77. Using people data and how to prepare for the Future of Work | Robert Chan, Head of People Analytics, City National Bank


Robert Chan | Head of People Analytics at City National Bank


Welcome to Episode 77 of The Future of Work, the podcast that looks at every aspect of work in the future, featuring industry experts and thought leaders discussing how work is changing and evolving. The Future of Work is NOW.

Episode 77 of Chaos & Rocketfuel the Future of Work podcast, in part, attempts to answer the question “why is it important to measure employee performance?”

To answer it we connect with Robert Chan who is Head of People Analytics at City National Bank. Robert uses people data in his quest for successful digital transformation.

In this first episode with Robert, we get to hear his personal story of how a numbers man saw a gap on the people side and used his background in analytics and statistics to start a new role at CNB as Head of People Analytics. It’s a great conversation, highlighting that if you have a goal; plan, persevere, and make it happen.


Robert Chan 1


Robert is the Senior Vice President, and Head of People Analytics, with a focus on Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI), at City National Bank (CNB). He utilizes data to deliver insights regarding talent acquisition, retention, promotion, movement, and DEI. 

Robert earned a BA in Economics and an MA in Statistics from Harvard University and an MBA from the University of Chicago.




[00:00:00] - Robert Chan
Your career should be ideally a mix of what you're good at and what you enjoy because if you are good at something but you don't enjoy it, then you're not going to stick with it, and if you enjoy it but you're not good at it, then other people won't let you stick at it.

[00:00:18] - Doug Foulkes
Hello, and welcome to episode 77 of Chaos & Rocketfuel: The Future of Work Podcast. This is the podcast that's all about the future of work, and it's brought to you by WNDYR, Claire Haidar is the CEO at WNDYR and she's my cohost. Claire, nice to chat to you again this week. How are you doing?

[00:00:41] - Claire Haidar
I'm excited about this episode today because it's a bit of an outlier to the typical guests that we bring on.

[00:00:48] - Doug Foulkes
Tell us a little bit more about it then. I know we're talking to Robert Chan, he's the Head of People Analytics at City National Bank. How come he's on the podcast?

[00:00:57] - Claire Haidar
We reached out to him organically because of his role that he holds at City National Bank. So he's Head of People Analytics, and we just wanted to have a conversation with him to learn from him about how his role has changed in the last two years. And within five minutes of getting on the call with him, I just knew he had to come onto the podcast. His background is absolutely fascinating. This is somebody who has a pure finance background.

[00:01:27] - Claire Haidar
He essentially pitched this role to his seniors in the organization and has created this role, Head of People Analytics, from the ground up. Naturally, it's not a new role. I mean, this role exists in other organizations, but the piece that really fascinates me, and this is where we're really going to delve into this conversation with Robert, is the fact that he's coming from a finance background. That's very unique, total outlier, and not something that you see very common. You do not generally see people with finance backgrounds in people roles.

[00:01:59] - Doug Foulkes
Great. I'm looking forward to our conversation with him. So from my side, Robert, it's so nice to meet you, and welcome to the podcast.

[00:02:07] - Robert Chan
Thank you so much, Doug, Claire. Thank you so much for giving me this opportunity to meet with you today and talk about my story.

[00:02:14] - Doug Foulkes
So let's kick off, Robert. I'd like you just to take us back in time and just share your career trajectory that you've walked through just before making your latest move.

[00:02:24] - Robert Chan
Yeah, absolutely. So just to give you a bit of background, I grew up in Los Angeles and I moved straight across the country for college. So I went to Harvard University for my undergrad, and also got a master's degree in statistics undergrad and economics. And I had always had this interest in business and finance, and so I made my way into that world. Worked in New York initially doing some asset management, and then I had worked in a bunch of different places, mostly in corporate finance.

[00:02:58] - Robert Chan
I moved to Chicago at one point, worked in corporate finance and also worked in strategy. At the same time, I was also working in banking, doing corporate banking, which means I was meeting with clients and product managing an international product. I then made my way back to New York to work in investment banking at a boutique investment banking firm. It was at that point that I felt like I wanted to have a change in terms of my location, career. I missed home, so I made a decision to move back to LA right around nine, 10 years ago.

[00:03:37] - Robert Chan
And I did that, and then made my way to City National Bank, which is the institution that I'm still at. I was hired on to do something called stress testing, which is something that I had no real direct experience in, but at the time, is very new. I started out doing that first as an individual contributor, then as we merged with Royal Bank of Canada in 2015, I had the opportunity to grow that team to about 20 people. So that was a great experience, just growing a team from scratch, and I got to mentor and coach and I found that I really, really enjoyed that part of my role, sometimes more than the stress testing itself.

