Elizabeth Oates, Kohl’s: Core Skillset for Making an Impact

Elizabeth Oates is the Director of Consumer and Brand Insights for Kohl’s Department Stores. While completing her MBA in Market Research at the University of Wisconsin, she worked on research teams at Lands’ End and American Family Insurance. Upon receiving her degree, she worked for General Mills for five years before finding herself at Kohl’s, where she has been since 2011.

Fueled by Passion and Self-Improvement

With over a decade of experience in her field, Elizabeth has determined that her position as a market researcher is, first and foremost, to be the voice of the customer. To her, acting as the customer brings passion into the role.

“Speaking for the customer is meaningful because it allows me have an impact on our organization, our strategy, and how we move forward. Having everyone in this organization be customer-centric is my goal.”

Elizabeth explained that she often finds herself recommending strategy that balances customers and the company.  She notes that while the customers’ wants are important, they have to be balanced with what’s in the best interest of the company. “It’s a tough but critical balancing act!” She remarks. “But we also can’t just do what’s right for us. The important thing for me as a market researcher is not just understanding customers and how they think, but also understanding the business and how we operate. The pendulum can’t swing too far one way or the other, or your actions will get distorted.”

This mentality is something that drew me to sit down with Elizabeth in the first place. She is committed to making the best decisions for her organization, the customers they serve, and the team she leads. Her success is fueled by her constant efforts for self-improvement.

Open to Honest Feedback

“To be successful, you need to push beyond your comfort zone, do the things you love, and get feedback on your processes,” Elizabeth explains. “I recently asked my boss to help me get comprehensive feedback from my team, and I am totally open to the good, the bad, and the otherwise. I need that feedback. I need to hear if what I’m doing isn’t working, or if it could have gone better, because it’s going to make me better in the end.”

For years, Elizabeth has also relied on mentors to give her feedback, and to help her make and achieve her professional goals. She says these relationships have given her opportunities she couldn’t have received otherwise. “With each of my mentors, they took a chance on me when I wasn’t sure what they saw in me. That made me grateful, but it also gave me pride in my abilities, which inspired me to work harder.”

Elizabeth sees the value in paying it forward and acting as a mentor herself. Her advice to a researcher just stepping into the field is similar to the advice she received from her own mentors. “Try every methodology you can get your hands on,” She advises. “Don’t be afraid to fail. In fact, there’s no wrong method—only the right one for the right project. Even if it doesn’t work out as you intended, and it feels like you got everything wrong, you’ll learn from your mistakes.”

9 Core Skills for Customer Insight

As a leader and a researcher, Elizabeth has created 9 core skills that she deems essential to have in order to succeed in insights. At every interview, she pulls them out as a reminder of the skills she’s looking for, and then evaluates the candidates based on those skills.

She says this process helps her to identify if a candidate has what it takes to make an impact. “And you know what?” she says. “Of those 9, only 2 of them are actually about doing market research. The other 7 are traits that will assist them in making an impact on the organization, such as communicating, learning, or connecting the dots.

1. Flawless Execution of Projects

“The first core skill is about getting your project done on time and on budget. This is the actual doing of qualitative and quantitative research in a way that reflects the right priorities and needs of the business.”

2. Insight Identification & Development

The second skill is not solely about executing the project, she explains, but if you can actually see something in the data you find, whether it be qualitative or quantitative. “Can you get to the end result?” She asks. “Can you do it consistently, and in a way that is impactful for the business? It’s not just plain facts, it’s finding what the audience needs to know.”

3. Clarity in Written Communication

To Elizabeth, clarity is everything.  In written communication, she’s looking for someone who is just as clear in communicating in the reports that they write, as they are in the emails they send.

4. Development of Partnerships

“This is the idea that Insights don’t work in a vacuum. I have to be able to develop partnerships with my merchants, product developers, and marketers, to create a level of trust with them that we can help and be providers of ideas for them. Because if I’m just sitting over here and shouting, and no one’s listening, nothing I do really matters.”

 5. Effective Verbal Communication

Elizabeth deliberately separated verbal from written communication, because she recognizes that they’re two different skillsets. Verbal could be 1-on-1 conversations, discussions around a table, or presentations in an auditorium. Without both written and oral communication skills, it becomes another instance of finding the insight, but not being able to tell anyone about it.

6. Business & Contextual Understanding

It’s vital to find the balance between what’s right for the customer and what’s right for the business. Elizabeth believes her role is to be the voice of the customer, and to communicate that to stakeholders within her organization.

“However, I also need to know where the business is, and what they are able to control,” she says. “I want to ensure that I’m not offering solutions that are out of context for anyone, or I’ll become very uninteresting to them, very quickly.”

7. Influencing the Business & Partners to Drive Results

How do you inspire action within the business and its partners? Elizabeth suggests an effective market researcher would try multiple methods of presenting the insights until they land on what drives results.  “Success in this role is about influencing someone to make a decision or to take action.  I don’t have time to just be interesting.  I have to inspire action.”

8. Cross-Source Data/Insight Synthesis

This skill pertains to a researcher who can combine existing research with new findings. Not only is it a smart practice, but it’s good for the business. It saves time, money, and resources to continuously ask yourself, “what do I already know, and what studies have already been done?”  And, in today’s environment Elizabeth notes, “Data is everywhere.  We don’t want to get lost in it, but we can’t ignore it, either.  And not ignoring it means synthesizing existing data with new insights.”

9. Proactive Planning & Understanding of When/Where to Insert Insights

Once partner relationships have been established, Elizabeth stresses the importance of being proactive about the future. An effective market researcher will ask when research needs to be done for the next project, and when is right time to insert the insights, and where they should go. Being proactive, Elizabeth says, makes a person impactful, and not just interesting.

“I recognize that no one has all nine of these, myself included,” she admits. “I’m working on these too, but I want to help my team do a self-evaluation, so they can identify where their gaps are.”

It’s clear that what makes Elizabeth an effective researcher is the same as what makes her an effective leader: she holds her team to the same standard she holds herself to. “Being self-aware allows my team, and myself, to proactively think about how we can make an impact. Being aware of their skills helps me put my team members in positions where they can succeed, learn, and leverage their strengths.”


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