Sarah McEneaney is enthusiastic about digital disruption and is fixated on the potential – not the threat – technolody has for transforming how businesses operate. Automation and digitization are great, according to McEnearney, but insights and impact are greater. McEneaney is a partner and Digital Talent Leader at PwC. PwC has embarked on a multi-year transformation on tech-enabling their business operations. McEneaney is part of the leadership team tasked with upskilling PwC’s 50,000+ employees to meet the challenge. This massive undertaking, and its centerpiece Digital Accelerators program, is how McEneaney and I originally connected back in October at Grace Hopper Celebration 2018 in Houston, Texas. My initial focus (understanding the approach PwC was taking to meet client needs and find qualified talent to fill newly-created digital roles), quickly shifted to learning more about McEneaney’s own career. No argument: She’s a change-agent on the enterprise level. Then there is the intrapreneurial way she has approached her own evolving career – with self-motivated curiosity, strong internal networks and continual pursuit of achievement. What McEneaney embodies is the Digital Accelerators program she has helped design, and the mindset she displays is essential to staying relevant when technology is rapidly changing the nature of work.
As with her colleagues on the leadership team, McEneaney proactively pursues bold ideas, which could be interpreted as surprising for someone who started her career as a Chartered Accountant (not exactly a career associated with risk-taking and bold vision). She has a massive passion for lifelong learning (or as they call it at PwC “infinite learning”) and always knew she would do bold things.
“I definitely didn’t imagine I would be doing what I’m doing now – partly because my role developed out of technology advancements that are pretty recent.” – Sarah McEneaney, partner and Digital Talent Leader, PwC
Kelly Hoey: What types of roles and responsibilities have you sought out in your career, as you don’t strike me as the type who has waited to be asked or picked?
Sarah McEneaney: Oh yes, if you wait to be asked or picked you are immediately limiting yourself to what others think you can do — or what roles they can imagine! My main focus in seeking new opportunities has been to go after things where I will learn at almost “painful” rates, stretching myself and solving problems differently. I also like to work with people who bring very different approaches to creativity than I do.
Hoey: Your current role is a self-created one. How did that come about?
McEneaney: After I got my MBA, I was itching to pair that with the rest of my “collected works”! I got involved in the Your Tomorrow work (the design of that overall upskilling program at PwC is internally referred to as “Your Tomorrow”). Once my capacity expanded, and I saw strategy elements I could lead in bringing the tech and talent focus together, I shared some of my ideas with my leaders and we worked on making it a reality. The other reality is the transition took some time – on top of the collected works of my career to date, it took approximately a year to transition my pre-existing responsibilities to other colleagues.
Hoey: Did you seek advice from mentors/sponsors when you planned out this new role?
McEneaney: Absolutely. I have accumulated quite the personal board of advisors over the years and, in addition to learning how they have modeled behaviors and strategies in going after their goals, I am fortunate to be able to have frank conversations with them about my own aspirations. The best thing has been able to refine my own pitch through their (often brutally) honest feedback so that I can ensure it’s landing the right way with the right audiences, and has the impact I’m intending it to.
Hoey: What’s your advice for others who may have a bold idea for a visionary role at their company and are wondering “how” to make it happen for themselves?
McEneaney: If you already have the bold idea, you are more than halfway there. The ability to see the potential that can be unlocked and to formulate how you can bring agency to that is tremendous. The “making it a reality” recipe is in the combination of timing, the right leadership and the conviction you have that it is what your organization absolutely needs. I also have a massive passion for lifelong learning, or as we call it at PwC “infinite learning.” It is a mistake to think of learning as an “event” and it’s even better to think of it intentionally every single day. If you’re constantly learning, you’re more likely to see opportunities for yourself and your organization.
Embrace a “no looking back” approach. You won’t know all the answers, but chances are neither will the people who will sponsor you, or the people who will benefit from what you can do. Don’t be afraid to jump — you will have time to build your parachute on the way down! – Sarah McEneaney, partner and Digital Talent Leader, PwC
Hoey: Switching focus, what was the spark to create the Digital Accelerators program?
McEneaney: It is one component of PwC’s bigger focus on digital enablement and digital upskilling. Members of the leadership team were charged with reimagining what’s possible for our people experience, including learning, in ways that would be responsive to business goals.
Hoey: The Digital Accelerator program takes a human centric approach to technology. Why is that?
McEneaney: This is core to our business. Automation and digitization are great, but insights and impact are greater. We teach storytelling skills, and design thinking skills, along with agile project management fundamentals. Pairing human skills with tech skills is a winning combo. How can we use technology to make better decisions? That’s where the magic lies.
Hoey: There was an open call and crowd-sourced application process to be considered for the Digital Accelerators program. Why that versus seeking referrals?
McEneaney: With 50,000 employees, we wanted to ensure anyone who was interested had an opportunity to be considered. We also wanted to signal to our workforce how serious we were about investing in digital.
Hoey: Beyond interest, what else did the application process reveal?
McEneaney: It revealed a few things. People understand the benefit of aligning their learning and career tracks with business goals. Meaningful work is something we all strive for, and the DA application process reinforced that. The process highlighted how many people were already upskilling. We also saw how wide-reaching interest in the program was – extending across all of our client-facing and internal staff groups, people of all backgrounds and tenure levels at PwC. People love to learn. Who knew?
Hoey: Why invest in existing talent?
McEneaney: Just like other organizations, the level of tech skills we would ideally have is not something we can hire our way out of (Code.Org estimates puts the current number of unfilled tech jobs at over 570,000). You don’t need a computer science background to get started with digital upskilling! So why would we hire our way to a solution when we have 50,000 talented people who can acquire more digital skills now (and these talented people already now our business and our clients’ businesses)?
Hoey: Based on the success of selling in the idea of the Digital Accelerator Program, what are your recommendations on how to sell a big transformative idea into an organization?
McEneaney: I would offer 3 recommendations:
- It was successful because it wasn’t pitched (or designed) as a standalone program. It is part of a much more cohesive, enterprise-wide focus on digital transformation. It had to be a business-first strategy, complemented by a people one. Demonstrating the business value is key.
- Leadership buy-in and ownership is key. The whole Your Tomorrow agenda has been owned by our leadership team so it’s clear to everyone at PwC that it’s a core tenet of our strategy and culture, not just an “initiative” — and not “someone else’s thing to worry about”.
- Change takes grit and courage — and the change agents know that going in . Bring others along with you, engage the masses, lead with a growth mindset. But know that it will take discipline, investment, and a lot of thick skin.