Interview: Emma McGuigan, Group Technology Officer at Accenture

"If every woman in tech brought another girl into tech every year, how quickly would this problem be over?"

We’ve got another brilliant interview for you in our ‘Women With Awesome Jobs‘ series: Emma McGuigan, Group Technology Officer of Communications, Media & Technology at Accenture. (Is it just us or do the job titles get longer every time?!).

We sat down with Emma at the annual CBI conference, just before she went on stage to deliver a really inspiring talk about embracing next-generation technology.

Here’s how it went.

Hi Emma.

One of the speakers on the Young Leaders panel at the conference mentioned that an apprentice he hired performed badly at the interview, but has nonetheless become a fantastic worker in his first three months.

Do you think the interview format is outdated, are we just encouraging people to be good at interviews but not jobs? What can we do instead?

The interview format is outdated. It’s a bit like the fact I think we over-examine our young people. I think we’re creating people who can pass exams and perform well in an interview and know what to wear and how to write a CV, but without really getting to the essence of who somebody is and what they can contribute to an organisation.

And then we layer on all of our subconscious biases, which we all have. And it’s doomed, because at best we’re going to hire people who are little bit different but who have remarkably similar attitudes to ourselves, or similar skillsets to ourselves. It’s flawed.

I think we should be looking to use all the technology that’s available to us. To think really differently about how we articulate the role and the skills and behaviours in particular. Because I think you can retrain a skill, but behaviours are inherent and much harder to shift. If you have somebody who is really a creative thinker but they’re not very expressive, that can be a difficult one to pull out. But we can use intelligent assessments, we can use tools to assess visual keys and clues and micro-expressions, and all of this technology is available today.

We need to make sure we’re using that technology at scale and that we’re helping our interviewers, because you have to have this connection, you have to make sure that the interviewee feels like they could belong in this culture and that feels right to you.

So I don’t think you can remove the need to connect with people in person, but you can give both sides more tools to be successful in how they do it.

Is that something Accenture is doing already?

We’ve been doing it to some extent. I have a global role so I see what’s being used globally, and we’re using AI to monitor what’s going on by recording interviews and then assessing them afterwards.

In the UK, we’re already using tools to help better assess capabilities – particularly for the younger routes like apprentices and entry-level jobs – to really help assess their skills and strengths.

We also use the Gallup Strengths Finder survey with some of our candidates, even before they have a job with us, so we can understand their strengths. Then you can understand how somebody might complement your own strengths, rather than just looking for people who share your outlook and your aspirations.

You’ve previously said that as a young child, it was drummed into you that your gender would play no part in your future career.

Can you talk about how that’s informed your parenting, and what advice you’d give for parents trying to raise children who won’t feel stifled by gender roles?

I think it’s really important that as a parent we allow our children to experience a whole spectrum of activities. From the stereotyped activities of their own gender through to the stereotyped activities of the others and everything else in between.

I have three kids, a daughter and two boys, and it’s really interesting – my boys have the largest collection of teddy bears you could ever imagine! They still quite proudly take their teddy bears on school trips, including my twelve-year-old. He thinks nothing of it.

I think it’s about creating environments as a parent to allow your children to be safe, to experience things safely, and to have the confidence to take themselves outside of the home. It’s really hard because we don’t want our children to be ridiculed or worse, bullied in schools. And so you want them to conform. But you don’t want them to conform to a point where they are being obstructive to their authentic selves.

That’s a hard bridge to make, but one I think it’s really important we strive for. Every parent has the opportunity to introduce their child to every activity, to every colour, and to open the door to whatever that means for that child.

Personally, I’ve found a lot of people buy stereotypical toys for my nieces, and I’m not sure what to do about that. Should parents tell them not to?

No, because it’s important children understand that’s where some people are. But you can empower them by buying them Lego and science kits and rickety old bits of bike which need to be rebuilt.

You can empower boys when they’re given only boys’ toys by giving them teddies, and encouragement to get into art and crafts and baking. I think you as the parent can help influence your children to understand that that it’s all good, but actually there is this society which is going to make them feel like maybe they should be doing one particular thing.

And so rather than stop people doing that, I want people to be able to engage with my children in a way that feels natural. But I want to balance it by using that experience to help explore with my child what the world looks like, so they’re more rounded and more able to understand the different backgrounds of the people and children that they interact with.

One of the problems I found with getting into tech is that careers teachers at school and university just didn’t know about tech jobs. The industry moves much faster than education can.

What can we do to help girls find out about what jobs there actually are in tech, and how to get there?

Businesses have to take the accountability to reach out, and go and tell girls about tech. Those of us –particularly women – we need to take that job and make it our own. And we need to take the men with us so they want to do it too, because actually I don’t think it would take very long to change.

Image: Emma McGuigan/Twitter

A really extreme example would be foot-binding in China: it died in a generation. A campaign of education and understanding about what it was really doing meant people dropped it. It’s a torch to us all to show how quickly you can change a social norm – and we’re dealing with a social norm here.

