Leaders’ Insights: Dr Anita Sands, board director and global business leader

21 Mar 2016

Dr Anita Sands

Dr Anita Sands is a global technology and business leader, speaker and advocate for the advancement of women.

Dr Anita Sands is currently a member of the board of directors of three public companies: Symantec Corporation, a world leader in the area of cybersecurity; Service Now, an enterprise IT and service management company, and Pure Storage, one of the fastest growing and most innovative Silicon Valley start-ups in the enterprise storage space. She is also on the advisory board of Grand Central Tech – a leading New York-based technology incubator.

Prior to moving into technology, Sands spent a decade in the financial services sector, specialising in enterprise transformation and technology-led innovation.

She previously held the roles of transformation consultant, COO, group managing director and head of change leadership with UBS Financial Services. She was also managing director and head of transformational change at Citi Group, and the senior vice-president of innovation and process design at Royal Bank of Canada.

The US-based Louth native, who is speaking at Inspirefest this year, is also a member of the International Women’s Forum, the New York Women’s Forum, and a mentor for WOMEN in America – an organisation enabling women to fulfil their potential.

She holds a PhD in Atomic and Molecular Physics and a First Class Honours degree in Physics and Applied Mathematics from Queen’s University Belfast.

Describe your role and what you do.

As an independent board director, my role, first and foremost, is to protect the interests of shareholders, so, as a board, we put a huge focus on governance, and on helping to set the strategy for the company. I think the role of a board director is to ensure that management is making the best decisions they can with all stakeholders in mind. On all three of my boards, I also serve on the audit committee and on the nominating and governance committees.

How do you prioritise and organise your working life?

I’m not sure that I’ve ever quite managed to optimally organise my working life, although I will say that over time I’ve gotten far more skilled at discerning between what’s really critical and what’s not. And I’ve become a better delegator. You have to trust your team and those you work with. I also know that building in time to read and to think is important for me, so when I’ve got a big deadline looming, I’ve learned to build in enough time to iterate on my work a few times before it’s due! Beyond that, it’s really all about not making good the enemy of perfect when it comes to getting things done!

What are the biggest challenges facing your business and how are you tackling them?

Like all businesses, the three companies I’m involved with are all facing the challenge of dealing with a hugely disruptive and rapidly changing technology landscape, and all are trying to take advantage of the tectonic plates that are moving beneath our feet in enterprise IT. I think every company is now waking up to the fact that it’s in the technology business, no matter what product or service it sells, and trends such as mobile, cloud and big data are here to stay. It’s an incredibly exciting time to be in technology and I really think the only way to tackle the challenges is to lean into the opportunities they present.

‘I think every company is now waking up to the fact that it’s in the technology business’

What are the key industry opportunities youre capitalising on?

It’s different in the case of the three companies I work with but, fundamentally, all of them are providing solutions to enterprises that are undergoing fundamental shifts in how they think about, provision and leverage technology.

In the case of Symantec, the entire world has such heightened awareness around the scope, nature and magnitude of the cyber-threats we all face, be it as individuals or corporations, so our unified security strategy is positioned to take advantage of that.

In the case of Pure Storage, we are seeing enterprises make the switch from traditional disc storage to flash arrays and Pure has one of the most innovative and disruptive technologies in the market.

ServiceNow is in the business of radically changing the way work gets done in large enterprises – when we think about it, everything we do is a “service” of one sort or another, so the opportunity for CIOs and business leaders to rethink all of their business processes, leverage ServiceNow’s various service offerings and build applications on the ServiceNow platform has the opportunity to be incredibly transformative.

What set you on the road to where you are in the technology industry?

I think, deep down, it’s that I’ve always been intellectually curious and have a real desire to see and learn about new things. That fundamental characteristic is what attracts me to the technology industry and equally has driven me to travel around the world, including on an expedition to Antarctica with polar explorer Robert Swan. What I love about technology is the endless possibilities it presents and the pace at which it changes. I would definitely call myself a bit of a change junkie, so being in an industry that is constantly evolving and that attracts curious and creative people is incredibly compelling to me.

