Helen Hunter

Group Chief Data Officer - Sainsbury's Supermarkets Ltd

What motivates you on a daily basis – what gets you up in the morning?

I’m an arts-based, right-brain thinker and yet here I am in the data and tech space. So what is it about this world that I find so compelling? For me, data is about stories, and I love listening to and telling stories.  We are trained to tell new stories about our customers in order to understand them better and that offers up such a world of possibility.

How has a setback or obstacle shaped you?  

When I think about a point in my career that stands out, it was a time when two things collided quite closely together. The first was that my father died very suddenly in his early 60s. The second was that I found myself in a very big job at quite a young age. It was a job that I was intellectually ready for, but not emotionally ready to do. I was significantly younger than my peer set in the company and I just didn’t have the tools or the ability to ask for help in the right way. I turned to myself to find a solution and concluded that things were my failings and that I needed to work harder. Once you start to work in that way – working longer and longer hours, trying to solve more and more yourself, and delegating less to your people – all that happens is you become very tired and less emotionally capable to deal with what’s going on. It ends up in this horrible cycle of badness.

I left the organisation and I now look back on that as one of the darkest times in my career but the experience has completely framed who I am today.

How do you feel about doing things differently?

If I reflect on my younger self, I can see now that I was very conscious about the fact I was different and that really bothered me then, as it does a lot of young people. We’re social animals and we want to feel a part of something. Yet now, being different and saying the things that others won’t say, makes me very valuable. As the importance of inclusivity increases you should cherish the things that make you different, because they make you unique.

What advice would you give your teenage self?

I’d shake my younger self by the shoulders and tell her that there are so many more choices out there than she can ever possibly explore! One of the things that is so hard when you’re at school is imagining all of the opportunities that exists in the world, but if you’re brave, and if you work hard, things will work out.

Being different and saying the things that others won’t say, makes me very valuable
Do you lean on others to gain strength?

I’m a big, big advocate for getting help but completely empathise with those who aren’t yet ready to take that step. It requires bravery to do so.  I would encourage people to think about maintaining connections with past line managers, brilliant people they’ve worked with in their teams when they change roles, and people they’ve admired in external organisations.

How do you gain confidence?  

I don’t feel confident most of the time but I’ve learnt to be brave. I don’t love standing up in front of large groups of people and talking, but I can be brave about it and prepare myself. I don’t like being put on the spot to do maths, I’ll panic inside, but I can be brave enough to tackle it. To sound really clichéd, it’s a case of feel the fear and do it anyway.  

Can you tell us about the significant object that you’ve chosen?

I’ve chosen dominoes. I think I bring the ability to connect disparate conversations, disparate people and disparate thoughts across our organisation, and bring them together to make a coherent whole. I’m all about connecting and joining the dots and synthesising them into something holistic.