Inspirational Woman: Sarah Burnett | Vice President at Everest Group and Deputy Chair of BCSWomen

I’m a vice president at Everest Group, where I lead the company’s research and analysis in Europe. I also lead Everest Group’s research on service delivery/business process automation globally. Outside of work, I champion the cause of women in IT as deputy chair of BCSWomen and as a member of Tech UK’s Women in Technology Council.Sarah Burnett

I owe much of my success to my visionary father who strongly encouraged me to do a sci-tech degree to develop skills that would always be in demand. That has been my passport to work, even after I left the industry for four years to look after my then young children.

I am married to a wonderful technology entrepreneur who is starting to reap the fruit of his labour, having started a company 10 years ago in the tough start-up environment that is the UK’s tech scene. We have two grown-up children.

Did you ever sit down and plan your career?

No, not at all. I did not have a plan that said, for example, I wanted to be a director by the age of 30, etc. I knew some people at the time who had those kinds of plans but not me. I was not after corporate power or money but doing what I enjoyed.

As a teenager, I had taken the first computer programming course that my school offered. I stuck out like a sore thumb as the only girl in the class, but I did not let it bother me. I found the course interesting; the fact that I could programme a machine to do what I wanted it to do. After the computing course, I wanted to become a programmer. I knew then what I wanted to do, and I got on with it.

As I learnt more about computing and developed new skills, I got into managing projects and then programmes. I was a European level programme manager for a majorU.S. computer manufacturer by the time I went on a career break when I had children.

Have you faced any challenges along the way and if so, how did you deal with them?

Yes, when I wanted to return to work on a part-time basis at the end of my four year career break. There were no part-time jobs to be had except at FI Group, the company that the wonderful Steve Shirley set up for women returners. Luckily, my programming skills were still in demand, and I got a contract with FI working in the City of London. FI Group is no longer in existence. While companies today have flexible working policies, I’m not sure how effective these are in supporting women returners.

Another challenge was accepting a much more junior role when I returned compared to before I took time off. It has been a long and windy road getting back to being a senior corporate woman again, but I would not have it any other way. I was able to achieve a good worklife balance, which was very important to me with my young children.

What advice would you give someone who wishes to move in to a leadership position for the first time?

I’m an analyst, and so I recommend an analytical approach. Look at what you are doing and why and what would achieve the biggest outcome for your customers and the business. You will get noticed very quickly if you achieve outstanding outcomes. It is important to get noticed and build a personal brand as someone who delivers.

It is a sad fact of corporate life that a lot of people get on not because of what they do but because of whose boots they lick. This kind of corporate climbing seriously turns my stomach. I have worked for companies that were run by cliques of directors and bootlickers. If you weren’t one of them, you languished at junior levels. I have no time for those types of companies. My advice is don’t waste your skills working for them – move on.

When faced with two equally-qualified candidates, how would you decide who should have the role?

Choosing the right candidate is one of the most challenging parts of hiring. I would look beyond qualifications and experience for signs of initiative and energy – what have they done outside work or education? Are they rounded people who can deal with client pressure and unexpected situations?

How do you manage your own boss?

My boss does not need to be managed. He is the division’s managing partner who sets the overall business strategy and direction. I manage my own work, do what needs to be done in order to implement that strategy within my remit, mostly in Europe and in some other areas globally.  I work collaboratively with various teams and my boss; and keep him informed.

As a senior member of the team, I tend to tackle issues and challenges myself as much as possible. I do not expect my boss to fight my battles for me.

On a typical workday, how do you start your day and how does it end?

How my day starts very much depends on my schedule. I could be leaving very early to be in London for a breakfast meeting or jumping into a cab to head for the airport to get on an early flight to the continent. Throughout the week, I keep a running check on my diary and what I have to do to prepare for meetings and presentations.

On days that I start work at my desk, I always try and catch the industry news so that I know what is happening. Notable mergers and acquisitions or major IT or business process outsourcing contracts are relevant to my work. I tend to blog about these to advise clients about their implications for the industry and competition.

On my desk-bound days, I tend to get on with project-related work during the main hours of the working day. Towards the end of the day, I tend to do the administrative and overhead tasks. It is not unusual for me to return to my laptop later in the evening, between 8 and 10 pm, to answer a few more emails and finalize meeting and conference call arrangements.

On other days I could be attending business events in London. These vary from pre-conference or industry- award dinners to drinks receptions to meet international executives of clients or service providers who are passing through London.

What advice can you give to our members about raising their profiles within their own organisations?

I go back to my point about achieving effective outcomes. Another thing is not to be shy. If on a group call and you have a question, do not fret about it; just ask it. If you see an obvious flaw with a plan, highlight it in a non-critical way, mentioning how it might impact an aspect of the business.

Use the options that are open to you – for example if your company has a corporate social media and collaboration site then join in with some of the discussions in your spare time. Answering colleagues’ queries about best practice and what worked for you can help you become known as an expert in that field. Some corporate social media tools automatically identify experts by the type of questions that they have answered.

How have you benefited from coaching or mentoring?

I regret to say not in a significant way. I am deputy chair of BCSWomen in the UK, and we run a mentorship programme. It can be very effective, and I do wish that I had looked for mentorship earlier in my career.

Do you think networking is important and if so, what three tips would you give to a newbee networker?

Networking is important as it helps you spot opportunities both for yourself and for your business. My first tip is to network with your peers with a purpose that is other than just building a network. I recommend networking for a good cause, e.g., helping more women with an IT career as part of BCSWomen.

My second tip is to join a network that helps you develop your skills through seminars and workshops.

My third tip is not to be a passive networker. Do not just attend events but get on the committee and start helping out. You will build much longer lasting relationships that way.

What does the future hold for you?

I am currently very much enjoying working at Everest Group. I am helping the company grow in Europe, as well as develop new areas of expertise, such as service delivery automation. As and when I decide to move on from my current role, I will be looking to go part time and freelance as an industry analyst. I also intend to get onto a couple of boards as a non-executive director. I know a lot about the IT and outsourcing industries and ideally I would be looking to help a start-up technology company in these markets. I would also like to get onto the board of a charity to help a good cause.