Impact Pride Series: In Conversation with Zahra Majid

International Coaching Federation Accredited Coach, Zahra Majid, has worked for over ten years with international brands such as British American Tobacco, China Mobile, Ericsson, NSC Global to name a few, as a senior HR Consultant. In 2013, she ventured into setting up her own consulting business “Coaching and Consulting with Zahra Majid” in the UK as a Certified International Coach. Currently she is in the process of writing a book on Leadership, set to release in 2021. Coaching young graduates on transitioning and mid-career candidates on success factors, speaking in conferences and publishing papers in renowned journals is her way of giving back to the corporate fraternity. We caught up with her at her twin-city residence on her recent visit to Pakistan.

Training Impact: Tell us about your core values in life?

Zahra Majid: Resilience, kindness, warmth, empathy, open-mindedness and consideration are some of the values instilled in me by my mother as I was growing up. She always emphasized how the human factor was always more important than the material factor and that we must be sensitive and respectful to the sentiments and emotions of others. Those by default became my constant values that made me succeed and stand out from my counterparts. My strength is that overtime I have become successful in tuning out the noise that does not matter and focusing on what is important.

TI: You have worked in various sectors; how did you adjust to the industry switch?

ZM: When I left the Tobacco industry after five and half years, I was going from a structured organization with all the process and policies chalked out by chartered psychologists to setting up a brand-new wing within HR, reinventing the wheel and designing new processes from scratch. Even though HR skills are highly transferable, but when you move up in your career, you have to acquire new skills which then become your trademark. A careful analysis of the environment helps you tailor your strategy in this regard.

Although designing and launching a completely new product gave me an adrenaline rush but at the same time it also challenged me. I had to constantly work very hard to build my capacity and stretch myself. To the outside world you may look like a very focused individual who is achieving their milestones easily, but your internal struggles are your most prized possessions because they take you to the next level. The internal challenge of rising from one leadership level to another using all the resources I had and keeping in perspective the knowledge that I gained in the last five to six years gave me confidence. Once you’ve surpassed the challenge, the sweet taste of victory is very precious. Challenges are good; they stretch your perceived limits, and make you understand what you are capable of achieving. Even today if I have to choose between a conservative environment of working and a challenging new role; I would direct myself to the latter.

TI: What were some attitudinal capacities that enabled you to outshine different challenges?

ZM: We as individuals don’t realize our potential irrespective of gender. But when we are put in a certain situation, the best or the worst comes out of us. The different situations I was put through in my life by the design of nature whether it was the corporate world or my own struggles, brought out the best in me. How I exchanged energies with my co-workers helped me become a better version of myself. Competing with yourself, consciously wanting feedback, learning from mistakes, making room for improvement, taking criticism positively, and then absorbing and analyzing it leads to self-awareness. These are the attitudinal capacities I greatly benefited from. After self-awareness comes ‘Creating Impact’ and you can only do that once you know your strengths, weaknesses and potentials exquisitely.

TI: What is that one behavioral trait you had to develop in yourself to deal with the new roles?

ZM: I think it was assertiveness. I began my career with a different personality; introverted and malleable However, my corporate exposure and interventions with varied stakeholders and leadership trainers brought out that element of assertiveness in me which I enjoyed much more later in life.

Having the ability to say no without annoying your stakeholders, being assertive about standing your ground, taking decisions single handedly and being confident about them are some of the skills that you need to acquire as you move on further in your career.

TI: Tell us about the program you attended with Training Impact more than a decade ago

ZM: It was an eye-opening learning experience. I had attended many external trainings based on classroom methodology within an enclosed indoor environment this, however was a world apart. It was a 5-day residential program called Leadership Adventures back in the day. Later Training Impact rebranded it as Leadership Xpedition®. We didn’t have anything to compare it with and we entered it with zero expectations. Yet, those 5 days were life-changing.

One thing Naseem sb said and I still vividly remember: when you are in the wilderness you are at the mercy of nature. It resonated so much to our experience that I never forgot it. The best thing was the kindness of trainers. Training Impact team had an emotional quotient, they were able to come down to our level and empathize with what we were going through.

The reason I have been taking TI’s programs to other organizations where I worked is because I have firsthand experienced the values that program instilled in me. I think those fond memories and learning played a part as Training Impact and its programs are a niche apart.

TI: Any particular challenge and how did the TI team help you withstand it?

