There are so many questions in any given survey that being able to put all of that in a report is just unthinkable. You’re not gonna be… That’s just gonna be way too big. Your audience will get lost. What are the main things you want to put into this? And all of that other unnecessary information and data that you got from additional questions can go in an appendix, or go to, you know, different reports for different people. So, decluttering what you’re putting together is really important.

And then the last one is direct. So, directing your audience’s attention to the key components of your story. And a lot of that is how you just set up your slides. It’s how you set up your presentation. It’s how you write your introduction to, whether it’s on, you know, the header of a slide or the beginning of a paragraph in a report or in a white paper. So, the, you know, four Ds of storytelling: define, display, declutter and direct. Those are the big things that I really try to teach folks.

[Jason]: I love that, and I love the simplicity of it as a framework and the complexity that it lends itself too. That’s a really, I think that’s super useful. Thank you for sharing that. That that… That’s fantastic.

The Importance of Mentorship

[Jason]: I think, you know, when I hear things like that, to thinking about how we learned of them and how we kind of, you know, pick these things up along the way. I would imagine, like mentorship, has been important for you and it’s something that, you know, it sounds like you probably do some of yourself. I’m curious, you know, from in your experience, like, have you worked with… Or have you had folks that you considered to be mentors that helped you especially early in your career? And I’d love for you maybe to talk about how you’re, you know, currently maybe passing those learnings on to others today?

[Heather]: Yeah, absolutely. So outside of data, this is my other passion point in leadership which is mentoring junior staff. It absolutely, 100% comes back to the fact that I had a great mentor when I started my career. So, when I graduated from Michigan State, and this is obviously way back, you know, in the 1990s, really having an internship was just really starting to gain momentum. And people… A lot of people didn’t do that at that time. So, the program I was in actually required it for graduation, which I’m very thankful for.

But where I went to intern actually became who hired me right after college. And I think we both know him but Paul Ballew was his name, was my boss there. And then he went to General Motors and I followed him there as well. So really having that person from, quite honestly, day one of my internship through to, you know, almost a decade of working together was really, really great. And seeing, you know, what he could teach me through that time period and the experiences that were able to honestly come about from the different places that we worked and the clients that we worked on together.

So I love, as you, kind of you know, mentioned, I love to bring that back and come full circle with the, you know, the people that I’ve met. So I… You know, across, again, that all of the different cities across this country that I’ve lived in, there’s still folks that, you know, that have been on my teams or even people that I’ve interviewed that I’ve stayed close with that, you know, maybe didn’t accept the job at one of the companies I was at, who I still talk to, who still call me or text me for career advice, wanting me to, you know, help them look over their resumes or, you know, any one of these different things. And I just, I really continue to love doing that.

We have a really great mentor program here at Jackson where I’m at now. Where it matches… It matches a mentor and mentee up, based on a lot of different criterias and factors, and a personality and a mentor-desiring topic survey that they hand out. So I really engage in that every quarter. So we kind of have new mentors and mentees every quarter. So that’s really, really a good program. And I have actually quite a few mentees that are across different offices, so up in Michigan or in Chicago. So a lot of different, a lot of different places to meet and to influence the organization that way.

In addition to that, I also, my team runs the intern program for all of Nashville. So, we have… You know, we run and coordinate and really structure an entire eight-week program every summer for interns across the country, who spend a couple weeks here in Nashville, go back to wherever they’re living, and come back at the end of the program for a couple weeks as well. So that’s another place.

And we’ve actually had really good placement from the intern program. Three people actually from our summer cohort actually have already gotten full time jobs here in just a few months. A couple of them are graduating in December, and we have another offer going out to someone graduating in May. So really great opportunities to get involved with the folks that are up and coming throughout, you know, throughout this industry.

[Jason]: I love that. I mean, it’s great to see you really kind of giving back in a way that’s meaningful to you and that you had experience with yourself. And certainly, you know, you kinda, I’m sure, feel like you hit the lottery with Paul, you know, especially having him you know, seeing what he’s gone on to in his career too, right? Leading analytics at Ford after his role, I think he went right from GM to Ford if memory serves. I may not have his career path exactly right, but I worked with him a bit at Ford and he’s certainly a big visionary-type person, like, definitely big-picture thinking. And now he’s at the NFL. So, yeah, not a bad, not a bad path. And certainly not someone, you know, certainly someone that you’d… great to learn from. So kudos to you to find that too.

I think part of it too is being willing to take on, you know, like, being open and enough and, like, understanding enough the importance of learning from someone in that position. And so I think, like, you know, kudos to you for seeing and recognizing that at a young point in your career. Because not everybody does that, you know, it’s a take, it takes both sides, I think, to come to the table, to really get meaningful things out of it. So… Kudos.

Optimizing Business Practices with Data

[Jason]: So I think, you know, one of the, kinda circling back sort of, we talked a little bit about this, but sort of like, one of the questions that people, you know, in this field that we get asked a lot is, sort of, you know, prove that my marketing is working, right. So like, prove to me that this is working like, you know, show you along those lines. Like, so what maybe in your experience, you know, how has it been challenging for you to answer that question, which I’m sure you’ve been asked a thousand times?

[Heather]: And will continue to be asked a thousand more. Absolutely right. And, you know, that kinda comes back to, it’s okay if you… If if the data isn’t saying something worked really well. And being able to have that trusted role within your organization so that you can feel comfortable bringing those results to life regardless of the outcome is really, really important.

That’s not to say that everything’s gonna be negative in terms of data and what you’re gonna be reporting on, and presenting out on, but we do have to… Everyone has to really embrace the fact that we actually learn. And insights come from something not working, and that’s how we optimize and that’s how we get better campaigns. That’s how we get better activations, all of the above. As well as understanding that, you know, kind of statement about what somebody… Tell me something… Tell me this, you know, campaign or tell me this strategy is working really well.

