Like with any social change, some people adopt the new normal because they are scared of ‘being cancelled’, but my hope is that this turns into real meaningful change in behaviors, both in the workplace and in mainstream society.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Ali Fazal. Ali Fazal is Senior Director of Marketing at Hibob, where he leads a global marketing team. Before joining the Hibob team, Fazal led demand generation marketing for e-commerce company Yotpo and led marketing and sales teams for Greenhouse Software, DoubleDutch, and Gigya. Fazal is also a member of the Forbes Business Development Council. Outside of work, Fazal enjoys exploring Manhattan, craft cocktails, and any book or movie with a twist ending.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you. Can you tell us a bit about how you grew up?
I grew up in a small town called Cypress, TX. My family emigrated to the US from Pakistan when I was 2 years old, so my childhood was definitely an interesting one, both assimilating and adapting to life in America while trying to keep South Asian customs alive.
Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?
I remember Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers being a real game changer for me. I think so much mass media is centered around the ‘perfect recipe’ for success, and one my main takeaways from the book was that this idea is complete fiction. For me, realizing there was no one way to achieve what I wanted was huge. It meant I could carve my own path in a way that worked for me. Accepting this relieved a lot of pressure in a way as I finally realized there is no perfect resume format, perfect diet or perfect interview answer that is going to hold the key to my entire future happiness. Ultimately, it’s about realizing opportunities are fleeting and to grab ones that make their way to you with vigor. Most of all, it’s overwhelmingly important to remember there is no replacement for hard work.
Do you have a favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life or your work?
It’s a cheesy one, but I love “Most of the shadows of this life are caused by our standing in our own sunshine” by Ralph Waldo Emerson. While it’s a platitude, it’s a really good one, particularly in an age where the 24 hour new cycle yields a sense of doom and gloom constantly. When I get stuck in the rut of the daily grind, as we all do, it reminds me to take a deep breath, zoom out, and focus on what I really want for my life, future and how I want to impact others. For me, I often get fixated on environmental factors, and that quote reminds me to control what I can control, and just let the rest play out.
How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?
True leadership to me is about vision meeting accountability. I recently heard that the CEO of a large bank is tying his and his executive team’s pay structure to meeting diversity and inclusion goals over the next year. In my opinion, it takes tremendous vision to develop a plan like this. It also demonstrates true accountability to put yourself on the line in a manner like that when the vast majority of peers at competing companies haven’t come close to announcing similar plans.
In my work, I often talk about how to release and relieve stress. As a busy leader, what do you do to prepare your mind and body before a stressful or high stakes meeting, talk, or decision? Can you share a story or some examples?
I wish I could give a sage answer about guided meditation helping me find myself. The truth is, like most people, I decompress with ‘the usual’ — having fun and relaxing with people I care about. The methods and tactics change, and the idea of meeting friends for happy hours in a crowded restaurant right now seems as foreign as a trip to Mars, but ultimately I think it’s human connection (including connecting with yourself) that keeps you sane in times of stress. In preparing for something important, I find it helpful to block out all negative self-talk and doubt by blaring music that makes me feel good, and makes me feel positively about myself. The Queen discography usually does the trick.
Ok, thank you for all that. Now let’s move to the main focus of our interview. The United States is currently facing a very important self-reckoning about race, diversity, equality and inclusion. This is of course a huge topic. But briefly, can you share your view on how this crisis inexorably evolved to the boiling point that it’s at now?
The truth of the matter is, if this feels to you like it has bubbled up out of nowhere, be aware that this isn’t the case, and your privilege has kept you blissfully ignorant of the plight that many minorities and marginalized groups, but particularly black Americans, face on a daily basis. As a country, we have a history of putting forth the (noble, in theory) goal of ‘treating everyone the same’ — while this ideology is nice, it’s too simple to reflect our modern day status quo. This isn’t just bubbling up as a new issue. Even just within the world of work, the leadership pages you say for most Fortune 500 companies that feature predominantly white male headshots didn’t get created overnight. Those individuals rose through the corporate ladder over the course of decades — and at the expense of equity for people of color, people of trans experience, and so many more. If this feels like a boiling point for you, I urge you to think about what it’s been like for the people living with it for their entire existence.
This may be obvious to you, but it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you articulate to our readers a few reasons why it is so important for a business or organization to have a diverse executive team?
It’s no longer simply nice to have a diverse team. It used to be that a non-diverse workforce was simply ‘in bad taste’. Now, it’s a liability. Nobody wants to do business with companies that are not committed to equality, equity, and inclusion, and if you feel like yours isn’t, the time is now to implement more diverse hiring practices. Ultimately, if your company lacks unique perspectives, the product you put out to the market will be limited in its scope and not applicable for everyone to its core. By having unique perspectives, voices, and ideas throughout every part of your business, you’re ensuring that your output is holistic, truly representative for and built for the actual world we live in.
Ok. Here is the main question of our discussion. You are an influential business leader. Can you please share your “5 Steps We Must Take To Truly Create An Inclusive, Representative, and Equitable Society”. Kindly share a story or example for each.
