Scott Royal, president and CEO of Westat, recently spoke with ExecutiveBiz regarding his appointment as CEO, his strategy for growing the company through leveraging research expertise and specialized IT capabilities, and his approach to dealing with the “new normal” in a COVID-19 world.
“What we are learning through this process is that we are faced with challenges, but we can rise to those challenges if we think innovatively, if we are flexible, and if we develop targeted solutions.”
ExecutiveBiz: Since your appointment in March 2020 as CEO, how have you implemented a leadership approach to encourage growth?
Scott Royal: “I was at Westat as president for about 2 years before assuming the role of CEO and worked closely with the previous CEO before the transfer of leadership, so I came into the role having a great familiarity with the company, our people, and the business operations.
The start of my tenure as CEO at Westat coincides with the COVID pandemic and so has necessarily been shaped by the effects of that on our people, our work, and our client relationships. I have targeted two approaches that drive my response.
One is communication. We have worked hard to provide clear, consistent, and up-to-date communications to our staff from my early days at the company. It’s more important than ever with staff working remotely. We also focus on communication with our clients to better understand their needs and how to respond effectively.
The other approach is creating an environment that fosters innovation and creativity. This has been critical to our ability to meet client expectations during the pandemic and to ensure existing strategic plans stay on track.
Since we were all working remotely after the stay-at-home order was instituted, we created a regular internal outreach newsletter, Westat Works. We highlight innovations related to the challenges of the pandemic, as well as examples of how our staff are going the extra mile. It gives us an opportunity to both showcase the work and show appreciation to Westat’s hard-working staff, who are energized and inspiring each other.”
ExecutiveBiz: How has your background in public health prepared you for today’s challenges and how has Westat adapted to those challenges?
Scott Royal: “My public health background helped me to understand from the very beginning the sorts of challenges the COVID-19 virus could pose for our business. I was able to make key decisions early.
I knew Westat was well positioned to quickly offer our clients relevant solutions to some of the challenges that the world was facing. I was able to reach out to leaders in our health practices and say, “There’s a lot we can do to help. Make sure that we communicate that to our clients.” Focusing on our capabilities was key.
Our workforce understands that the evolving nature of research requires a quick, data-driven response. We’ve been able to take our capabilities, content knowledge, and evidence-based focus to adapt to client needs based on what’s happening during the pandemic.
For example, we’ve worked with the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI), conducting research that engages blood donation study sites across the country. NHLBI realized that, because of all this data that we’re already collecting, we could actually answer additional research questions about COVID-19. We developed protocols through working with their labs to help NHLBI better understand the prevalence of COVID-19 and understand the natural history of the disease.”
ExecutiveBiz: How has Westat leveraged IT capabilities for analyzing data, and how have you integrated these statistics for your clients?
Scott Royal: “Much of our work centers around data, and our IT capabilities help support our researchers with every stage of our projects, from developing complex statistical methodologies, to data collection, to data management, and, ultimately, to reporting.
Westat conducts some of the largest data collection surveys for the federal government, such as the National Assessment of Educational Progress and the Medical Expenditure Panel Survey. And we use methods ranging from in-person and telephonic interviews, to collecting institutional data from schools or hospitals, to actually doing physical exams.
On projects where we are collecting the data, our technical platforms help implement our researchers’ methodology. Then our technical platforms help with data collection, as with the software our in-person interviewers use to guide survey questions and to document responses. On other projects, we use already-collected data that are accessed electronically, like administrative records and anonymized medical records, to see what trends look like.
In both cases, data management and security are important capabilities. For health research, we’re working with complex databases to understand health trends. We are also working across multiple clinical sites to transmit data securely, and properly manage and analyze our findings. That speaks to both our statistical capability as well as our IT capability.
The next step, depending on the data collected and the research question, is to analyze the data. We can do it in a more traditional way, like taking a research question and applying traditional statistical analytic methodologies, or we can apply data analytics or data science methodology and look for potential trends. We have the data analysis capability and the familiarity with large data required to address the research question from either direction.
Having highly skilled technical staff who understand research methods are essential. They ensure our technology supports our researchers and facilitates—never impedes—innovation.”
ExecutiveBiz: What advice do you have for other leaders as they guide their companies through this new normal, and what will you do going forward?
Scott Royal: “My advice is forget about what is outside of your control. Leave that behind. Don’t focus on it because that is, in a sense, wasted time and wasted energy. Focus on what you can do.
Ask yourself, ‘How can we think innovatively, and how can we be flexible to try to get the results that our clients or our partners really need?’ Don’t assume that because something is hard that it can’t be done, because we can all do hard things.
What we are learning through this process is that we are faced with challenges, but we can rise to those challenges if we think innovatively, if we are flexible, and if we develop targeted solutions.
Even if you have strong training, understand how pandemics work, and understand all the kinds of data that might need to be collected, you still might encounter something that is unusual. So, as leaders, we have to be flexible and adjust our research capabilities and offerings so that they fit what’s going on. The key is truly the ability to adapt quickly.”