[00:04:23] - Robert Chan
And at the same time, at our institution, in our division specifically, of our finance division, there is a move to focus on people, and this was about 2019 at this point. I raised my hand, actually, to lead this initiative, and this initiative we called internally 'the people committee', and the idea is to focus on people within our division departments in terms of career focus, career development, communications, making sure that people's mental wellbeing was... At least people had an avenue to go to, and did a lot with regard to culture and made sure that people had fun. So we had a social component to it.

[00:05:08] - Robert Chan
Literally, right before the pandemic, obviously I had no idea the pandemic would happen, but this was about a month before, about February, I moved to lead a team, a financial planning team, financial planning and budgeting team, because I had some experience doing that, and that led me to what I'm doing today.

[00:05:26] - Claire Haidar
Robert, just such a fascinating story, and this is what I particularly want to call out to our audience. We asked Robert this question so that you can see how deeply this man is steeped in finance. His whole world is finance, and yet here he is in a job today that is all about people analytics.

[00:05:47] - Robert Chan
I want you to talk to us about that period, leading up to this. What were the data points that sort of connected over however long it was, it may have been weeks, months, that made you go, "I'm going to jump from this world of finance that I've been in for my entire career into essentially the world of HR"? Sometimes people, and I am guilty of this too, which is giving advice to people that I don't follow myself.

[00:06:18] - Claire Haidar
I'll raise my hand on that one too.

[00:06:21] - Robert Chan
And I realized that I was a natural at mentoring, growing that stress testing team, and I had participated in mentoring programs within my institution, formal mentoring programs, informal program, and people just saw me and just asked, "Hey, Robert, I'm trying to navigate my career, if you have any insights," and I became kind of a go to guy for that. And I realized that I really enjoyed this, and so the advice that I gave to people is that your career should be ideally a mix of what you're good at and what you enjoy because if you are good at something, but you don't enjoy it, then you're not going to stick with it, and if you enjoy it, but you're not good at it, then other people won't let you stick at it. So it's got to be the mix of both. And obviously, as one where you're able to earn a living of your satisfaction as well. And ideally, as well, meaning, but that's a lot to have in one role.

[00:07:20] - Robert Chan
So I was at a point in my career where I said, "How do I really find those things in terms of a mix of what I wanted to do and what I was good at and interested in?"So I had mentioned before that I had a master's in statistics, and with the stress testing role, a lot of it was quantitative, so I actually did use my quantitative statistical background. We did perform regression work, we forecasted balance sheets, income statements and capital using that, and so I always had this quantitative bent to me. And as I mentioned before, I enjoyed doing the HR stuff. I enjoyed mentoring and coaching, I also enjoyed doing the people committee. It was a lot of fun, and so I just kind of took those things into account and said, "Well, is there a way where I could combine those endeavors into a role or into something that I could do?" And so that's when I just did more research and happened upon people analytics as a potential career.

[00:08:16] - Doug Foulkes
So Robert, maybe the obvious question is, how do you go about creating a role that actually doesn't exist? What was your thought process about creating the role of 'people analyst'?

[00:08:29] - Robert Chan
Very, very good question. I think I had a few tailwinds that helped me. One was that it was an industry that existed elsewhere. So essentially, if you look at the large tech companies and forward-thinking companies, a lot of them have people analytics groups. So it wasn't that I was proposing to create a new industry out of nowhere, this existed in a lot of larger financial institutions. And actually even in our own parent company, at RBC, we had a people analytics team as well.

[00:08:59] - Robert Chan
So I think that was one factor, and another factor is the fact that frankly, at that time, that was really the time of racial reckoning, if you will, with regard to George Floyd and that whole time really created a tidal wave of awakening and awareness of diversity, equity, inclusion, more so than I think that had existed before. I mean, it was around, but I think this really just created this tidal wave. And so I think those two things combined allowed me to make a case to create a people analytics role at my institution.

[00:09:33] - Claire Haidar
So before we move on from that, can you go into the detail with us where you can, where it's not confidential? Who were the internal champions that you got onto your side who helped you to bring this forward? What were those conversations that you were having internally that eventually got you to an actual job spec?

[00:09:54] - Robert Chan
Yeah, absolutely. That's a great question. First of all, I think you have to have a foundation in order to make a move like this. I had a foundation of being at the institution at that point for seven, eight years, I had built up a good track record, good reputation. So first of all, it was building upon that foundation. If you don't have that foundation, you don't have the institutional support from people, this is a very difficult move to make. So that's step one, is I had proven myself in different roles and people knew who I was, so I think that was step one.

