"I was advised to lead with fear or be more masculine - I didn't listen"

5 Minutes With… Katy Wigdahl, CEO of Speechmatics.

by Orianna Rosa Royle
Last Updated: 28 Jul 2022

Like over half of the FTSE 100 chief executives, Katy Wigdahl started out her career in finance.

After training as an accountant, Wigdahl worked in various management roles at Unilever for 15 years. She then became her own boss as a self-employed management consultant, before taking on Transversal’s finance director role for almost five years. 

In 2019, she joined Speechmatics as chief financial officer and was promoted to the top role of CEO in under a year. Since then, the speech recognition tech company recently raised $62m of VC investment. “The next five years are going to be busy,” she beams, while telling Management Today about bias in AI, her best time management hack and how to reach the top. 

What is the most important leadership lesson life has taught you?

At work, as in life, grace and humility are key. I like to think I have a very human-centred leadership style - calm under pressure and authentic to my personal values. I embrace a communication style that I also expect from others. There have certainly been times when I have been advised to lead with fear or "be more masculine" but I have remained steadfast and committed to being the best version of myself. 

What leader inspires you and why?  

My father was a great role model. He worked with Tim Berners-Lee on creating the World Wide Web. His intellectual brilliance and endeavours to push new boundaries in his academic research at CERN made me realise the importance of teamwork, intellectual curiosity and challenging the norm. 

Best time management hack? 

Without a doubt, get an EA. We do have this slightly odd cultural norm in the UK where we need to prove we don’t need any help. My EA helps me protect my time, helps my entire team maximise their own time and their time with me and releases a huge amount of pressure. 

How do you switch off? 

I think if a CEO says they regularly completely switch off they are being economical with the truth. Rather than ‘switching off’ I focus on compartmentalising: I need time away from my desk, to get a different perspective and come up with solutions to problems. 

What’s the latest trend that leaders need to know about? 

Artificial intelligence and machine learning are real buzzwords these days - both require data to work, but most of that data carries bias and it is critical we recognise that.

Take the industry I work in - historically, speech recognition engines were trained on sets of data that only represented white middle-American male voices. We are now able to train engines on much wider datasets by limiting the human labelling required. The data can represent exponentially more people. We must no longer tolerate the status quo of bias in emerging technology.

What was your most embarrassing moment?  

I will never forget when I was head girl and had been tasked with giving a vote of thanks to Roald Dahl as part of speech day. I spent hours crafting a highly-pretentious, overly-clever speech which referenced all his books. I always cringe at the thought of my voice pounding over the microphone into the hall. I definitely learnt to keep it simple from then on in!  

What single thing would improve your work-life balance? 

Setting aside time to focus and think within the working day - actually booking this time out in my diary and scheduling it like I would anything else. The days can be so jam-packed that it isn’t until the evening or the weekend that you have the brain space to reflect.

How do you reach the top?

Step one is to consider what ‘the top’ means to you. Personally, I was more interested in self-actualisation - what would make me feel happy, inspired, and successful? You also need to keep learning, I was once told you should always feel slightly uncomfortable in your job to keep progressing.