Women in Tech Leadership: Wendy Alexander

Date Published
Wendy Alexander

Describe your journey to becoming Vice-Principal (International) at the University of Dundee

I have enjoyed a very broad career, encompassing international strategy consultancy, Scottish Government (as a minister), international education, trade and investment (as an envoy) and more recently, EdTech. One of my most exciting current roles is Chair of the Global Advisory Board of Times Higher Education Student, a digital platform serving 15 million international students.

I believe that professional eclecticism will be more common in future. The key is to keep looking for the red threads, of interests and capabilities, that tie your career together. Most of us make sense of our careers in retrospect. My advice is to stay connected to the ‘big ideas crowd’, go to events at the cutting edge of practice, write and speak up. I still find time for conferences, including in EdTech which challenge my thinking.

From the private sector to politics and education you’ve experienced quite diverse cultures. How have you managed to integrate and succeed in different environments?

In the modern workplace, it is crucial to ‘fit in fast’. It is helpful to point to the array of different contexts where you have succeeded. Employers are typically reassured by hires that understand it is their responsibility to fit in, not the other way round! Cultural DNA matters. Hence if you thrive in collaborative environments and your diligence suggests a prospective employer fails that test, perhaps think again. Likewise, if you fear your core skills are light, highlight your adaptability and track record of delivery. I do a lot of hiring and gravitate to those who talk more about the organisation’s needs than their own achievements. If you are navigating into a new area, double down on the organisation. Its amazing what you can learn online and on social media. Seek organisations hiring for character and willing to train for mastery.

You’ve been involved with SEP’s Advisory Board for several years. How have you seen the profile of women in tech change during that time?

I am proud of how SEP has stepped up to network women in tech leadership. We all ‘stand on our mother’s shoulders’. Early pioneering tech women sought to inspire more young women into STEM subjects. Today we are interrogating not just the leaky pipeline to the top table, but also each broken rung on the career ladder. McKinsey recently highlighted the vital role of early promotions for early tenure women who tend to be promoted into management more slowly than their male counterparts. It is crucial we debias tech as it becomes an ever more central to modern life.

I am an optimist, practices can be changed, but only by committed organisations, role modelling, metrics, monitoring, training, and internal and external challenge. All the evidence suggests that diverse teams outperform non diverse ones. And beyond the somewhat contested terrain surrounding the financial returns to diversity, Amy Edmondson’s recent work signals the role of diversity in nurturing the psychological safety which is crucial to innovation.

You were instrumental in the establishment of the School of Business at Dundee University. What advice do you have for existing and aspiring female leaders in terms of continuing their education and professional development?

Education matters for women and minorities: it credentialises you in an employer’s eyes and empowers you in your own eyes. In my first role in the 80s, I signed up for a touch-typing course, a skill I use daily. In consultancy, I embraced early Microsoft products to speed up report production. Recently, I began courses on Futurelearn, Coursera and EdX to identify which EdTech platform best suited our needs. ‘Testing and learning’ is as valuable a strategy for ourselves as for our projects. Personal upskilling can set you apart and demonstrate an entrepreneurial, growth mindset.

Richard Jolly of London Business School memorably noted that ambitious executives tend to view their careers as china shops – one false move and everything comes crashing to the ground. In fact, our careers are like gardens which grow and develop over time and where you can evolve the planting scheme.

Nowadays it is possible to acquire a myriad of industry relevant skills online. However, for anyone thinking about changing direction, the pivot is about more than skills, it means building networks, contacts, relationships and ‘professionally living in your new space.’ For executives aiming to reset their career trajectory early, it is still worth considering business school, for example in data science, business analytics and user experience, to access opportunities and to build a new network.

You’ve secured several prestigious international collaborations. Any tips for those seeking to internationalise their own businesses?

Most of my experience relates to China. I was in Wuhan in Jan 20 as the pandemic started. Really do your homework on the business culture and sector you plan to enter. Good intent and authenticity are insufficient if you don’t understand the local operating context. Remember, any country nationals already working in your organisation are great wisdom carriers so tap into their expertise as you plan an entry strategy.

In education the most effective entry strategy is an aligned local partner with whom you co-design the local value proposition. Such relationships take time, you need to be in your markets (even if virtually) and be prepared to pay for expert business advisory services. Finally, focus, focus, focus. A successful scaled market entry in one geography builds internal capabilities for sequential entry and acceleration elsewhere.

As a patron of Social Investment Scotland, the social enterprise and charity, do you think businesses should be doing more to measure and improve their societal impact?

Millennials and Gen Z deserve credit for bringing ESG to the forefront for executive teams. Unilever leapt up the graduate attractiveness stakes due to its stance on environmental issues. Younger generations are not necessarily more moral than their parents, they simply recognise the workplace as a valid arena for societal impact. As the world’s major challenges are global (climate change, inequality, migration, security) people look as much to global corporations, as to national politicians. And the workplace, offers us all the chance to be change agents.

The E of ESG has rightly been in the spotlight for some time. BLM and diversity imperatives have pushed G further up the agenda. Arguably the current fall in living standards will elevate S.

ESG strategies can deliver an ethical bottom line for companies. Yet beyond those baseline commitments, companies can often amplify their societal impact by choosing one area where they really aim for leadership. Likewise, as individuals, we risk being debilitated by the breadth of human need overwhelming us on social media. It’s fine to choose a couple of areas to make a difference and let others pick up the slack elsewhere. It is good for your mental health and sense of purpose to know your causes. Social Investment Scotland is one of my core causes.

And finally…what advice would you give to your younger self

My generation approached our careers as a sprint. Gen Z are wise enough to know it is a marathon. At the very start of my career, I studied and lived internationally for almost a decade. Latterly, I have gone back to international roles. If you spot international opportunities early on, take them!

Secondly, find sponsors as well as mentors. Sponsors actively advocate for you. Finally, be where the action is – for my generation it was globalisation. Today it is arguably climate change, digitalisation, and tech.  So, whatever the day-to-day challenges are in tech – stay strong and be the change both the sector and society need.

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