Thank you so much for taking the time out for us to interview you!
Please tell us a little about yourself/ your journey from graduate to now?
I’ve been working in financial services my entire career. I graduated with a Bachelors’ degree in Economics and Business from Lafayette College in Pennsylvania, US, in 2006. During the 2008 financial crisis, I worked with Barclays Bank as a Corporate Relationship Manager where I had the opportunity to build a book of business in very challenging economic times.
I moved to Canada in 2009 to pursue an MBA in Finance at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. Upon graduation, I got a job as a Commercial Account Manager at RBC, the largest bank in Canada. Over the last 10 years, I’ve taken on progressively more senior roles within Commercial Banking. In my current role as Vice President, I lead a team of 14 Commercial Account Managers that are responsible for supporting small and mid sized business clients.
What are some of your challenges/ experiences of glass ceiling and how did you manoeuvre your way around it?
I’ve worked in different countries i.e. Canada, the US, and Pakistan (where I’m from). In Pakistan, in job interviews, I was asked about my marital status and the employers expressed concern that I would leave my job once I got married. When visiting clients, I was greeted with skepticism and my capability was questioned because of my gender and age.
In Canada, when I first joined my organization, I saw no one that looked like me in senior leadership. I felt constrained because 90% of VPs were males. When there’s no role models to look up to, it can be difficult to visualize yourself in senior roles.
The way I always maneuvered around the glass ceiling was to go above and beyond to deliver results, while maintaining a growth mindset and can-do attitude. Working long hours helped. But it wasn’t enough - I also had to learn the art of self-promotion. Too often women believe that hard work will get noticed. The fact is that you need to step up and advocate for yourself and talk about your accomplishments. Another important element is not to let other people’s perceptions about you shake your self confidence. To get anywhere in life, you need to first believe that you can do it.
What are you most excited about in the industry?
The financial services industry is going through rapid transformation. Consumer behaviors are shifting. There’s the need for constant digital innovation. The current pandemic has further magnified the need for people to be able to conduct their banking digitally. Due to this, the industry, which has traditionally been very conservative, is turning to concepts of agile development and failing-forward, which creates lots of opportunities for employees to be entrepreneurial and learn quickly.
The digital evolution also means that roles of client-facing advisors have become less administrative and more advice-focused.There is greater focus on personal interaction, relationship building, and community engagement, which is quite exciting to me.
What are you doing in the D&I space?
As a visible minority female leader in my organization, I consider it my responsibility to advocate for diversity and inclusion. I embody this in my hiring practices - 82% of my team consists of visible minorities and / or women. I also speak up for diversity & inclusion in the boardroom, am executive sponsor for one of our Employee Resource Groups, and spend time role modeling female leadership and mentoring young women, visible minorities, and new immigrants to Canada.
I am also a Diversity & Inclusion and Women’s Empowerment speaker. I’ve done some work with some organizations such as the Immigrant Employment Council of BC to support their programming for new immigrants to Canada.
How did you make sure you stood out of the crowd?
I always challenged myself to speak up and not shy away from telling my story. Each of us has a unique story that makes us who we are. It’s important for us to fully embrace this story and to tell it passionately. It’s taken me some time to learn to be authentic and not act and be like others to fit in. I don’t play golf and I don’t watch hockey (two things that people told me I must do to fit into Canadian corporate culture). I like bright lipstick and I have a big designer shoe collection - some of which is ‘impractical’ by work standards but I wear anyway. Doing this did not hinder my career. In fact, it has become a part of my personal brand.
I conditioned myself to be comfortable in the spotlight. Earlier on in my career, I would get bogged down in analysis paralysis and the chokehold of perfection. This translated into not raising my hand quickly enough in meetings. What helped was telling myself it was okay to say something stupid or something not fully fleshed out. It was better than not speaking up at all. Getting comfortable with failure and vulnerability has been a game changer for me.
What was the most important thing that helped you land your current role?
Networking. I was a new immigrant and MBA student in Canada in 2009 and was reaching out to dozens of people on LinkedIn on a daily basis. I had reached out to someone within my university’s alumni network who was able to connect me with a VP at RBC. Networking works - and sometimes it’s in ways that you did not expect. Building connections with others not only helps you learn and grow, it also helps you uncover unexpected opportunities.
What advice would you offer to others interested in doing a similar role as yourself?
Always approach whatever you do with a growth and learning mindset; as a leader, you need to constantly adapt and evolve your skills. Humility is one of the most important traits of a leader. You will not have all the answers, but the good thing is that your team will not necessarily expect you to have all the answers either. Most people are looking for a relatable and supportive leader.
And finally, the human side of leadership is by far the most challenging. If you’ve been a successful individual contributor, you can undoubtedly manage the technical and business side of your job. But the most important part of your job is to uplift, support, empower, and enable others. And sometimes this takes the form of managing other people’s emotions and reactions that you don’t necessarily understand.
What tips would you offer those looking to climb the ladder?
Be strategic when building a career plan, but also be flexible. It’s good to have an end goal in mind, but the path to get there may take several forms. Also, don’t think about the roles that you want to do; think about the skills you want to develop and demonstrate. In a rapidly changing world, well-rounded and transferable skills are currency. Be open to opportunities. And when deciding on a role, always think two roles ahead. This role might be great but how will it position you for the next role? What skills will it help you build?
Find the right mentors but also find the right sponsors. Finding sponsors is harder than finding mentors because sponsors have to believe in you and your skills strongly enough to vouch for you, thereby putting their own reputation on the line. A friend of mind - a leader at HSBC London - says it best: Treat every day at work like a job interview. You always need to show up at your best.
How do you make sure you have a good balance of home and work life, especially during COVID-19?
COVID-19 has made things difficult because there is no clear boundary between work and personal life. Having your workstation only a few feet away from you means that there’s temptation - or pressure - to be ‘on’ all the time.
One of the ways I deal with this is to build frequent breaks throughout the day and then hold myself accountable to taking them. I commit to spending a certain amount of my family on a daily basis during which I will disconnect from work. I also like to take myself out of my home environment by going for drives and walks.