After Sondergaard, analyst firms must take stock

Peter Sondergaard. Photo: Creative Commons by Norberto Gallego
Peter Sondergaard. Photo: Creative Commons by Norberto Gallego

The resignation of the industry’s most famous analyst, Peter Sondergaard, over workplace behaviour is an opportunity for the whole industry to take stock. I was interviewed by the Wall Street Journal for their report, and the grapevine is still buzzing with gossip about Sondergaard. However, the tensions and risks we have discussed above are not unique to him or to Gartner. Like other analyst firms, Gartner helps organisations to deal with risk. It has to mitigate and partially assume the risk.

Analysts must take risks

My doctoral research into the early years of Gartner found that its culture has always been sometimes one where brave and challenging positions have been taken. It’s produced stalking horses from its very beginning: hypotheses that had to be strong, rather than nuanced or accurate. Analysts have to be challenging and sometimes heroic but also seem comforting, reassuring and competent. The future is unknowable. Tech markets often refuse generalisation. As a result, analysts can sometimes take very challenging stances.
This can be a difficult balance for any senior analyst. Looking serene, but taking risks, is the classic challenge for organisational leaders in many fields. Analysts have to help clients to suspend their fears so they can start to think about the future and make difficult choices in a more strategic way. Analysts often have difficult relationships with their clients, and not only because of the different needs of buyers and sellers. Sometimes clients have quite unreasonable expectations, and analysts can end up in a surprisingly powerful role. There are no third party-rules, associations or codes of the type that guide journalists, financial analysts or PR people.

Downsides of risk

This can have downsides. Analysts become dancers and performers, with all the good and bad that involves. They can internalise their projected self-confidence and capacity for accepting risk and ambiguity. Analysts can get carried away by the feeling of influence, their confidence, and the respect that clients show them. They start to believe their own performance. The generic reality of men in authority within male-dominated organisations has to be layered over that position. And, perhaps, even the role of the performer has additional complexities: when they are playing a role, the appetite for using authority can be increased.
Of course, these challenges will be more acute for someone in Sondergaard’s position, who was not only the chief analyst but the voice of Gartner. Unlike its main competitor, Gartner’s current CEO has a background at McKinsey rather than as a career analyst. Gene Hall is an operational driver and manager of investor expectations. He’s quite unlike George Colony, a former Yankee analyst who founded Forrester and has led it for 35 years. This wisdom and insight has been valued for decades. In contrast, Gene Hall’s team has led Gartner through a remarkable development in its revenues and share price. Hall isn’t a futurologist in the way Colony is, which means Gartner’s head of research has a much higher profile. Sondergaard, of course, also had an ownership stake in the firm. That made his quick departure not only surprising and remarkable but rather dramatic inside the circle of managers who revolved the situation. No matter how acute this example is, however, nothing about it seems uniquely possible at Gartner. Other firms should take serious account of their own leadership and organizational culture. Even in the wake of the #MeToo movement, Gartner is more normal than abnormal in corporate America, and the analyst industry globally, by having only one woman in its leadership team, leading HR. Around the world, industry analysts are predominantly men while the people who do analyst relations are predominantly women.

Not unique to Gartner

Developing well-working cultures is obstructed in analyst firms by many factors. They often have ambiguous measures of success and uneven ideas about workplace culture. Unlike the professions, there is no accepted programme of initial training and ongoing professional development. In the report of our successful academic research project into analysts’ career vectors, my co-authors and I found that larger analyst firms tend to hire senior analysts from industry and from competitors rather than train people up from their early careers. Unlike many other professional services firms, analysts need to hit the ground running. As in other fields where people are thrown in at the deep end, impostor syndrome can be common.
These tensions and challenges are not unique to any one analyst firm, and each firm will find its own route to recognising and addressing them. Finally, as Joerg Kerler has hinted, clients have also to take responsibility for the tensions created by their own unrealistic expectations of analysts.
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