By Deborah O’Neill
This month marks my five-year anniversary of joining Oliver Wyman Digital, the business I now head up in the UK and Ireland. When I think about career progression, mine has been like a level in the Chuckie Egg video game – there are long ladders, but also places to hop off and sidestep onto another route. In my case, this was moving from working exclusively with financial services companies for six years into helping businesses across all industries deliver technology transformations.
I started late in technology, but that has not hampered my move into such an exciting and growing sector. I’m now keen to show others – women, non-binary, BAME, LGBTQ+, or any combination of minorities – how they can develop into technology leadership positions.
Here are my top tips for success:
TIP #1: DON’T THINK YOU HAVE TO HAVE A BACKGROUND IN TECHNOLOGY
Whether you’re in tech or any other sector, being a leader doesn’t mean you need to be the smartest person in the room or the best coder on the team. Sincerity, trust, communication, decisiveness, and an ability to empower others are far more important. With more tech jobs out there than there are qualified candidates, take your existing skills and an inquisitive mind and apply them to a role you’re interested in, preparing to learn the rest along the way.
When you come to manage others, stay focused on leadership and empathy, not developing your tech skills to an expert level.
Think of your team as a car with many moving parts and yourself as the driver behind the wheel. In this analogy, you don’t have to be a mechanic to set the direction and speed. It’s useful if you can learn how to change a tire, but you must trust the experts on your team to corner balance the suspension or change the transmission fluid.
TIP #2: USE A BROAD RANGE OF RECRUITMENT CRITERIA
I frequently hear about a skills gap and a lack of diversity in the tech sector. Tech Nation, the UK network for tech entrepreneurs, reports that overall only 17 percent are women and 15 percent from an ethnic minority – both far below what is representative of the wider UK population.
To address this, consider using a broad range of recruitment criteria. For example, don’t put too much emphasis on an Oxbridge education or the number of years’ experience required from candidates. Also, learn from how other companies are doing things: the Tech Talent Charter collates best practice for recruitment from its signatories.
Having a flexible recruitment policy for tech roles has the added benefit of reducing the barriers preventing existing employees from moving into tech roles. At Oliver Wyman, we’re planning to use the UK government’s Apprenticeship Levy funding to offer training in data analytics to our existing employees already in the business.
TIP #3: CHALLENGE YOURSELF TO MAKE UNCOMFORTABLE HIRING DECISIONS
A candidate who agrees with everything you say may not be as helpful in the long run as one who challenges the status quo and changes it for the better. Disruptive, tenacious, and talented people can bring unexpected new ways to solve a problem.
TIP #4: KEEP HOLD OF THE GREAT PEOPLE YOU HIRE
With my teams, I want to do as much as possible to keep them. Oliver Wyman research shows that while women begin their careers with ambitions equal to those of men, between the ages of 30–50 they become less willing than men to make sacrifices in their personal lives, and between 40 and 50 the proportion of women with ambitions to reach senior management drops below that for men. To keep women in our teams, I make it my business to find out if our policies on issues such as parental leave and flexible working meet the industry standards and there is no stigma attached to taking advantage of them. Again, the Tech Talent Charter provides a best practice guide to retention.
TIP #5: MAKE MENTORING A KEY ELEMENT OF YOUR ROLE
Consider helping to set up mentoring relationships, making yourself available as a mentor, and showcasing role models those in the minority can identify with. Don’t underestimate the power you have as a leader to act as a sponsor. Use your connections to advance the careers of those on your team by endorsing and guiding them.
TIP #6: CREATE A WORKPLACE WHERE TALENTED TECHIES WANT TO WORK
The number of technologists in our UK and Ireland Digital team has grown from 15 in 2014 to more than 100 today. This expansion has only been successful because we made a change to internal culture to create the kind of workplace where technologists with cutting-edge skills want to work. For example, we have done away with the assumption that work is best done in the office: Working from home is part of a normal week for our data engineers. We curate our office social calendar around multiple interests, and prioritize family events held to mark Pride and Christmas.
This culture shift has included some physical transformations in the office. For example, our head office in London was redesigned to create more collaborative working spaces and quiet working pods. Our in-house IT team now provides high-spec Macs for our digital and design teams, and our London Bridge office even has an office dog (his name’s Angus). While we still lack the slides and beach volleyball court of the hallowed Googleplex, our sites enable both co-creation and hard coding.
TIP #7: PREPARE TO BE AMAZED
My final piece of advice is be prepared to be amazed when the team you’re leading delivers something way beyond your expectations. And, of course, let them know how much you appreciate all their hard work!
Deborah O’Neill is a London-based partner and head of Oliver Wyman’s Digital practice in the United Kingdom and Ireland.