[00:10:25] - Robert Chan
Step two is now thinking about, "Okay, how do I go about this?" Because it can sometimes be a sensitive thing to bring up with your manager, and sometimes it's about having difficult conversations because people say that the definition of insanity is trying the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. And I realize that you're always the steward of your own career. No one's going to come to you and say, "Hey, maybe you should try this." Maybe they will, but it's incumbent upon you to really make things happen, and frankly, I think a part of it was just general unhappiness with what I was doing at that point in time. So I think that if you're unhappy in your career and you do nothing, then you know that tomorrow will look a lot like today. And so I think a lot of it was motivated by my unhappiness at that point in time.

[00:11:17] - Robert Chan
And then in terms of specific people, even though I had moved from stress testing to this financial budgeting planning role, I still had the same boss throughout this entire time, and I had very good rapport with him. So that's a critical piece of making move is A, having your manager's support. And so I approached him one day and said, "Hey, I know this may be a difficult conversation to have, but I'd like to make a move." And it is a difficult conversation to have, but frankly, I knew that he would be supportive. Well, I guess you never really know. I had a high probability that he would be supportive, and it turned out that I was right.

[00:11:53] - Robert Chan
And so it started with that conversation about, "Okay, well, what do you want to do next?" "Well, okay, I love the HR piece of this. I've always been technical in terms of the quantitative side, I have a master's in statistics, I know there's this need for more robustness around our data and people, so how about something like this?" And behind the scenes, my boss talked with the Head of HR to try to lay the foundation, and I eventually talked to the Head of HR about this and had to do an internal sales pitch, essentially, for the role. Because as you mentioned before, it's not one that existed, it's not one where they had a requisition out there saying, "We are looking for a Head of People Analytics." No, this was something that was just out of the blue that I said, "Hey, this is something that would be cool, can I get into this or not?"

[00:12:48] - Robert Chan
So I spoke with the Head of HR about this. It was not an easy discussion because if it's something that you want enough, you go have that discussion. And I had to do some convincing. I think a lot of it helps was that I also talked to our parent company, RBC, and folks who are doing people analytics there and I think that that gave some sort of a foundation and background to say, "Hey, this is not something that's exactly new to the organization as a whole, as our parent company does this. This would just be kind of like an extension of what we're doing there, but over in the City National Bank."

[00:13:26] - Robert Chan
So that's how the conversation went. And also too, as I mentioned before, with the tailwind around diversity, equity, inclusion, I think that created more of an impetus to create this role. So I think with all of those things happening, I think it was seen at the management level that, "Hey, we should have some sort of analytics around our HR data, and that's how this role was born."

[00:13:52] - Claire Haidar
It's super valuable what you've just raised there, Robert, because I think, particularly if... I think of the younger people in our own company who often find themselves in situations where they're just at the start of their career and are so agitated to learn more and grow into different areas, but they don't know how to balance that with the patience of actually just staying long enough to really build enough momentum to move forward. I think what you've just highlighted for us is you had a very strong foundation in place, you had rapport with the important people who could unlock this for you, and you'd built that proven track record that there was that base level of trust that yes, it was a hard conversation to have and it definitely wasn't like, "Oh, sure. Here's the job spec. Let's sign off on a new contract," there was convincing to do. But because you had done the work to build that initial foundation, you were able to move the difficult pieces forward. And I think very often people in the early parts of their career forget that, that that initial building is so critical to being able to do these really exciting, big, innovative, out-of-the-box moves in your career a little bit later on.

[00:15:12] - Robert Chan
Yeah, absolutely right. And I think about young people starting their careers today, and people are talking about the move to remote work and all that, and I would say that it may have been very difficult to build up that level of rapport and trust over those many years before the pandemic remotely. So I would say that especially at the beginning of your career, in person and building relationships is a very important piece of that.

[00:15:37] - Robert Chan
I was fortunate enough having been at the institution for several years that I had existing relationships in place that I could leverage for this. And I built PowerPoint decks around what my vision of what this role would be, so it was a whole thing. And yeah.

[00:15:55] - Doug Foulkes
Interesting. I'm sure, Claire, you could comment there on how you can build those relationships now in a totally remote environment.

[00:16:03] - Claire Haidar
Yes, but we're not going to go there. I'm going to stop myself.

[00:16:06] - Doug Foulkes
We're not going to go there today. And that brings us to the end of the first part of a conversation with Head of People Analytics at City National Bank, Robert Chan. Certainly an interesting story of how one man changed his career path by seeing a gap and then exploiting the prevailing circumstances to make it happen. Make sure to catch the next two parts of this conversation on Spotify, Google, or Apple podcasts, or on WNDYR's website. That's wndyr.com. But from Claire and myself, we'll see you soon.

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