Rachel is a renowned digital leader specializing in digital transformation, leadership, healthtech, skills and inclusion. She has extensive senior leadership experience in the public, private and not-for-profit sectors in the UK and internationally, including at the European Union, as the first Chief Digital Officer for the UK Department of Health, and as a CEO in the not-for-profit sector.
She now runs her own consultancy, Neaman Consulting, specializing in supporting Boards and executive teams with their digital transformation and in coaching and mentoring leaders and teams to succeed in a digital world.
Passionate about harnessing technology for positive social outcomes and ensuring technology works for everyone, Rachel is particularly interested in the impact of technological change on society. Rachel holds a number of non-executive roles. She is a member of the Board of the Campaign for Social Science and sits on the Advisory Boards of DigitalHealth. London and Digital Leaders, of which she is a former Chair. A strong advocate of the importance of diversity and gender equality, she mentors and supports girls and women interested in a career in technology.
In an interaction with People Matters, Rachel talks about the evolution of leaders in the digital era, role of leaders in digital transformation, and the hype around artificial intelligence.
Given your extensive senior leadership experience in the public, private and not-for-profit sectors in the UK and internationally, you must have seen a lot of change in the arena of the workplace. How do you envision the role of leadership in a world where every facet of work has been influenced by technology? Does digital need a different leader?
Digital technologies are rapidly disrupting how organizations do business and how consumers and customers choose to interact with them. This is having a significant impact on business strategy and the way organizations function operationally. As a result, all leaders in any organization need to understand the effect technological change has on their specific areas and to understand which digital tools and techniques will improve and support the business and increase its impact. This doesn’t mean that all leaders must be technical specialists. But it does mean that they need to understand the transformative power of digital in the business context as well as the ways digital is changing consumer habits. This can range from implementing new cognitive tools to improve internal efficiency and reduce repetitive manual processes, to analyzing revenues and using predictive analytics to forecast success in new markets. Instead of a separate digital strategy, delegated to a back-office IT team, organizations today need a business strategy that’s fit for the 21st century with digital at its heart. And, of course, the ubiquity of digital is not just affecting leaders. The entire workforce today needs to have the digital capability to respond to the demands of the changing workplace. The leadership required to engage and support staff through these cultural and operational changes is substantial.
Given the hype around artificial intelligence, do you think the next-gen technology will impact decision making for business leaders especially soft skills?
Artificial Intelligence (AI) is already impacting the business world and will become more central as the technology becomes more advanced. There have been many predictions about the future of the human workforce in an AI-dominated world, but I personally don’t believe that AI will ever replace a human workforce. AI is uniquely suited to performing those repetitive, manual tasks that take human workers far longer to complete and that are more prone to human error. For example, in some cases, AI can process medical results far quicker and more accurately than human doctors can, improving the life chances of patients and freeing up doctors to do the specialist, human work that machines simply cannot do. In order to complement the superior processing skills of machines, human leaders will need to ensure they have the so-called ‘soft’ skills such as critical thinking, judgment and empathy that are currently well beyond the capability of AI. In this way, machine and human can work together as a complementary team, delivering a better result together by fulfilling the tasks each does best. This changing relationship between human and technology requires not only a major shift in skills and training programs, but also an ability to adapt quickly to new roles that may not yet exist and resilience to constant change.
Do you think organizations today are moving growth and trying to make a societal impact and influence?
I don’t believe that corporate organizations will ever fully move away from economic growth to social impact – they need to be profitable for their shareholders after all. But many more organizations today are embracing ‘profit with purpose’ and demonstrating that profitability does not have to be at the expense of positive social impact. Interestingly this focus on profit with purpose or responsible business – contributing to healthy communities and a healthy environment as part of the commitment to the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals – is no longer confined to Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) departments, but is becoming an integral part of an organization’s core business strategy to achieve long-term financial value. Even in investment banking where shareholder value is treasured above all, new products such as Green and Social Impact Bonds are proving popular and profitable. The view that businesses can be profitable but also have a social purpose stems from the philosophy that the prosperity of business and society is inextricably linked and being a responsible business collaborating with others will benefit society, the economy and the environment. Ironically, at the other end of the spectrum, we have seen a backlash against some large corporates, including many large tech companies, for their apparent negative social impact, which has begun to affect public perceptions of tech. The current focus on ethics and responsible technology is a much-welcomed response to this.
Many argue that digital transformation is a cultural shift and not really a tech initiative. How do you see this? What's your advice to business leaders who are undergoing digital transformations?
