Deborah O'Neill

WeAreTechWomen speaks to Deborah O’Neill, Head of UK Digital, Partner, Oliver Wyman, about her career.

Deborah is also one of our speakers at our upcoming WeAreTechWomen: The Future World of Work conference on 22 November. Deborah will be discussing how to prevent big data anarchy in the UK.

Deborah O’Neill is UK Head of Digital and a partner at Oliver Wyman, where she leads complex digital transformations at the world’s largest companies. She helps her clients build out their engineering and delivery capability, making them self-sufficient and able to make changes more rapidly.

An expert in untethering businesses from technology systems and approaches no longer fit for purpose, Deborah has recently worked on the build and launch of several Greenfield businesses.

She is widely published on issues relating to how financial services companies can free themselves from legacy IT infrastructure, use data to strengthen connections to customers and better use analytics to prepare for AI.

Deborah’s work as a female leader has been recognised with numerous accolades. She is a committed advocate for gender equality who seeks to create mentoring and sponsorship opportunities for future female technologists both within Oliver Wyman and the industries she operates.

WeAreTechWomen, the Technology arm of WeAreTheCity, is hosting its fourth full-day conference in London, aimed at over 400 women who are wanting to broaden their technology horizons, learn new skills and build their tech networks.

Our unique conference will include the opportunity for our delegates to learn about a variety of technical topics and get involved in Q&A’s, hands-on activities and interactive workshops. Our aim is to provide an environment where our delegates can upskill and grow their skills/networks for the future.

Can you tell us a little about your background? Where you’ve come from, where you’ve worked, how you got to where you are today?

At the beginning of 2019 I was appointed the first Head of Digital for the UK and Ireland at Oliver Wyman, a global management consultancy.

I lead complex digital transformations at some of the world’s largest companies. This means designing and assembling future-proof technology capabilities that make their business processes faster, smarter, and more agile at adapting to change.
Being a practical, no-nonsense northerner helps me tremendously in my role. I cut through jargon, translate complex technology processes into plain English, and bring together diverse teams to solve complicated problems.

Did you ever sit down and plan your career?

When I think about career progression, mine has been like a level of Chuckie Egg – 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.

What inspired you to get involved with in motivational speaking?

I started late in technology, but this 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.

Do you have a favourite experience from your career?

In 2018 my team helped start a new digital bank from scratch for RBS. During that year I served as interim Chief Technology Officer responsible for overseeing the design and build of the new technology platform, as well as recruiting a new team of experts to run the platform after the Oliver Wyman team finished.

What I really enjoyed about this temporary role was the opportunity to fully immerse myself in a ground-breaking project and lead a large, diverse team towards a single goal.

What do you think WeAreTechWomen guests will gain from your talk?

My talk will remind people about the positive impact big data has made in both business and society, and I’ll help the audience appreciate why tackling unethical use of personal data is so difficult, both nationally and globally. As a practical take away, attendees will be shown an ethical baseline for how they process personal data, and I’ll discuss with them what else governments and companies could be doing. In addition, I’ll show how actions by governments and companies will not enough to prevent further unethical data use unless each of us takes a greater responsibility for what we share digitally, from credit cards to birthdays to advertising preferences.

What are your top three tips for success?

  1. When you come to manage others, stay focused on leadership and empathy, not developing your individual skills to an expert level in all areas. Think of your team as a car with many moving parts and you are 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 tyre, but you must trust the experts on your team to corner balance the suspension or change the transmission fluid.
  2. Do everything you can to keep talented people on your team. 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.
  3. Set up mentoring relationships for others – and be available as a mentor yourself – and showcase role models who those in minority groups 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 through their endorsement and guidance.

What has been your biggest challenge during your career?

Balancing the development of my technical and content skills with getting more exposure to experiences such as presentation and client management skills. I was always very fearful of being “found out” for not knowing everything so I would try to learn everything before putting myself out there but I have found over the years that actually the ability to connect dots and structure the problem were almost more important. My tip would be to try and find safe spaces to practice presenting your ideas – either within internal team meetings or even just to take one segment within a larger presentation.

Which female role models are you most inspired by?

I studied physics at university, a field that has many female innovators hidden from mainstream history. While many will know that Marie Curie was the first woman to win the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1903, fewer can name the other two women who subsequently won it: Maria Goeppert Mayer in 1963 and Donna Strickland in 2018.

In your opinion, what is the biggest obstacle for women at work and how can it be overcome?

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 overcome this, businesses need to set an Executive Committee talent pipeline strategy. They need to develop bolder structural solutions by providing more flexible working options at all levels and finding ways to remove the stigma associated with using them. All genders should be encouraged to take parental leave and companies should have robust return-to-work programmes to support them back into the business. Address the promotion and pay gap, understanding that this is likely to be driven by invisible cultural factors.

Cultural change is also required: offices should endeavour to build an inclusive culture that a) recognises and promotes the value of diversity along all dimensions and b) is free from unconscious bias and therefore supports gender balance. This means putting practice ahead of theory, supporting men to support women and seeking enlightened leadership.

If you could change one thing to accelerate the pace of change for Gender Parity, what would it be?

We’ve all heard about the statistic showing how competent women are getting bypassed by overconfident men. Men apply for a job when they meet only 60 per cent of the qualifications, but women apply only if they meet 100 per cent of them. Clearly, this means we need to empower women to apply for more roles. Part of this is establishing and communicating a new approach to recruitment. For example, hiring managers should make it clearer that a job specification is more of a ‘wish list’ than a ‘check list’ and that the individual they want to hire can have a mix of these qualifications plus other valued skills and experiences.

What piece of advice would you give to your younger self?

I would remind myself to say ‘no’ more. So much of the work we deliver for clients has a technology component, and I am frequently being asked to join project calls and steering groups. I now empower people to hold these meetings without me and ask for help when they need a fresh perspective or a second opinion on the way forwards.


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