ZM: My challenge during the 5-day leadership intervention was my physical abilities. Soon after the program began, I realized my internal body strength didn’t match my team members’. I was lagging and making the team go slow. I was dehydrated, my legs had no strength as I had not hiked for that long before. We got lost in the forest, and we spent 7-8 hours going up and down cluelessly.

During that time, I realized that Training Impact brought out my emotional and mental strength which I didn’t see at that time. It was a self-awareness journey, those 5 days. Training Impact did diagnostics of each individual by identifying their strengths and weaknesses. They were keenly observing my emotional strengths which they later shared with me. I was told I didn’t break down, yell at anyone, cry, throw a temper or throw things, and those behaviors they said meant a lot. Everybody has their own strengths – what somebody else’s strength was, wasn’t mine. I and the group were made aware of each other’s strengths as well in subtle ways during meditation and de-brief sessions. I was pleasantly surprised as my behaviors which I thought were weaknesses, were counted as emotional quotient during assessment. I don’t think an ordinary trainer would have been able to do that. It was these talented trainers at Training Impact who are clearly superior to their counterparts in the industry, especially in the field of Outbound Experiential Learning.

TI: Tell us about a specific anecdote where Naseem sb identified your hidden potential areas?

TI: What was a particularly precious learning from the program that you still remember?

ZM: Something that really touched me was us coming together as a team despite working in different functions in the organization. I learnt so much about other individuals; their capacities of kindness, sharing, and helping each other. I still remember when I was feeling down, somebody offered me their multivitamins that they were carrying with themselves. At another incidence, my socks were drenched and while packing I hadn’t packed enough socks. When I casually mentioned that my only pair of socks were soaked, someone remarked that they had an extra pair of socks that I could borrow. I thoroughly appreciated that gesture. This sense of compassion and caring attitude towards each other is the true exchange of human values among team members. The element of teamwork and offering each other comfort was precious. This sort of behavior doesn’t manifest in everyday office environment.

TI: You’ve had experience of different markets, what’s the difference between the Pakistani and the foreign market?

ZM: My last five years of work has been working with European companies and that is the market which absorbs a lot.

United Kingdom in particular, is an embracing society. Their culture is very inclusive as they have people from all walks of life working in the country. During my time there, I saw a lot of potential of how I could add value to the British society by being not only an ambassador of Pakistan but also a Muslim woman seen as participating in all walks of life and adding value.

In my experience, the international market allows you more maturity in dealing with business leaders as strategic business partners working straight parallel with business and having a massive say. Internationally speaking, it’s a little more strategic and objective. The expectations from an HR professional are also more profound. Moreover, the financial value you bring by getting on board adds more authenticity to your profile. You can be more articulate of your impact during your tenure with your organization or client.

TI: How has your experience working in different communities shaped your understanding of leadership specifically leading as a woman in a male dominated society such as Pakistan?

ZM: While abroad in places such as Qatar, Singapore, Egypt and Paris I noticed that our male colleagues in Pakistan are quite accomodating and helpful. In my experience, Pakistani men are inclusive in terms of recognizing the value that a woman can bring to a workplace. They are encouraging and supportive to women dealing with issues during their childbearing years; returning to work, filling in for each other. I think Pakistan is very sophisticated in terms of being developed at handling women. People in other parts of the world don’t know the value of support our men at our workplaces extend towards us women. I have observed and experienced some unparalleled chivalry and respect in the Telecom sector in Pakistan. Women have thrived in Telecom in Pakistan and men have made way for them, and this is commendable! I share it with my European clients as I help them achieve their diversity milestones as a Consultant.

TI: How has your concept of leadership developed and what is your preferred style?

ZM: To begin with, I was introduced by the bookish knowledge of leadership that it is either participative or autocratic. However, when you start working you get bosses with different styles of leadership you tend to either appreciate or criticize a certain style. That is what develops your understanding and appreciation of a certain style of leadership. My preferred style is participative in which you involve the team at every step through reasoning and discussion. Having good bosses gave me a taste of what leadership should be like. When I had subordinates reporting to me, I was hopefully able to give a good flavor back to them. My favorite quote is ‘Be the boss you wanted to have’.

I have observed some exceptional leaders in the Telecom and vendor industry globally and in Pakistan, and have picked up some greatness from them, and I like to pass it on. I am now designing leaders’ workshops and writing Leader Strategy papers for conferences, but still learning every single day.

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