What was your biggest mistake and what did you learn from it?

Over the course of my career I’ve “pivoted” quite a bit and have moved across disciplines and countries. While change can often be daunting, it ultimately leads to better outcomes; often ones you can’t see in advance. There are times when you just have to jump off the cliff and have the confidence to know that you’ll figure out how to build a parachute before you hit the ground. My biggest mistake was allowing fear to override what I knew was the right thing to do in terms of making changes in my life, which ultimately lead me to staying for too long in a place where I wasn’t happy. It was a hugely important lesson to learn – to trust your gut instinct, and to make a change even when you don’t know exactly where it might take you.

‘Being in an industry that is constantly evolving and that attracts curious and creative people is incredibly compelling to me’

How do you get the best out of your team?

I’ve been fortunate to work with some incredible teams and I always tried to lead with two main principles in mind. The first being: that people work with you and not for you. It’s simple and yet so important for every leader to bear in mind. And the second being that at all times you owe people the respect of complete honesty. The latter can sometimes be hard when you need to have difficult conversations with people, but ultimately I think it’s disrespectful to be anything but open and honest with people and, ultimately, I’ve found that goes a long way towards bringing out the best in everyone

STEM sectors receive a lot of criticism for a lack of diversity. What are your thoughts on this and whats needed to effect change?

One very positive development in recent years has been that people have started to look at the real root of the problem and have begun to address the need to get girls interested in STEM subjects early on in school and to encourage the pipeline from there onwards.

There’s no point in complaining about how few women are making it to senior positions in technology if we have far too small a pool to begin with. I also think that the industry needs to be genuinely more inclusive. I’ve had so many women tell me that they don’t think they could work in tech because they didn’t study computer science or they aren’t an engineer. Great technology companies need people with a very diverse range of skills and backgrounds, so I encourage as many women as possible not to be intimidated and to consider having a career in STEM even if that’s not the field you started out studying.

‘There’s no point in complaining about how few women are making it to senior positions in technology if we have far too small a pool to begin with’

Who is your business hero and why?

That’s a tough question. There are so many leaders that I admire for various reasons but I think of late Sheryl Sandberg, the COO of Facebook, would be at the top of my list. Not only has she done an incredible job at Facebook, but I admire the way in which she leveraged that platform to support the advancement of women on a global basis. The ‘Lean In’ movement has certainly raised awareness about the need for true gender equality in organisations and in society at large. I also think her willingness to show her vulnerability and true sorrow over the sudden loss of her husband last year was a real demonstration of her inner strength and her humanity, which to me was remarkably inspiring.

What books have you read that you would recommend?

I’ve read a lot of books but probably over the years the one that stayed with me the most was What Got You Here Won’t Get You There by Marshall Goldsmith. That and The First 90 Days are two books I return to every time I take on a new role. I think it’s so important to continually work on your self-awareness and to remember that we rarely derail because of our weaknesses but because of a strength we take to an extreme. Marshall’s book forces me to take a look at all my habits and to check to see if how I’m actually showing up as a leader is consistent with how I want to show up.

What are the essential tools and resources that get you through the working week?

Truthfully, one of my most valuable resources in work and life is a little notebook in which I jot all my to-dos down. It’s not very high tech, I know, but I find if I can get straight what I need to get done, I can then prioritise my tasks and, more importantly, I don’t have to use up capacity in my mind trying to remember everything I have to do. Once it’s all written down, I can concentrate on the task of actually executing. My most valuable resource, though, is my executive assistant Debi. I’m convinced she’s part superwoman, and part magician given how much she does to support me and how on top of everything she is. Not sure how I would manage without her to be honest and I know I’m incredibly lucky to have someone like that in my life.

Inspirefest is Silicon Republic’s international event connecting sci-tech professionals passionate about the future of STEM. Join us again from 30 June to 2 July 2016 for fresh perspectives on leadership, innovation and diversity. Book your tickets now.

Update, Friday 10 June at 12.21pm: Unfortunately, Dr Anita Sands will no longer be speaking at Inspirefest 2016.