Inspiring leaders bring their humanity to work.

During my conversation with the amazing Zabeen Hirji, we discussed how the pandemic has shone a light on the power of humanizing ourselves. Zabeen explained to me, “During the pandemic we were authentic in so many ways. We were seeing people in a way we had never seen before. We were seeing their homes, their kids, their pets, and that really humanized us and brought us together in this very connected way”.

She said that it can be inspiring when we see our leaders without a “mask”. When we feel we get to know the real person behind the title, we can feel united in a way we may never have felt before.

This increased connection draws people in to contribute and creates the psychological safety that helps a team be more creative, more collaborative, and can lead to more innovative solutions.

Zabeen said we have so much to learn from the last 2 years that have humanized us more than ever before.  It is her mission to help others turn this moment into a movement by incorporating #empathy#compassion, and #wellbeing into our daily behaviours and embedding them into organizational cultures.

I was encouraged while listening to Zabeen provide this incredible insight because I was witnessing the impact in real time. I was virtually “in” Zabeen’s home and I could tell she was sharing the real her! Her stories were wrapped in enthusiasm showcasing her personality, and her insights were balanced between, “here’s what I know” and “here’s what I am looking to continue to learn”. Zabeen showed me her human side, and in the matter of 20 minutes, I felt like I had known her for years.

Zabeen's Bio

Zabeen advises Deloitte and its clients on people and culture issues and opportunities key to their success.

As a thought leader in the Future of Work, Leadership, and equity, diversity and inclusion, Zabeen is a frequent speaker, writer, and media commentator, bringing a practical perspective from her diverse C-Suite experiences, including as RBC’s CHRO for 10 years.  She is a Board Director for Sleep Country Canada, an Executive-in-Residence at the Simon Fraser University Beedie School of Business, and was the past Chair of CivicAction, a leading city-building organization.

Zabeen has received numerous awards and recognition, including the Canadian HR Awards, Ivey Business School Lifetime Achievement in HR Leadership, the Governor General’s Meritorious Service medal for Diversity and Inclusion, the Simon Fraser University Outstanding Alumni Award, and the WXN Top 100 Most Powerful Women Hall of Fame inductee.

She frequently posts on LinkedIn – connect with Zabeen on LinkedIn to learn more about the initiatives, activities, and events she is involved with!


Sarah: Zabeen, thank you so much for being here. You are an incredibly impressive person with everything that you’ve done in your career in corporate and the leader you’ve been for so many people, and now the way that you’re navigating, creating your own journey and still being that leader. And so I’m so excited to dive into your definition of inspirational leadership and what that means to you. If you had to sum it up and in your own experience, what is inspirational leadership?

Zabeen: That’s a big question, Sarah, you know that. And first of all, thank you so much for having me and it’s wonderful to see you again. I think when I was at RBC, we crossed paths maybe at a distance. But great to be on the show. So when I think about inspirational leadership, for me, it’s about bringing out the best in others. That’s how I think about it and it’s important to have some definition, but that’s the purpose. Inspirational leaders are very purpose-driven. They’re values-driven. And being values-driven is hard because you have to be consistent. You have to apply your values when it’s hard and when those difficult decisions are being made, and you stand up for doing what’s right and not what’s easy. When you see a leader doing something like that, there is this almost immediate connection and desire to learn more about them and to potentially follow their vision or their direction if you’re in an organization.

Sarah: I love that. I can see values. Yeah. You see someone’s true character and understanding what their values are. Is there a specific value that you’ve identified as something that you are… You talked about people being drawn, you want to know more about them. Is there a specific value that you feel is even higher magnetic than another?

Zabeen: Yeah. Yeah. So in terms of values, I would say someone who’s really principled, and clear on what they stand for, and willing to at least have the conversation, and fully understand the issue and to make a decision that’s aligned with it. But if I think about character traits, one of the things that has become even more clear during the pandemic, and in many ways the pandemic has really shone a light on things that were already there, but they’ve really made it more clear. And that trait is authenticity. It’s when you’re able to be you, when you’re at the office, when you’re at home, when you’re with friends, when you’re in the community, there’s no need to put on a mask. You truly can bring forth your experiences, your vulnerabilities, your fears, and engage with people in conversation.

Even when you have an exciting direction, a big vision that you want people to really get aligned behind, it’s also important to talk about, ” Yeah, I think this is the right way to go, but I also have some fears. Here are some of the risks. Here’s what I’m worried about,” and that draws people in to start to contribute, to really bringing that to life. And when I say the pandemic shone light on that, what happened in the pandemic is we were authentic in so many ways. First of all, we were sitting in each other’s offices, kitchens, really seeing the person in a way we hadn’t seen them before.

