Women In Tech: Interview With CDIO, Jo Graham

Women in tech leadership

With only 5% of leadership positions in the technology industry being held by women, I was very pleased to sit down with ghd’s CDIO Jo Graham to discuss her journey in tech, the steps she thinks companies should (or shouldn’t) take to encourage diversity in their IT teams, and how she’s often the only woman in the room…

 

What are your responsibilities as CDIO at ghd?

So, I look after our e-commerce platform – within that there is our business-focused e-commerce global team, performance marketing, Amazon and other e-commerce partners, and then finally our analytics team. So that’s the ‘D’ in CDIO.

I also look after everything IT-related for ghd – this includes our website from a platform perspective, infrastructure services, service operations, architecture, and all of the core business platforms for our supply chain, finance etc. (Microsoft Dynamics, Salesforce etc.).

I assume your days are pretty jam-packed, but can you describe a typical day?

My days differ depending on if I’ve got lots of 121s or supplier meetings, but I’ll talk you through today.

So, this morning I ran a check-in session with the team – I typically run these three days per week. Then I had a mentoring session with someone who is about to start a new CIO role and wanted some advice. I’ve also had a new starter in today doing a bit of orientation before he starts with us at the end of March. I spent some time with our security team to discuss something we were looking at over the weekend. We’ve got a Microsoft Dynamics implementation going live tomorrow, so I’ve been involved in go/no go calls for that, and I’m talking to you! Most days are pretty back-to-back.

You have a degree in economics, did you always plan to have a career in tech?

I started off in accountancy and didn’t do terribly well in the professional exams. I decided it was a clue that I’d chosen the wrong profession. From there I went into systems analysis and that was pretty much the start of my IT career.

Was financial services a good starting point for your tech career?

I think starting off in financial services was an exceptionally good grounding because I had to be disciplined and customer-focused. There’s a shed load of mandatory and regulatory requirements, so I’d recommend it for those looking at service roles in particular.

I remember when I was working in the banking sector, I looked after ATMs as a channel. If you were taking the ATM network down, you had to tell the FCSA that you needed a maintenance window. So your projects had to be within this window. There was no scope for anything creeping over, otherwise, you’d be in breach. And you can’t not give customers access to their money!

I can honestly say I’ve never come across that level of rigor around how you operate in any other sector, so I think it’s a really good environment to start your career. You become wired to always have the wavelength of making sure there’s rigor and governance, and then you temper it to the organisation you’re in. You have to be a chameleon!

Apart from finance and banking, are there any other sectors you have enjoyed working in more than most?

Retail is super interesting. I’ve worked in all kinds of retail – supermarkets, e-commerce, wholesale and B2B. There’s a natural rhythm for the year around what’s happening for those special days and events. You get your peaks, your system has to cope, and you have to plan for those peaks. When I worked at Boohoo, it was less focused on say Mother’s Day, than ghd or Morrisons. But you do have this cadence of events throughout the year.

Boohoo was very opportunistic. You never knew what might be coming across your desk. There’s a definite pace to retail that keeps it interesting – there’s definitely no boredom. It’s fast-paced and interesting.

Throughout your career to date, have you seen a clear lack of women in the tech industry?

Absolutely. I had some suppliers come in a couple of weeks ago and when I walked into the room, I noticed that from the 8 of them, two members of my team and myself – I was the only girl in the room.

I like to say that “it’s always good to see diversity is alive and well in tech”.

I remember one of my team responding to me with “yeah but you’re the boss”.

So yes, there is a lack of women in tech. I think it’s getting better, but you still rock up to meetings and see you’re the only girl in the room. If I go to an IT conference, I tend to look for diversity generally. Sometimes it feels like it’s getting better and sometimes it doesn’t.

How does being the only woman in the room make you feel?

I think I’m quite resilient and confident. So, I don’t care. To be honest, I’d prefer to be seen as the best person in the room, rather than the best woman in the room.

So, it doesn’t bother me, but it would be nice sometimes not to be the only woman in the room. I do have some suppliers that have got quite cute around this, and they always bring some females to our meetings. On the one hand, fair play, they’ve spotted it, but on the other, it shouldn’t be contrived.

I can see why some females decide tech is not for them. I can understand why some women find the environment intimidating.

Has gender ever had an impact on what you wanted to do in your tech career?

I don’t think so. I think if you can’t change your environment, then change your environment.

I wouldn’t want to work for someone who was difficult around this sort of thing. If I was in an environment where I felt uncomfortable because of my gender, the likelihood is there are other people feeling uncomfortable because of their background, colour of their skin, sexual orientation etc. So if it’s that kind of environment, they don’t deserve any of us. I’m a ‘vote with your feet’ kind of person.

But it is a tricky one. If you’re in an environment where you’re fighting every day against a gender wall, should you stay for women that are coming in behind you? Or should you go work for someone who appreciates you and embraces diversity? They will attract the great people that this other organisation doesn’t deserve.

For me, there’s value in working for organisations where you feel they’re getting the best from you, where you don’t have to fight for what should be the norm.

