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Spotlight Series: Eman Al-Hillawi, CEO, Entec Si

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ARTICLE SUMMARY

Originally a biochemist with a naturally curious, analytical, and investigative mind, Eman al-Hillawi has spent the past 20+ years working tirelessly to develop business change consultancy, Entec Si.

With experience that has been born out of the delivery of multi-million-pound projects and programmes across public and private sectors, she and her team of talented consultants continue to support clients in designing and implementing transformation and change.

In her role as CEO, she’s keen to ensure that Entec Si’s values and ethos are truly reflected in everything the business does. Entec Si’s growth journey has been and continues to be focussed on the development and growth of its amazing team to be the best in the industry, which ultimately serves to secure the necessary outcomes for its clients.

As well as loving flying fixed wing aircraft as a private pilot, Eman’s other interests include running, indoor climbing, and drawing and painting with watercolours.

WE SAT DOWN WITH EMAN TO TALK ABOUT HOW SHE GOT INTO THE TECH INDUSTRY, IMPOSTER SYNDROME, BEING A FEMALE LEADER AND HER ADVICE FOR OTHER WOMEN IN TECH.

HOW DID YOU LAND YOUR CURRENT ROLE? WAS IT PLANNED?

It definitely wasn’t planned! In fact, I started out as a biochemist and changed career at the age of 30 into IT. Initially, I went in as a business analyst. My journey with Entec Si began when I met my business partner, Peter Marsden, on one of the projects we were both involved in.

We started speaking and realised that we had a lot of the same values, and that our business philosophies and vision were also aligned. Our business partnership grew into what we all know as Entec Si today.

Over the years, we have been playing dual parts in terms of leadership and running the company. In more recent years we realised that a business can’t, or shouldn’t, have two people doing the exact same leadership role. So, after consideration, we split the role into CEO and Executive Chairman positions, with Peter taking up the chairman position as I became the CEO.

While none of this journey was necessarily planned, everything seemed to grow organically into how it is now.

WHAT ARE THE KEY ROLES IN YOUR FIELD OF WORK, AND WHY DID YOU CHOOSE YOUR CURRENT EXPERTISE?

It sounds a little bizarre now to think about, but the only reason I started out as a biochemist was because my parents, particularly my dad, wanted me to have ‘doctor’ in my title, but I didn’t want to pursue a career in medicine. After finishing my first degree, my dad continued to insist I complete a PhD, which I did whilst also working part time. Over those six years I still worked as a biochemist, which included some lecturing.

Loving what you do for work has to be really important, and I just didn’t enjoy the type of work I was doing, and despite being good at the job, I couldn’t find satisfaction in my role. It was the late 90s at this point, and when I started to look at different career paths, IT was just reaching its apex on the approach to Y2K and a new millennium. The field seemed exciting and becoming a business analyst felt like it would be a good switch for me; and while the context was completely different, the skillset was pretty similar.

Once you’re in the world of technology and IT you naturally progress through different roles. I became qualified in PRINCE2 project management, which progressed into programme management which I enjoyed even more as it was all about relationships with stakeholders and complex programmes, then I eventually became a programme director. After that, I decided I wanted to run the business. What’s really interesting about following a career path is that you build your expertise through experiencing every role in the business: you really start from the ground up and get to know the discipline inside out.

DID YOU (OR DO YOU) HAVE A ROLE MODEL IN TECH OR BUSINESS IN GENERAL?

This is a really good question. I don’t have a single role model as I tend to see lots of different things in a lot of different people. I like to pick and choose what I follow and look for in terms of leadership style and particularly philosophical views on running a business.

Throughout my career there have been lots of times where I’ve thought ‘I like what you do’ and tried to put my own spin on a particular approach. If I was going to choose a single person as a role model, maybe I would focus on somebody like Zaha Hadid – she was also an Iraqi woman and had an approach to business and leadership that I really like.

Leadership styles are important to me. I don’t see myself as ‘the boss’ – I don’t like the term or idea of a ‘boss’ – I think it’s much better and more productive to have a leader. It’s all about bringing people along the journey with you, engaging with customers, clients and the community and being as authentic as possible.