Given the pace with which digital is transforming the world around us, digital transformation is one of the top business issues of the day across all sectors. And for me, digital transformation is all about holistic change, not just technology. To be successful it must engage people and shift cultures. Implementing a tech solution with no thought to the impact it will have on the workforce, internal working practices or indeed the customer will simply not succeed. Technology alone cannot be transformative. It’s what we as humans do with that technology that dictates a positive or negative outcome. True transformation cannot happen without people, without leadership, without creativity and vision, and without culture change. If leadership, then, is the major driver for digital transformation, we need to support our leaders to gain the mindset, behavioral competency and actionable capability they need to deliver transformation. This new ‘digital age leadership’ is active and inclusive, and defined by individual profile, not by job title. Such a leadership approach encourages others to follow – ‘followership’ – which in turn builds confidence and reduces vulnerability around change in teams and the wider workforce. My advice to business leaders going through transformations is to ensure they themselves embody those leadership principles that will ensure a successful change.
You have been a votary of inclusion and gender diversity. Several reports show that women's participation in leadership roles is still way behind male across the globe. How can we improve this especially at work?
There is no excuse in the 21st century for the gender leadership gap or for the gender pay gap. In the UK, just 3.7% of the 350 biggest listed companies are led by a woman and three companies still have all-male boards. Women still make up just 29.8% of personnel on UK company boards in the FTSE 100, and the last all-male board in the S&P 500 only added a woman in July of this year. This is a fundamental business issue. By not encouraging the 50% or so of the population who identify as female into leadership roles we are significantly reducing the talent pool. And this doesn’t just apply to gender. It’s the same for other under-represented groups.
Studies have shown that hiring a demographically diverse workforce improves a company's financial performance, as well as providing a greater richness of ideas, insight and perspectives. Morgan Stanley recently reported that the stock price of more gender-diverse companies do better than male-dominated rivals. Other studies have found that having more women involved in decision making leads to greater innovation, a lower likelihood of going bust, and higher investment returns. It is not rocket science to say that to be a successful business, the workforce needs to be as diverse as the consumers it represents. The creativity and ideas that produce goods and services for the whole population need to be produced by teams that represent the whole population. If we are serious about ensuring a diverse leadership to improve business outcomes, organizations need, at a minimum, to improve their recruitment processes, remove gendered language from job descriptions, provide mentoring and tailored development schemes to under-represented groups, ensure equal compensation, improve flexible working and promotion opportunities for those with caring responsibilities, and provide unconscious bias training.
What's your leadership style? What leadership techniques have you found don't work for you?
I like to be inclusive and collaborative in my leadership style, taking a coaching and mentoring approach to help my staff to do the best they can in their role. Each team member has a unique contribution to make and I believe in celebrating their specific skills. I like to give clear direction and make sure everyone understands what's expected of them and how their role fits with the broader objectives of the organization. I also ensure I understand my team’s strengths and weaknesses and help them play to their talents while developing the areas that need more work. This empowers them to do the best they can and ensures everyone is delivering to their capability and understands where they add value. I always make time to talk to and thank my staff because by encouraging them and valuing them for what they have contributed, people perform better. I’m open and honest with my team and I take the time to listen. I like to learn about who they are outside of work and I am supportive of their work/life balance, but I’m just as comfortable having difficult conversations when needed. What I find doesn’t work is an autocratic and impersonal style that doesn’t take into account people’s individual talents and doesn’t help them to be the very best they can.
What's your advice on how to create the next generation of leaders for organizations to sale through the VUCA world?
The world we live in is becoming increasingly volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous (VUCA). This makes qualities like resilience, adaptability and critical judgment more important for leaders than ever. Younger generations entering the workplace have different expectations and motivations to those of previous generations, and this requires executive and non-executive leaders to demonstrate greater flexibility in the way they run their businesses than ever before. Understanding and adapting to these new expectations and motivations is essential if businesses are to get the most from their newest recruits and this challenges accepted norms and ways of working. I believe we are in a transitional period where change is the only constant and the pace of that change, much of it driven by technology, will only accelerate. To return to one of my earlier points, this is why leadership training must now be fit for the digital age and focus on developing the mindset, behavioral competency and actionable capability that will help businesses to in an uncertain world.
Tell us something about Neaman Consulting and the kind of mentorship you do? What are some of the top challenges that business face today?
Neaman Consulting delivers a range of coaching and mentoring interventions aimed at individuals and organizations. We offer packages for individuals at different stages of their careers, often focussing on those looking for progression or the newly promoted, in particular women working at CEO level for the first time.
We also mentor start-up organizations looking to embed themselves within certain industries with healthtech being a key area. At team level we work with Boards, executive teams and other management groups to help them work more effectively together and embrace new technologies and ways of working. Many of the challenges that businesses face today relate to digital transformation and the impact of technological change on the workforce, the business strategy and the market. As a result, Neaman Consulting also partners with Adapt2Digital to provide Board and Executive-level leadership coaching following the unique Dilyn Way model which focuses on inclusive, active leadership for a digital age.