I’ve never come out of an interview feeling like someone was judging me based on my gender. I’ve always gone into organisations where I’ve felt it was a non-issue. With these kinds of organisations, people will perform.

Is there anything you’ve done specifically to encourage equality and gender diversity in your own tech teams?

I never set out to try and achieve diversity in my teams. I just build an environment where people want to work – my team at Boohoo was probably the most diverse I’ve had. It wasn’t anything we set out to do – we just recruited great people.

Part of me wonders whether the fact I am female encourages a different candidate to apply. But I guess it’s a ‘build it and they will come’ kind of mentality. If you’ve got a reputation for being supportive, open-minded, and progressive – diversity naturally happens as a by-product.

How can managers and leaders encourage gender diversity in their tech teams?

I think your strategy should depend on the ponds you go fishing in. If you only ever attend certain conferences attended by a certain demographic, or have a LinkedIn profile that includes people like you, you’re only ever going to attract candidates from your own pool. Be creative about which ponds you explore for talent.

Be flexible. Make sure people understand it’s okay to flex around work-life balance, or to even ask for a role to be part-time. A lot of roles can be part-time, but people assume they can’t.

My children are all in their twenties now, but when they were little, I wanted to have one day per week where I did both ends of the school run. I was in senior management at the time and worked 10am-3pm every Friday. I would brazenly walk out at 3pm shouting ‘have a nice weekend’ to people. I never felt a need to slink away. I’d done my week; I wasn’t getting paid for my time. I guess I was sending a message that I wasn’t ashamed or embarrassed.

I’d also say to make sure your people understand that you are their manager, but you are also a human being. If they are going through a challenge or obstacle in their personal or work life, you’ve probably experienced something similar and can relate. If you get that same kind of ethos, culture, and understanding out there, you will attract a diverse range of people. I don’t think a lot of organisations have spotted that yet.

What is the best part of being a woman in tech leadership?

Everyone knows your name because you don’t look like every other grey suit in the room. You stand out a bit. People remember you. It’s very easy for your brand and profile to be higher because you’re clearly different.

Plus, you never have to queue for the loo!

You won ‘2022 CIO of the Year’ at the Women in IT UK Awards – what was that like?

That was super exciting. I attended the year before Covid, and the awards contacted me asking if I’d apply, so I did. It was quite nerve-wracking. You’re sat there having been nominated with lots of other amazing people and you just don’t know what’s going to happen.

My team was there, so when I won, it was a big team celebration!

What other moments in your career are you proud of?

The accolades are great. But for me, it’s about the journey I take a team on, realising how far myself and a team have come with something and how different something was when I left compared to when I started.

I’ve only been at ghd for 3 months, but I know when I look back in a year, we’ll have done some really innovative things, and we’ll have shifted the needle in terms of business performance. That’s where I get my proud moments from.

What attracted you to taking a tech leadership role at ghd?

My boss has a very clear vision of where he’s taking the business. It’s hugely strategic – there’s a plan and it’s unpinned with really sound strategic principles and ideas. This is the first time they’ve had a CDIO and there’s really strong recognition in business that they need to lift the capability around tech.

When I was interviewing for the role, everybody I met was completely on point and on brand around this strategy and the journey the business was on.

Did the fact you were going to be ghd’s first CDIO excite you?

There was an IT Director, but that person never reported to the CEO, the board etc. It’s a completely blank sheet of paper for me. It’s a challenge, but it’s nice that people recognise what needs to be done and trust me to do it.

Who is your modern-day hero?

People who have worked with me in the past will already know this – I always point to Madonna. Not because I necessarily agree with how she operates her life, her principles etc. but because of her capacity to reinvent herself.

If you look at Madonna over the years, she has reinvented herself so many times to stay current and inject impetus into her career. When I mentor people, especially if they’re going into a new role, I ask “how are you going to show up?” and “what does you in this role look like?”.

So, I wouldn’t necessarily say she’s a hero, but there’s a strong role model there that shows how you can reinvent yourself at various stages of your career to stay relevant.

What do you think about organisations who put targets against their diversity hiring for their tech teams, and set out to hire purely because of gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity etc?

I’ve been headhunted a couple of times because these companies wanted a female CIO. There’s a huge lack of authenticity in it. Yes, I am a female CIO. I’m sure when it comes down to candidate preferences, I do get put on the top of the pile for an interview because of my gender. It’s not okay, but it’s realistic. But when it comes down to it, you like to hope they pick the best candidate given the investment they’re making.

No company should have a female-only candidate list. The successful individual will pick up on it the second they join the organisation, and will know that their appointment is just a box-ticking exercise.

Do you have a piece of advice for women just starting out in their tech careers?

I think there’s something to be said about being authentic. No one necessarily advised me about it, but I would say to stay true to yourself. Don’t mould into the corporate culture. I think that helps massively when you get into management and leadership positions and want to attract diverse talent. People recognise that authenticity is one of the things that makes a great leader, and they’ll be drawn to it.

 

Thank you for checking out our latest interview in our Women in Tech series – you can access more interviews from the series here.

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