Empowering Women to Lead Digital Transformation in Scotland (EWLDT) is a course delivered by Empowering You in association with the Scottish Digital Academy, Scottish Government and ScotlandIS. At Scott Logic, we were proud to be one of the sponsors of the autumn 2021 cohort which graduated in December.

I spoke to two of the participants in that cohort: Jen Campbell, Product Manager – Payments Digital Transformation Division at the Scottish Government; and Atika Bennamane, Lead UX Designer at Scott Logic. In this post, they share their experiences of the course and some of the key learnings that have accelerated them along their leadership journey.

How would you describe your leadership journey to date?

Jen: Prior to embarking on this programme, I hadn’t really thought much about my own leadership journey. I have been in management positions and led teams but haven’t necessarily thought of myself as a leader. Recently, I took up a role in leading the Scottish Government’s Product Management practice, as part of our Digital, Data and Technology Profession, which required me to start thinking more about what it means to be a leader and how I could demonstrate that in this role.

Atika: My leadership journey has been quite a gradual thing. Earlier in my career, I didn’t understand what was required of me in order to be a ‘leader’ or to lead a team. My only real frame of reference was examples of what not to do, drawn from bad experiences with leadership in the past. Unlike those leaders, I have a genuine interest in my colleagues’ career development and I like helping them. Over time, I realised that I really enjoyed the people side of my job and wanted to become a line manager.

What were your initial thoughts when you were offered a place on EWTLDT, did you have any reservations?

Jen: I was pleased and excited to be offered a place as it sounded like a great opportunity. I was a bit unsure of what to expect and whether I’d feel like I was at the right point in my career for the programme, but I was very open to whatever the experience had to offer.

Atika: I was a last-minute addition to the cohort and I had no idea what to expect. It was one of my first large in-person gatherings, so I was probably pretty nervous about COVID and also just getting to know a large group of strangers. My social skills were rusty at best after being isolated for so long! And I definitely experienced some imposter syndrome at the prospect of the course – whether or not a ‘leader’ included someone like me or whether it meant C-level people.

What did you hope to get out of the course?

Jen: I was hoping to have the opportunity to reflect on my career journey to date, and identify how I might develop towards taking leadership roles. With the COVID-19 pandemic and home-working, the last couple of years have felt like a bit of a blur and I hoped that the EWTLDT programme would be a chance to invest some quality time and attention into my own development, with a focus on how I can build leadership capabilities to help my organisation on its digital transformation journey.

Atika: I wanted an external opinion on what it meant to be a good lead. I also was hoping for practical tips and tools I could bring to my day to day, especially anything with a direct emphasis on the unique challenges women face in digital. And I also welcomed the opportunity to explore whether or not leadership is actually for me; if the course had led me to the conclusion that I didn’t want to pursue my leadership journey any further, that would still have been a beneficial outcome.

What did the course comprise? What were some of the projects/tasks you were given to do?

Jen: The course involved two sets of two-day, in-person workshops with some pre-work beforehand. The workshops included content on leadership such as models we could use to understand strengths, motivations and types of leadership; as well as lots of collaborative work in small groups. There were also guest speakers each day who talked openly and honestly about their own leadership journeys.

We also took on a team challenge which involved coming up with solutions to real-life challenges, and presented these at the ‘graduation day’ at the end of the course. My group’s challenge focused on the gender gap in interest in digital careers that emerges from a young age, and we developed a prototype website to bring together resources for teachers to build interest in digital among school-age girls.

And on top of this, we were provided with three individual coaching sessions with highly skilled coaches to support our personal goals during the programme.

Atika: There were lots of group exercises that helped us identify our own strengths and how to make the most of them. We also learnt to understand what’s valuable to other people and how to build empathy. We developed our skills in active listening, learning how to really focus on the other person, ask clarifying questions, and read their body language.

There was a lot of emphasis on staying true to yourself and not feeling like you had to fit yourself into a cookie-cutter image of leadership to be a success. This really helped with the imposter syndrome in that it helped me realise that people react differently to different situations, bringing their own attributes, and that there’s no single ‘right’ way to respond. We also benefited from talks by some senior leaders who shared the good, the bad and the ugly of their own leadership journeys and it was really reassuring to discover that they experienced the same sorts of anxieties and doubts that we did.

A big part of the course was the team challenge. There were four teams in all and we were each set a different task. There were no predetermined roles, so an early part of the challenge was to organise ourselves, agree our approach and assign tasks – and that all went surprisingly smoothly! Probably due to all the listening and communication skills we’d been honing. Our challenge was to come up with a way of tackling the digital skills gap. We wanted to do something fun, so we came up with a skills marketplace app – sort of like Tinder for digital skills! – where you could pair up people who wanted to teach a particular skill with people who wanted to learn it.

How helpful has it been for you in terms of making connections and meeting peers at a similar stage in their leadership journey?

Jen: It has been so helpful for me to make connections with others working in Digital Transformation roles across different industries and sectors. We had a great group with people from many different backgrounds and at a variety of stages in their careers. We’ve kept in touch via WhatsApp since the course ended and there have already been several great examples of this new network providing value, from sharing resources to being a sounding board for challenges. I’m sure we’ll continue to stay connected and I have no doubt that many of our paths will cross in our future careers.

