Influential Ellen

Resigning has meant a lot of reflecting. Best project? Best hotel stayed in? Best group ever? Best post-work drinking session? Funniest office moment? Lots of “top ten” lists have been created in my mind over the last seven days.

The one “best” lists I have been doing a lot is the people I have worked with. The best people I have worked with share some common characteristics. They have been eccentric, brilliant, creative, difficult, curious, insightful, passionate, unreasonable, pains-in-the-arse.

But who has had the most influence on my career? For that we need to go way back to 1999, where I quit my job as a surveycraft programmer at Colmar Brunton not sure about what I wanted to do and Ellen Baron said “Hey, why don’t you try out Qual? I need some help with project management. You ca do that part time while you work out what you want to do.”

In about two weeks I was bustling down Illawarra Road with a video camera filming a lady shop for food, and then back to her house in Petersham to film her cooking some Vietnamese dishes (which we got to eat!). I could not believe that people got paid to do this.  Ellen kept asking me things like “what did you notice about so-and-so”, and “How do you think this impacts the client question”.  She’d listen to what I said, encourage me to think more about an issue, and then let me get out and film more people. More people shopping and cooking for us. Teling us their stories. Introducing us to their families. Sitting down and eating with them. I used to go home and cook the dishes the ladies taught me. Then I edited the footage into a movie for the client. It was stuff I did at uni thinking I’d never be  able to get a chance to do in the “real world”. Yes – you could get paid to do ethnography. It was a revelation!

Then we analysed what we had seen. We drew diagrams, we talked, we threw ideas away. Ellen pulled everything together and we presented it to the client. They loved it. Everyone was excited about what they had seen. It is still my favourite project I have ever worked on.

Ellen left Colmar Brunton and went to The Leading Edge. I left Colmar Brunton and took a year off to try something else out and see if research was what I wanted to keep doing.  When I was thinking about getting back into research Ellen said “come and talk to them at TLE – it’s a good place to work.”

So that’s ten years ago. During that time Ellen continued to have a big influence on what I was doing. She had (and I’m sure still has) the wonderful ability to hear you trying to articulate an idea – then hand you a book to read, and say “have a look at this; there may be something in there for you.” So you went away and read the book, and had the “tah-dah!” moment. She’d let you find the answer yourself – knowing full well what it was, but not spoon feeding or telling you the way to go. Just suggesting, nudging, hinting. It made a lot of us great researchers. We picked up a lot. We began to flex our own muscles, so she’d challenge us with bigger issues, bigger roles, bigger stakes. But she’d aways be there to help; and again, not by taking over and telling you the answer, but by working with you, and giving you the spit and polish on a project to make it sing. I was really sad when she left TLE (in 2008?) but excited for her as she set up her own company, Ruby Cha Cha.

I am indebted to Ellen for a few things. The first is making research fun. Fun for researchers but also the participants of research, so we all got a lot of joy out of it. She is a huge consumer advocate – fighting their case in boardrooms all about the place. She taught us all that their stores were the centre of being successful, and if we could convey their issues and needs then we’d done a great job.

The second is being in my corner more times than I could count. I was a stubborn little shit at the start of my career. Difficult, feisty and more often than not a pain-in-the-ass. And if things were ever going a bit awry it was Ellen who would tell me to pull my head in and encourage me to keep going.

Ellen – you got me into a career that has been infinitely interesting, challenging and most of all fun. Thanks for your patience and brilliance!

Who would you say your greatest mentor or supporter is? How have they impacted your life or career?

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