Skip to main content

Executive Education

Saleha Williams
Saleha Williams
Women Leaders Programme

“An opportunity to check in with yourself and peers, and really own your career intentions”

Saleha Williams

Global Head of Strategy, Next Gen Application Services and Digital Engineering at Cognizant

Past participant of Women Leaders Programme

We are so much more dynamic as individuals when we come together and blend our different ways of learning, thinking, creating, diagnosing and solving problems: that’s where we deliver real value – to our clients, to our industries and above all, to ourselves.

Saleha Williams is a seasoned tech leader. Her 30+ year career has spanned many of the most recognisable organisations on the planet, including, Google, News International, BT Group, the Olympics, the BBC, as well as global VC funded tech companies. She has lived and worked all over the world, and now living in the UK, shares her expertise as a senior leader with Cognizant, one of the world’s largest global professional services companies.

Since early 2021, Saleha Williams has served as Cognizant Global Head of Strategy, Next Gen Application Services and Digital Engineering. It’s a role not without its challenges.

”For me, key responsibilities include evangelising our next gen applications: driving our thought leadership efforts and telling our story - helping clients modernise their technology, reimagine processes and transform experiences so they can stay ahead in our fast-changing world. While things are changing in our industry, it’s still a very male-dominated space.”

Things may indeed be changing, but the science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) arena is still a challenging space for women, not least because of a fragile talent pipeline. Women leave the industry before realising their full potential, she says, and there’s an onus on companies to really understand why this might be - though she has her own insights. Here are her key top five takeaways and tips for companies to fill the divide.”

1. Create flexible work programs

Senior women leaders often live in the sandwich generation – with responsibility to take care of children and/or elderly parents while juggling careers. “It’s important to squash the assumption that women are not ambitious. It’s not a question of lack of ambition in women, it’s a case of the need for greater flexibility. At Cognizant we have flexible working that works very well because there’s no stigma around it: the company simply doesn’t buy into the dogma that flexible working is somehow working less.”

For Saleha this is key. Companies and female leaders need to understand that productivity is not directly linked to the hours you put in in the office or the number of video calls you make late at night or early doors. “Cognizant has made great strides in providing flexibility because we understand that work should be results-based, client focused and not only focused around presenteeism. INSEAD's Women Leaders Programme shed further light on the need for flexibility in organisations and provided tools and frameworks, both personal and organisational, as to how to motivate and retain women leaders within the organisation.”

2. Recognise and value top talent

Saleha believes incentivising talent to stay in the tech industry is not just about financial rewards, but also recognising individual strengths, valuing and welcoming contributions, and providing the flexibility mentioned above. “Of course compensation is important, but it’s not the only driver: feeling valued and knowing that your contribution is driving real impact is also key. Companies often overlook the latter, which is key to providing an inclusive, dynamic, results driven culture and integral to building personal career satisfaction and motivation. INSEAD helped me validate my own career drivers and motivations, as well as understand more how to lead and motivate our female talent, and their managers across the company.”

3. Provide skilling and leadership development opportunities

Cognizant is breaking ground in terms of the female in-house training and skills and leadership development programmes it offers – opportunities that Saleha has leveraged. What brought her to INSEAD and to the Women Leaders Programme, she says, was a desire to pay it forward by leveraging the learning and development she received while building her knowledge further and networking with other senior women from different sectors, industries and countries.

“I wanted a viewpoint that was outside-in – global, multinational, and multi-industry. The Women Leaders Programme offered that. Moreover, it offered a rich, evidence-based insight into leadership and what underpins effective leadership in the first instance, but through the lens of women in senior leadership roles. Women’s leadership is not about bringing men down, it’s about rising women up – realising the business value they bring to the table – and I loved how INSEAD helped us present this professional and inclusive viewpoint. When you combine the insights from your cohort with the research and the content the programme provides, and you bring all that into the one-to-one sessions with the coaches, it’s an extraordinary opportunity to understand assumptions you may be making, really check in with yourself and validate your leadership thinking, resulting in a real ‘light bulb’ moment.” She also cites the real-world case studies that she explored in the programme – an opportunity to embed ideas in a practical context and shift from theory to action, she says.

“Really what makes the programme unique is the space that it creates to explore common problems across a diversity of perspectives as women in senior roles and to share ideas and approaches in the global leadership sphere."

4. Instil strong Diversity & Inclusion programs

Saleha fully supports mentoring and networking, particularly with the lens of diversity and inclusion – and was one of the things that attracted her to INSEAD. Among the chief highlights of the programme, says Saleha, is the opportunities to share common challenges – and solutions – with peers from diverse backgrounds; as well as one-to-one coaching to explore biases and effective remedies more deeply.

“Across the global tech industry, I would like to see more efforts to diversify the talent pipeline and to broaden the net much wider to attract and capture the right talent. And let’s be clear about diversity – it needs to be diversity of background, culture, education, religion and neurology, not just gender.”

5. Take ownership of your career

In terms of sharing ideas, approaches and advice, Saleha has this to say to anyone thinking of taking a programme like the Women Leaders Programme.

“I think it behoves women (and people of all genders) to be intentional about their careers - to really think about who they are and what they want their career to be - working with INSEAD, the coaches and my cohort peers really helped me clarify that as I go into the second half of my career. For me, success has always been down delivering great results and being myself in the job. That also means being consistent, showing up and really working as part of a team. My advice is to take ownership of your career, whether starting out, or at any stage beyond, and match your aspirations with the kind of organisation and culture that will enable that. Be intentional, really intentional!”

Then there’s curiosity. Throughout her own career, Saleha has been curious about other people’s experience and has sought out a diversity of perspective and input from others.

“I have always looked for people who can shed valuable light on the challenges we face as human beings and INSEAD's Women Leaders Programme gave us that in spades. There’s a rich learning opportunity to be grasped when you reach out and share experiences and challenges. We are so much more dynamic as individuals, when we come together and blend our different ways of thinking, creating, diagnosing and solving problems: that’s where we deliver real value – to our clients, to our industries and above all, to ourselves.”