Authenticity, honesty and vulnerability are all crucial in leadership.

WHAT ARE YOU MOST PROUD OF IN YOUR CAREER, SO FAR?

My proudest moments in my career are achieving my PhD and building Entec Si.

It feels like the business is my baby and I’m very proud of it and everything that we do, and we have great people and do some amazing work for our clients.

WHAT DOES AN AVERAGE WORK DAY LOOK LIKE FOR YOU?

My average day has lots of variety. Lots of networking and being out and about to get to know people in the region, attending events, preparing and pitching for bids, partaking in speaking opportunities, overseeing business development and promoting the business are all things I do on a day-to-day basis. I recently took part in a sector-specific roundtable that I had been invited to about how the region can deliver affordable housing, following the government’s deeper devolution deal announcement.  

One of the most important aspects of my role, however, is making sure that I check in with the team and try to make sure I’m a visible leader in the organisation.

ARE THERE ANY SPECIFIC SKILLS OR TRAITS THAT YOU NOTICE COMPANIES LOOK FOR WHEN YOU’RE SEARCHING FOR ROLES IN YOUR FIELD?

The skills required to work in transformation consultancy are pretty consistent across the board; project management, programme management, the ability to analyse data and have the keenest of eyes and attention to detail. However, what we look for in Entec Si, beyond flexibility and adaptability is empathy. People are at the heart of all change programmes and empathy plays a huge part in everything that we do. Listening and being able to put ourselves in our client’s shoes helps us to communicate change effectively.

HAS ANYONE EVER TRIED TO STOP YOU FROM LEARNING AND DEVELOPING IN YOUR PROFESSIONAL LIFE, OR HAVE YOU FOUND THE TECH SECTOR SUPPORTIVE?

During the 23 years working with a male business partner, I’ve had to battle prospective clients assuming that I was either a personal assistant or an understudy rather than an equal partner. As a woman, especially a woman with an ‘unusual name’ and of Iraqi-descent, there is an additional need to work that little bit harder to be seen as equal. 

It’s not something that is often discussed but being short can also be a challenge. When most people in the room are taller than you, you are often overlooked – literally!

HAVE YOU EVER FACED INSECURITIES AND ANXIETIES DURING YOUR CAREER, AND HOW DID YOU OVERCOME THEM?

Everybody has their moments of dealing with imposter syndrome – I can still feel this on occasion. It all depends on context and what I am doing at the time. I’ve felt more secure as I’ve grown in my career and gained more experience. However, as we work with so many different industries and help with so many different issues, when you find yourself in a brand-new sector or a brand-new client you do sometimes have self-doubt and find the need to remind yourself of your strengths and capabilities. This is just human nature.  

I’ve come to realise that taking the time to understand new environments can really help to overcome this. All the training, knowledge and experience you have will come flooding back to you and help you to realise you really can tackle these new experiences.

I believe that imposter syndrome can even work for you at times, and can be seen as a challenge to achieve something new.

Having a touch of imposter syndrome, even though unpleasant at the time, can also help to be a leveller and bring everybody back down to earth.

ENTERING THE WORLD OF WORK CAN BE DAUNTING. DO YOU HAVE ANY WORDS OF ADVICE FOR ANYONE FEELING OVERWHELMED?

Make sure you get a mentor. When I first started in work, there had never been anybody who had been in the position that I was in my career. It’s important to find someone who you can relate to, with similar life experiences who have started at the same start point as you.

I work with four or five different leadership support programmes, as it is important for me to find other women in the tech sector and help them to achieve; especially those of certain ethnic minorities.

Being visible for those who may not often see themselves in leadership positions is also really important to me.

WHAT ADVICE WOULD YOU GIVE OTHER WOMEN WANTING TO REACH THEIR CAREER GOALS IN TECHNOLOGY?

Go for it! Don’t let self-doubt get the better of you and if possible, surround yourself with a team that complements your skillset. Be honest with your own capabilities, accept your strengths as well as shortcomings, and make sure you champion those who can compensate for your skill gaps.

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