/ Finding Balance Between People and Data

An interview with Jim Slagle, VP of Business Intelligence and Data Analytics at Apria Healthcare.

As one of the nation’s leading providers of home respiratory services and medical equipment, Apria Healthcare operates over 300 locations throughout the United States. Their VP of Business Intelligence and Data Analytics, Jim Slagle, is a self-proclaimed data nerd with a background in analytics. He brings that technical knowledge together with exceptional interpersonal understanding to form a unique, highly-effective leadership style.

You’ve had an amazing career centered around data. What originally drew you towards data, and what keeps you interested in it?

Thank you—I came out of college with a general business degree, before later obtaining an MBA. My father was a big influence. He was an accountant and had us do football predictions in spreadsheets when we were kids. I later landed a role in the aerospace industry, in budgeting—at the time, it was McDonnell-Douglas—and it was right when things were starting to transition to spreadsheets and companies began using a more data-driven approach.

What I love about working with data is that the analytics can provide context for any type of business problem, and that helps provide definition for problem-solving. The data is that framework and foundation and if you can put a fence around something, it gives you a great start. As a leader, it is also important to be cognizant that data is always evolving. Even if you set up a data framework to support your business, it needs to be scalable and flexible as business needs change.

How do you measure success for your role?

At Apria, we quantitatively measure things for various functional groups, so we’re always trying to keep things simple, accountable and transparent. I sit with our CFO and we prioritize everything together—making sure we gain adoption, ensuring that developed solutions meet the business requirement and are actionable and immediate. We also measure things closely, on a day-to-day, hour-by-hour basis. Outside of staffing well, success is seeing the needle move in the right direction. Often the data is a means to that end.

I’m always looking back at our developing portfolio. Are our processes working how they should? Do we have enough bandwidth to work on growth-related items? It’s vitally important to focus on the right things. To me, success is how well we’re positioning the company towards growth and future scalability. That’s what I feel we should always be doing as an organization. That’s what drives me. That’s why I like going to work.

What does it take to lead with data?

It’s a constant iterative process. Data is one piece of it, but within an organization, it becomes mindset-driven to a large degree. Some functional groups are really open to data, new platforms and new technologies. However, other functional groups may be a little more resistant or territorial, and it’s important to help those who are resistant achieve a quick win. We aim to empower people and help them feel that they have been understood, to translate their data to success using methods that may be foreign to them. It needs to feel non-threatening and collaborative. Once that initial win and trust is established, it can feel groundbreaking to them since they were a big part of it, even if it’s a technology they’re not immediately comfortable with.

Instead of taking what a business partner says verbatim and simply doing it without questioning it, I like to have my team go in and actually learn the business function, becoming subject matter experts themselves. If we can help add business expertise along with the technical component, this is the definition of a true partnership to me.

Are there unique challenges for data in the healthcare space?

Absolutely. Healthcare has some legacy processes and related infrastructure. When you go to a doctor, they write a prescription on a pad of paper, and that is only the start of the paper trail. It can be hard to get everybody on the same platforms, and a lot of vital components in the industry are still dependant on manual and or paper process.

The healthcare industry is moving online. Some government regulations are requiring the industry to become leaner and more collectively focused on getting things from point A to B. This will impact not only the prescription process, but also making sure records from doctors’ visits are transparent, and that there is one single source of truth.

There’s so much opportunity in the healthcare industry, just like we see with other large industries, like automotive and finance. Every day, there’s a challenge – whether it’s with customers, partners, or referral sources – because the closer you get to the referral, or the physician, the more manual the process becomes. It’s a constant challenge, but a massive opportunity. This is what makes it exciting to go to work every day.

What do you see as the job description of the future when it comes to data?

Having somebody independent from day-to-day fire drills who can collectively understand what drives a business, evaluate it, look at the big picture, and say, “Okay, this is where data can help us, and these are our opportunities to structure data, and these are the technologies that can help us.” There are Chief Data Officers in existence already, but I think what is missing at times is an understanding of the core business. Data needs to be structured and align with the core business objectives and strategies. Just asking, “What are our core competencies and how do we leverage those?” It sounds simple enough, and I believe that is where the focus should be the majority of the time.

Data is a resource. How do we leverage it, and how do we structure it to be actionable and accountable? We typically use data as a framework to support a larger process. If a piece of data is passive—meaning we can’t do something operational with it, or we can’t use it to move the needle—then we move it to the side. Businesses are complex in nature, but data and technology in general should make business challenges more easily interpretable, not less.

“What I love about working with data is that analytics can help you frame any type of business problem and get you from one place to the other.”

How do you manage your time and find a good work-life balance?

I am very efficient with my time both personally and professionally, I like to make lists for everything. However, I sometimes personally struggle with work/life balance because work issues are always on my mind and I could do better at compartmentalizing them when I am at home. Technology has made accessibility to people a 24/7 reality, especially when systems are involved, making it more challenging than in the past. When I was doing development work in the consulting world, I really struggled with this because I always felt like the projects were in a perpetually unfinished state—that was the nature of it, we always had multiple, intense engagements that we worked on simultaneously and weren’t able to spend much time celebrating at the finish line. Much of this is probably a mindset and self-induced, and I do recognize the need to get better and I will. Every year I say I’m going to do better at achieving balance but this year I am going to make it a priority. If you have any good vacation recommendations please let me know!

What’s your favorite business book?

The old Dale Carnegie book, How to Win Friends and Influence People. I think it’s a great foundation. I’m naturally an analytical person. But as I get older, I notice parts of business happening outside of the structure, in gray areas. Relationships are important. You have to be comfortable and confident about engaging with others. It’s hard to be a leader without that skill set because you can only be technical for so long. The book helped me understand the interpersonal side to business, and having better relationships, and understanding what makes other people tick. You never know when a relationship could help one or both of you, in that capacity, and that has been a big part of my career as I look back—even more than the technical part. It’s the people you meet and the relationships you have fostered.

What are the opportunities you can see today that leaders need to know about?

I see a lot of leaders not empowering their teams enough and not hiring well enough. It’s so important to get the collective group harnessed and focused—a team is really just the sum of the parts. It’s such a simple concept, but really try to set your team up for success. Make sure that all they need to do is focus on execution, and they’re going to be successful.

It’s really taking a more hands-off approach, creating a culture where employees can do their best work. As the leader, there are a lot of things you can do to make it easier for your team. You can take away some of the political aspects. You can make sure they’re working in the right role, with the right information, they’re communicating with the right people, and they have the right career development plan in place. Establishing the proper culture is imperative for success.

What would be your advice for someone trying to be a good, communicative manager on a technical team?

Don’t be afraid to leverage your team. To me, that’s the part that’s most exciting—that on a day-to-day basis, people are developing and can often surprise you in moments of crisis or stress. I enjoy the collaboration. It’s such a highly technical business, but I’ve learned that you absolutely need that interpersonal piece, too. The hardest thing in my career—and I still fight it every day—is making that move from being the behind-the-scenes technical resource to being a leader. They’re often worlds apart, but I had to make a conscious choice to lead several years ago. Instead of burying myself in data when things got intense, I would step back and try to look at what’s broken or ask what the team could get better at. Or focus on the process as a team instead of burying myself in something analytical alone. My life has changed for the better because of that.

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