Assess where you’re at, honestly
- The first step is often the hardest, because it requires each person to take a step back and assess where they’re at on this journey. I was once in a friend’s wedding, and in a giant bridal party of 24 people, I was the only LGBT person and person of color. I remember asking my friend, half-joking, half-serious, “how did this happen to you?” — how is it that you went through 30 years of life in a diverse city and multicultural society and of the 24 people whom you consider closest to you, only one is someone who has lived a truly different life from you? (I didn’t bring this up during the wedding, by the way — I’m not a monster.) I recall my friend spending some time thinking about it and when she and I talked next, she really began to understand how her own upbringing, way of making friends and cultivating relationships was really blocking her from experiencing growth in this area. She made the choice to join a very homogeneous sorority in college, she chose to work for a company that lacked diversity in an industry that is well known for lacking diversity, and ultimately, that impacted the way her inner circle looked. Ultimately, she or anyone else shouldn’t feel bad about choices she’s made, but I know this has caused her to think and really modify her behavior so she can make more informed decisions in the future.
Seek out the opinion of others
- On a corporate level, think of how many conversations are had in conference rooms where the same group of white leaders are trying to guess the reaction of minority communities to certain things. Is this ad campaign problematic? Does this new product line have the same appeal to everyone? The answer is simple. Seek out those voices. They exist. And instead of using BIPOC as tools to help you ensure you’re doing due diligence, use this as an opportunity to amplify their voices.
Stop using yourself as a benchmark
- This is something that happens inadvertently. When I used to be a sales leader managing a large organization of salespeople, I remember sometimes I would get caught in this thinking. If there was ever a time for a promotion, I would find myself gravitating toward people whose journeys to success were similar to mine. Maybe Person X navigated complex conversations the same way I would, Maybe Person Y seems to persevere through the same learning challenges I faced. Luckily, I had a great boss who helped me understand that it’s not about me. Just because my road to success was paved with certain bricks doesn’t mean that everyone else’s is. I shouldn’t mistake someone not facing the same struggles and conquering them in the way I did as making them less qualified for a new role or responsibility.
Make small improvements
- When trying to create a diverse and equitable space, so many people on an individual level have the ability to impact change. A graphic designer can choose to only use artwork and images sourced to BIPOC creators. A manager can choose to ensure that they are only looking at diverse candidate pools for the next role they open. A blogger can choose to feature guest columns from individuals with different backgrounds and experiences. Each of us, within the spectrum of our roles, has some liberty and license which we can use to amplify the voices of those who have been silenced for far too long. Sure, none of the things listed above fix this problem, but if we all use the little bit of power and privilege we each have for good, the cumulative impact will be so much more than the sum of its parts.
Put yourself on the line
- When committing to fixing this massive issue, it’s really a matter of show, not tell. It’s very easy to put out a perfectly crafted statement committing to your stance on this matter, but marginalized communities are tired of lip service. I can think of so many companies that use pride month as an opportunity to release new rainbow-colored products, donate 5% of the profits to a vaguely LGBT-focused charity, and then nothing else. While I suppose this is better than nothing, true change comes from big commitment. If you really care about diversity and equity, commit to making a certain % of your workforce diverse by a certain date. This is so scary to companies because they don’t want to be on the hook- plain and simple. But putting yourself on the hook is a great thing, because it means you’ll never let this issue slip down your priority list as it so often does. It means that you might be forced to sacrifice business goals to achieve the objective. By making a commitment to diversity a ‘do or die’ instead of a ‘nice to have’, not only are you committing to BIPOC communities that you’re not merely virtue signalling, but you are also actually fixing the problem. In the same way that there are people within every company that are responsible for meeting revenue goals, keeping the workforce safe, and driving productivity — make sure someone in the building’s job is tied to diversity goals. It’s the only way to ensure the work is done speedily and comprehensively.
We are going through a rough period now. Are you optimistic that this issue can eventually be resolved? Can you explain?
I’m optimistic because I think we are truly entering the age of accountability. Many of my friends have approached me and shared that they are scared of saying the wrong thing, making the wrong joke, exhibiting the wrong behavior, etc. And they should be — it’s super important that people put a lot of time, thought and consideration into the way they act and treat others. I’m glad people are second-guessing their behavior, because it means they are listening and learning. Like with any social change, some people adopt the new normal because they are scared of ‘being cancelled’, but my hope is that this turns into real meaningful change in behaviors, both in the workplace and in mainstream society.
Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
Gary Vaynerchuck, CEO of one of Hibob’s clients, Vayner Media, is someone who I really admire. Rising to prominence in a time when trolling and negativity online have become commonplace, it’s really refreshing to see a leader whose entire brand is built on putting forth positivity. What I like about Gary and the entire Vayner brand is that ‘positivity’ isn’t simplified into sunshine and rainbows, which isn’t realistic most of the time. Instead, positivity is exemplified as a trait that one must work on and always continue to develop.
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