Atika: For me, the best part of the whole thing was the connections I made with the other women. I have genuinely made some new friends for life. As I mentioned, my social skills had been made rusty by the pandemic, and I was quite reserved at first. What really helped was that we were all given a chance to speak in every exercise – you weren’t allowed to hang back and be introverted; so it got us all mixing and getting to know each other. The course has been a big confidence booster to me in terms of networking in future, giving me a helpful reminder that most people are quite nice! When you put yourself out there and communicate with a new contact, they tend to respond well.

Was there anything that pushed you outside of your comfort zone?

Jen: I definitely felt that I was pushed outside of my comfort zone – in a very positive way – during the course. There was a big focus on sharing and being open within the group, which is not always easy, and it was a good reminder that a significant part of leadership is about handling feelings and emotions – your own as well as others. One of the most interesting and useful exercises involved sharing a personal leadership challenge with a small group, and then sitting with your back turned to them while they discussed your problem and came up with possible solutions. This was to stop you from jumping into the discussion to reject an idea or push your own views. It felt quite strange at first, but I found it very helpful as it forced me to consider other perspectives and properly absorb advice in a way that may not come naturally in everyday life.

Atika: There were a lot of times where we had to talk through quite emotional situations and use a lot of emotional language. This isn’t something I tend to do as a reserved Scottish woman 🙂. On top of that, the public-speaking aspect of the team challenge definitely pushed me out of my comfort zone – we had to give a team presentation to a room of 150 people at the end of the course. I had mentioned my discomfort with public speaking in one of the exercises and, as a result of that, a group of us with the same issue came together and talked it all through – and that genuinely made my experience of giving the presentation so much better, because we’d worked through the issue together.

Have you learned anything new about yourself?

Jen: With my coach, I spent some time thinking about my own strengths and values, and how these relate to my career choices and goals for the future. This helped me to really understand what I enjoy about my job, and what’s most important to me when I think about my role going forward. I’d never really taken the time to connect the dots between these things before, and I think this has given me really useful insights for the future.

Atika: I learned that I actually bring a lot more to the table than I realised. Skills like listening and empathy are really important and those are things I always strove for, especially when it comes to people management. The phrase ‘soft skills’ is sometimes quite unhelpful, because it makes those skills sound less important than they are. Things like communication skills are completely essential to me – not just in managing my team, but in talking to more senior colleagues, and in articulating things effectively to the client. For some reason, there’s often an assumption – especially in a male-dominated industry – that if you’re nice and have people skills, you’re going to be less good at getting things done. That’s just total rubbish. It doesn’t matter how talented you are, you and your team are not going to be able to do the work as well as if you can’t communicate.

What have been some of the key takeaways?

Jen: Some of my key takeaways have included the importance of listening – and how different it feels to really listen deeply and to ask powerful questions to get to the heart of an issue. I think the most valuable thing for me has been the experience of spending time with the group, being open and sharing our challenges. Working from home can feel isolating at times and it was really refreshing to connect and spend time building a supportive network.

Atika: My key takeaway is that I don’t need to search to find what a leader looks like and what I should be doing. A leader doesn’t look like the loudest person in the room or the most assertive person in the room or even the person with the most technical skills. A leader looks like anyone who cares about the needs of their team. And what follows from that is that I don’t need to have all the answers for my team – I need to listen to them and understand their needs, and coach them towards finding their own answers so that they can grow in confidence at the same time as they grow in knowledge.

Can you tell me one thing that you learned on the course that you think that you’ll be able to put into action straight away?

Jen: One really useful thing from the course was the ‘Be SAFE and Certain’ model for understanding the factors that can drive us or trigger our emotional responses. Using this model, I was able to better understand my own drivers and I think I’ll also use it going forward when considering my relationships with colleagues and our team dynamics.

Atika: We did a lot of work on active listening and that’s definitely something I have since been trying to use in my day-to-day activities. Earlier this year, we had a UX Away Day as a team and I facilitated a workshop to share my learning with them about active listening. It’s so important to us as designers to be able to communicate well with our clients, and to really understand their requirements.

How has the course affected your long-term career aspirations?

Jen: The course has definitely made me think more about my long-term career aspirations and how my own strengths and values contribute to this. Listening to the guest speakers was particularly useful, as they each shared their personal career journeys which helped to show the variety of paths that can be taken into leadership roles.

Atika: It reminded me that it’s important not to lose your sense of self or feel pressured into being or behaving like someone that doesn’t feel authentic to you, and that’s definitely a two-way street with your employer. If they aren’t looking for what you’re bringing to the table, it’s important to recognise that for yourself more than anything else. And I think the course has also reminded me how important representation is; so, if you can’t see the person who looks like you ‘over there’, don’t shy away, go and be the person over there. You’re going to help someone else who’ll see you and think, “Well, I can go over there too.”

What advice would you give to someone who’s offered a place as part of next year’s cohort?

Jen: I’d advise anyone who gets a place in the next cohort to embrace the opportunity and really throw yourself into it. It’s definitely a programme where you get out what you put in, so from a practical perspective I’d advise ensuring you protect your time to fully participate in all aspects of the course – not just the in-person workshops – and give yourself the headspace to reflect and absorb the experience too. It’s an investment in yourself and your future leadership journey, so it’s worth the commitment.

Atika: Keep an open mind and be as open and honest as you can – that’s when the real value and connection kicks in. Some of it may appear ‘touchy-feely’ on the surface, but if you are open to it and get involved, there’s so much valuable stuff that comes from the exercises – both for yourself and for others on the course. And thanks to that same openness and authenticity, you’ll find that you have built a really amazing network by the end of it.

Please visit Empowering Women to Lead Digital Transformation in Scotland for more information on the course.