So while teachers are always going to struggle to keep up with technology-sector businesses moving so fast, actually if we made it a much more open dialogue – if we all just continue to drive the energy and commitment that we all have in our careers into bringing others in – if every woman in tech brought another girl into tech every year, how quickly would this problem be over?

And then look to the people who inspire, like you with your blog [yay Gadgette!] and people like Dr Anne-Marie Imafidon MBE from Stemettes, if we could take those people too then it would so help to amplify their messages and support them. We could change this really quickly.

You’ve been at Accenture since the mid-90s.

Can you tell us about what it’s like to work there, in terms of culture and work-life balance?

As you said, I’ve been there a long time and the culture has changed hugely. The reason I’m still there is because there’s always a fresh challenge, almost every day there’s a fresh challenge. Certainly whenever I’ve thought “Ooh, maybe I’ve plateaued, maybe I’m a bit bored” somebody always came with something new before I had really had time to look elsewhere.

So there’s that constant stimulation which is really important. And the second thing has been the people that you work with: we are an organisation where people want to help each other be successful. And so you never thought, can I trust that person because they’re really only interested in themselves, or they’re going to put me down. Actually people really uphold human nature to want to help each other.

We reward based on helping each other as much as individual success. It’s about team success, and that’s been really important to me.

When I then add in that I spent ten years working a four-day week while my children were really young, and was able to take a leave of absence before I had children so I could go travel the world, which was important to me – there are a lot of opportunities for you to find your self-expression and define your own career journey.

I think the people who struggle [at Accenture] are the people who don’t have the motivation to do that, and I think we’re less good with people who are uncertain or want more of a specified career journey. I think that’s not who we are, so the people who tend to have the longevity are the people who really think about that journey for the long-term, and their own journey, and really cutting their own path. It’s interesting because I think quite often that’s not what we look like from the outside, but that’s certainly been my experience.

Can you tell us about any programmes at Accenture for women and BAME people?

We’ve seen a huge shift in our programmes. I can still remember in probably the late nineties, we started off our women’s networks. I was really junior compared with everybody else and I was very excited,  I went because it was a great way to network with these more senior women.

And very quickly that became a thing, and there were all these programmes, and then we said “well it’s not just about gender, it’s about ethnicity.” I’ve seen a real shift in the last five years to really be inclusive of everyone.

For example, the Accent On Women network sponsors a programme around parenting, which is open to everybody [not just women]. It’s a real shift to it being everybody’s problem to drive change, not just the minority, and I find that really inspiring.

We knew it was what we needed to do for a while, but working out a way to get there is not so easy.

How do we prepare young people for tech jobs that don’t exist yet? How can proactive young people gain the skills they’ll need for jobs that haven’t even been invented yet?

Image: Emma McGuigan/LinkedIn

I love this question.

We need young people who are good at solving problems, who are open to different ideas, who are ready to collaborate and who are ready to recognise they’re going to have to learn for the rest of their life.

It’s about being curious, it’s about reading, it’s about adjusting your own perspective. Growing your skills. And that that’s a continual programme, there’s no degree and then you’re done.

It’s about really having that open-mindedness and working with a broad spectrum of skills, and diverse people from different backgrounds and different perspectives, which is very different from where we’ve come from.

[Be] good at problem-solving and have an idea about where you’re heading.

What tech products do you find useful? Gadgets, apps, productivity tools?

I love my Apple Watch. And of course my smartphone, which happens to be an Apple one! I obsessively count my active calories, my hours of standing, my workouts, all of it.

I love my smartphone because it’s everything: it’s my office, in my handbag, in my pocket – I quite often don’t have a bag. The freedom it gives you just liberates you, I can do calls at the school gate and nobody knows I’m at the school gate.  I don’t think that tech has encroached upon my private life because actually tech has freed me up.

I’m also a bit of a Twitter fan. And I absolutely love Netflix on my phone. It’s good because you can be somewhere, tired, and instead of pretending to do some work, you can switch off and watch something, zone out, and then you’re ready to go again.

Everyone’s heard of Lean In, but what are some of your most-recommended non-fiction books? Not necessarily about women in tech, just in general, things that spoke to you?

I really like Andy McAfee’s ‘Second Machine Age,’ it really talks to the whole way that we are rethinking the way we’re working because of tech disruption.

I’m also waiting for a book to come out called ‘The Infinite Game,’ because it isn’t about winning – it’s about how there is no race, there’s no race to win, it goes on forever. I’ve seen the author talk and do his pitch about his book, and I love this notion because we use a lot of language in business that’s very combative about winning, and I love this thought of “what are you all on? There’s no finish line! You’ve got to just keep going.” So I’m really intrigued by his book.


Well, now you know what to read next.

Follow Emma on Twitter here and check out the rest of the Women With Awesome Jobs series for more inspiration from women who do.

Holly Brockwell
About Holly Brockwell 285 Articles
Tech addict Holly founded Gadgette in 2015, and won Woman of the Year for it. She's firmly #TeamAndroid, has ambitions to become a robot, and beat all other Hollies to her awesome Twitter handle.