We also have to make sure that we’re doing this over time. We’re measuring and tracking over time versus a snapshot in time, versus one moment, that’s, I’m making this up, ten days after the launch of the campaign. Sure, we want to know what happening. We want to understand in the first few days, in first few weeks, the success or trends in terms of what’s happening. But being able to gauge that over time is really important too.

So while we… You know, innovation and technologies given us data at our fingertips, there’s also things that we still need to be able to be patient for, and to wait to be able to collect enough data and information to draw the appropriate conclusions on, is also really important as well.

[Jason]: I like that, I mean I think that, yeah… What you’re describing there, those methods and things, those, you know, even transcend that question a bit and just really apply to a lot of different scenario. So I think that’s very useful. Thank you.

Culture Differences Across the US

[Jason]: And sort of one other, one last question I would just pose based on thinking about your career journey, right? So you actually… I think it’s very unique, the path that you’ve traveled. So between Detroit, Chicago, San Francisco, now Nashville, these are very different regions. These are very different, I think, kind of cultures. I’m just curious to know, this is from my perspective. You know, I’m curious to know, like, maybe just… Do you see these differences? And if so pros and cons? Like, what do you see kind of different in the different areas, and what do you, maybe, what do you love most about Nashville? Because I’m jealous about Nashville, quite frankly.

[Heather]: So much wrapped up in that for questions there. So first and foremost, my mom, even from when I was a little kid, would tell me that I was born with a suitcase in my hand. So I always was very, you know, wanting to travel, wanting to live in different places. And I’ve certainly been able to do a lot of that, which I’m very grateful for, and obviously grateful for my husband for, you know, sticking with me through all of that too.

But yes, there are differences. There’s differences East Coast, West Coast. West Coast would always say they’re the best coast. Then you have Chicago saying that they’re the best third coast. Then, you know, you’ve got the Great Lakes, which I’ve lived in, all can compete from a water standpoint, and now land-locked in Nashville. So very different terrains, very different, you know, climates from both a weather standpoint as well as you know, the types of organizations and companies that are in those cities.

So it’s been fascinating going from, you know, Detroit, that was historically, and now, obviously diversifying has been awesome for the city. But having it have such a central historical hub with automotive, you know. What I would notice and, you know, I’m know sure if you noticed this too, Jason, but people would just kind of go from GM to Chrysler to Ford, maybe not all three of them, to a supplier, to an ad agency, and it’s the same kind of group of, you know, group of folks. You know, moving around from company to company.

And then you go to Chicago and it’s very CPG focused, very, very consumer package goods focused, very tactical with their with, you know, their activations or their marketing campaigns and marketing strategies.

And then I, moving out to California and working in the Bay Area was you know, when I moved out there, I thought, well, for sure I’m gonna be working with, like, the Adobes and the Citrix’s and, you know, Oracles of the world, Salesforces of the world. And we did, I did at the companies I worked for. I thought going in, that they would have it all figured out. Like, they are the world’s top companies from a tech standpoint, they have for sure got all of their data roadmaps and strategies figured out, they’re making sense of their data.

We’re all in the same boat. None of us have done it perfectly. None of us, you know, we’re all still learning. They don’t have it perfect either. So, you know, it’s a little comforting to know you’re in good company with some of those firms too.

And then coming to Nashville, obviously, a very, very rapidly growing city, and moving here only, gosh, 4 months before Covid lockdowns was very interesting, because we didn’t even really get to get, you know, our feet on the ground or anything before we were basically home bound.

But I do… What I have noticed, to kind of round out and conclude your question is, before Covid, I noticed a significant amount of differences in just moving between two cities, or when I would go back and visit Chicago or Detroit. What I’ve found though since Covid is that, as people become more mobile, they can live wherever they want to, for the most part. They can work from home more often than they could. They can travel more, overseas even.

I feel like it’s become much more… We’re becoming much more… I well, I just… I don’t even know the word to say, we’re becoming much more… Homogeneous isn’t the right word because that’s not what I really mean.

[Jason]: That’s what was coming to my mind, the cultures are sort of blending more now is what it feels like. And so with that yeah. That movement in that, I get it.

[Heather]: Yeah. It it… It’s not just the blending, but it’s… We’re morphing. And, you know, people, some, you know, people I know in California were like, “why, I can’t believe you’re moving to Tennessee.” And it’s so much more diverse and populated and urban-centric than you would ever, you know, think if you had never visited here or have lived here or anything.

So, again, I think it’s just everything coming together post-Covid is allowing us to really get and work with the brightest and best people regardless of where they are, and I think that’s one of the best things that’s come out of, come out of the last few years.

[Anna]: Absolutely.

Final words of wisdom – Cultivate your natural curiosity

[Anna]: And thank you, Heather, again, so much for kind of walking us through your career path, and kind of learnings from that and sharing some of that advice for our listeners who might be looking to get into the data space or move around within the data space. I think it’s really important to hear from someone who has had, you know, a lot of different experiences in a lot of different areas. So, thank you again so much for taking the time to speak with us today.

[Anna]: Is there anything else that you would like to leave our listeners with before we close out the recording?

[Heather]: I think that just to, kind of conclude, I would say that if you’re interested, or are already a part of, you know, the data, business intelligence analytics space, continue to have that natural curiosity with your work. And never let go of that, regardless of what level you’re at or the type of role that you’re in. Always have that curiosity to understand the business, understand the business decisions that will be made and understand really what your organization is trying to do holistically from a data roadmapping and a data strategy standpoint.