As Director of the Human Sciences Studio at The Dock, Accenture’s flagship global R&D centre, Jess Majekodunmi helps business leaders ask ‘why’, ‘how’ and ‘so what?’ about the big questions they face. Her non-linear, non-traditional career path allows her to draw on a myriad resources, skills and perspectives, redefining what success can look like and how we can build it as women. Winner of the Team Leader award at the 2022 everywoman in Technology Awards, Jess discusses modern superpowers, finding opportunities and how she empowers her team to reach its potential, as a collective and as individuals.
WHAT IS THE KEY TO BUILDING A SUCCESSFUL NON-LINEAR OR ‘NON-TRADITIONAL’ CAREER?
It makes me smile when people talk about my ‘career’ because I’ve never thought about it that way. I always feel that a ‘career’ is something defined in hindsight. In some ways, I’ve taken quite an opportunistic path; I’ve thought, ‘that looks interesting, let’s go in that direction’. So, I’ve been fearless in terms of some of the choices I made, but they weren’t always with an end goal in sight. I didn’t do anything specific with the idea that I was going to end up being the Director of the Human Sciences Studio. So being open to surprises is key. You also need to be okay with the choices you’ve made and know why you’ve made them, because people who have had quite linear careers will often question you — otherwise you could spiral into self-doubt.
WHAT HAS BEEN THE GOLDEN THREAD THAT HAS DRAWN YOUR CAREER TOGETHER?
There have been moments in time when I’ve been offered a role and thought, ‘wow, that now makes sense of everything I did before’. The first time that really happened was when I was offered the role with Girl Effect to work in Ethiopia. They were specifically looking for somebody who had experience as a strategic planner in advertising, who understood brands and media, had experience in non-profits, preferably in advocacy and with an understanding of girls’ rights. I’d worked for the Special Olympics, launched the ‘Because I am a Girl’ campaign in Ireland and worked in advertising, brand and media. Separately, those things seemed quite different to each other — but then this job arrived and suddenly everything came together in a way I couldn’t have predicted. There are some general threads though; I had a great coach when I was in Ethiopia. I was looking to come home to Dublin and didn’t know what I wanted to do workwise. She encouraged me to look back at my jobs and pull out what had really given me energy. A strong element of creativity and scope to imagine have been important to me, but there’s also now a sense of building on everything that has gone before.
WHAT’S YOUR SECRET TO MAKING THE ‘RIGHT’ OPPORTUNITIES APPEAR?
In my work journey, it wasn’t just a case of ‘I was true to myself, and opportunities arrived’, there were false starts too, jobs I was close to taking that I knew weren’t quite right, for example. And it’s taken hard work, networking, studying in the evenings, and lots of things that have opened doors outside of the role I was in. Opportunities often come from unexpected places — and you’re opening doors for yourself all the time with the choices you make. If someone asks me ‘Do you want to have a coffee to discuss XYZ?’ The answer is yes — I’ll always have a coffee. Nothing might come out of it at the time, but maybe five years later something might. If you just take something on face value, you’re not only closing down that specific opportunity, but potentially closing down a whole relationship or door that could open later.
WHAT ARE THE NEW SUPERPOWERS FOR A SUCCESSFUL CAREER?
One that is not talked about much is humility, because good intentions are not good enough. I’ve worked in non-profits for long enough and just having a sense of idealism and purpose alone can cause a lot of damage, so there has to be humility too. Listening and understanding come into that, and not being blindsided by your own arrogance or bias. Another superpower is playfulness and I often use playful techniques and inclusive humour to help pursue serious outcomes. When people have fun, they enjoy their work. It helps them connect and collaborate and you can fold that sense of enjoyment into your work in a way that advances what you’re trying to do — it’s not just about having the craic in the break time. Lastly, boundary setting. And if you’re good at setting your boundaries appropriately you’ll go far. I wish somebody had told me that when I was 18!
HAVE YOU EXPERIENCED IMPOSTOR SYNDROME AND HOW DID YOU DEAL WITH IT?
I have chronic impostor syndrome and I’m a work in progress on this. The term was created by two female psychologists in the 1970s who called it imposter phenomenon. It gradually changed to syndrome, a word that’s loaded when it comes to gender bias — we have a ‘syndrome’, meaning something is ‘wrong’ with us as opposed to a phenomenon which is something observed in the world. I recognise my imposter phenomenon — I refuse to call it syndrome now — if I actively silence myself in environments where I don’t feel comfortable or safe talking. But I’m coming to terms with the fact it’s less about my abilities and more about when I feel that I don’t belong. Organisations and institutions haven’t always been a place where women or women of colour belong, so the imposter phenomenon we observe in ourselves is not surprising. But we’re actively changing those structures and environments now. And if I’m leading a team and can’t create an environment where I feel like I can belong, then I’ve got no chance of anyone else feeling like they belong.
HOW DO YOU STAY CONFIDENT ON A DAILY BASIS?
We often talk about confidence as though it’s an emotion, but I think it’s an act. You can ‘do’ confidence and if you’re waiting for a lightning bolt of ‘feeling confident’ then that will just not happen. I actually had a confidence dip after winning the everywoman award, which was strange because it was such an honour and I was so proud. I felt my imposter phenomenon spiking, but it was this sense of ‘doing’ confidence that helped, because feelings can catch up with actions. There were a couple of things at work that I just had to go and do — and before I knew it, I had come out of it. I also believe it’s easier to be confident when you’re ‘in the flow’. When you’re in that state of absorption then there’s no room for doubt — you’re just ‘in the doing’.
WHAT IS THE ESSENCE OF A POWERFUL TEAM?
It’s about the collective, and also the individuals, for me they have to be thriving. My aim for the team is for it to be vibrant; it’s about ideas, discussions, we’re productive and there’s a buzz about us. That’s when the team is at its most powerful. I’ve also hired people who are smarter and more accomplished than me in their respective fields. That’s where I have to lean into my humility and draw on their input too. More generally, we’ve been doing research around the idea of collective advantage, and how to encourage collaborations with unlikely partners to answer pressing problems around sustainability or make sure that technology lives up to its promise. It turns out that collaboration isn’t really about aligning. It’s about transparency around intention and impact. I try to bring this into my team leadership style too.
HOW YOU WORK TO FACILITATE AND INSPIRE YOUR TEAM AS A LEADER?
It’s important to role model wellbeing. Accenture has amazing structures around wellness and support internally. I think the rest is about permission. When you lead a team, you can feel you need to have your ‘game face’ on all the time. But one of the most powerful things I’ve done is to articulate when I’m not having a good day. Role modelling permission to have a bad day and still show up as a leader is critical for enabling others.
WHAT DOES SUCCESS MEAN TO YOU?
It’s hard to define success in a career when it’s organic, I think. You don’t say a plant is growing successfully — it’s just growing. But happiness and success are closely related for me. My husband and I have an agreement to travel for two years out of every 10 years and we have done this for the last two decades. Every time we’ve done that it has massively enriched my life and perspective. If I can continue that through my working career that’d be pretty cool success because that takes planning, bravery and daring to walk away — and trust that you can come back and re-enter the workforce.