It was lovely when a cat suddenly showed up, or a child ran in and the parent turned around and went, “Sh,” but that really humanized us and brought us together in this very connected way. And so I am really hopeful that these learnings, these silver linings of the pandemic will continue and that it’s really important to reflect, to learn, to talk about this with our teams around, “What do we want to preserve?” And I think of it, or talk about it as turning this moment into a movement. I hope that this series you’re doing can really be an inflection point for that.

Sarah: Oh, my gosh. Moments into a movement is like a brilliant line. I’m writing that down right now. I love the way that you’ve broken that down. It’s the value that people can be drawn to, that they might see in an inspiring leader is that they’re principled, but they’re open to listening. They’re not afraid to show up and say, “Hey, I don’t know everything. I’m showing up as my authentic self. I’m creating a safe environment for you to bring things to the table.” That’s the thing that you think you may see in these leaders that are inspirational.

I absolutely love that principle, but listen and show up authentically. I think that’s wonderful. Knowing whether it’s that same kind of similar experience of the showing up principled and holding true to their values but engaging with others and listening or something else, what is a story and experience you had? And you’re welcome to use their name, or you can use a character name here. But of a time that you engaged with an inspiring leader, who was that? What did they do and how did that make you feel?

Zabeen: That’s a great question. It was funny when you think about this, often what pops into your mind is people who are really making change in the world and who you are not directly connected with. But if I stop to think about it in an organizational setting, I’ll go back 20 plus years. And I was working with the CEO and it was very early in the diversity and inclusion days. It was nowhere near where we are today. And what was really inspiring to me and I know to others was that here was a CEO who was willing to, and comfortable and reflective enough to say, “I know that I grew up in privilege and I now understand how that can shape my perspectives or how that can create biases that are unconscious. But it’s not until you step back and you think about it. You are willing to listen, you’re willing to learn.”

He was so open to learning from people’s lived experiences. And certainly even for myself, while I’ve had much career success, of course, I have lived experiences of being a woman, being a person of South Asian origin having come to Canada as an immigrant. And when people really want to really understand, listen to learn, not to judge, they are very present in that conversation. And then we brought in other employees to really talk about their experiences in the organization, the good experiences, and what needs to be better and seeing the leader really absorb it and not at all be defensive really just about ” Yeah, this is a great opportunity for me to learn.”

And from that to really speak publicly about the importance of diversity and inclusion and to talk about it. This is where authenticity probably comes into play, very authentically as a CEO, this is good for business, and this is the right thing to do. And that this win-win really got people very much aligned. In many ways it started a movement at RBC if I stopped to really think about it. And that really came from so many human experiences. And that’s really what leadership is so much about, is this bring your humanity to work.

Sarah: Yes. Humanizing leaders is so important because we can put people into role titles, or leveling on such a pedestal, and assume that it’s untouchable, and they should be perfect and they should know everything and that’s unfair to them. It’s unfair for someone else, even for themselves to think that they have to show up as that person, because no one is. Something you said was, listen to learn, which I think is magic. Whether it was this CEO, was there a change that you actually saw specifically, whether that was in headcount or a project you guys took on, a different software you decided to use or whatever that came from listen to learn, or about him being that person who was, he or she, I guess, being that person to listen to learn.

Zabeen: Yeah. What happens with listening and with that view to learn, your actions, the practices you put into place really become sustainable and embedded in the organization. If I stay with the same situation in terms of the work we did around diversity and inclusion, for example, in terms of advancing women and minorities in leadership, it wasn’t just something we talked about. We had talent practices. We set objectives. We set goals for our executive staffings in terms of what kind of representation we want to have. And we set about to really build a more inclusive culture. And that’s a big example of listening to learn. But I think in day-to-day situations, when you are listening to learn as opposed to judge or rushing to a solution and Sarah, it’s really easy to do that.

Or in fact, it’s hard to step back because we’re busy. It takes time. It’s a bit of slowing down to speed up. But when you ask questions, listening to learn is about asking a lot of good questions and really being curious. And when you do that, you can be presented with a whole bunch of different ideas, different ways of looking at things. And that is what diverse and inclusion in many ways is about, is to bring out people’s different ideas so that you can come to a better outcome.

Sarah: And so that’s the movement that was created by this leader you worked with. They were listening to learn and that’s how you think maybe your workplace was ahead of the curve on diversity and inclusion and advancing women in leadership.

Zabeen: And willing to act, right? There’s a listening to learn, but then it’s also taking that forward and trying new things. Because when you set the stage for, “We’re not perfect. It’s not all going to work.” If we wait for perfect solutions, we’re never going to act. But when you’ve created more of that safe environment and a comfort level for people failing, which I really don’t love the word, but when something doesn’t work out, it’s really the path to success. And I will say again, that’s what we did in the pandemic. When you’re in a crisis, that’s what you do. You’re clear on what you need to solve for. You’re open to listening to people and you’re also really focused on making sure people are well. You’re empathetic, you’re compassionate, you’re paying attention to people’s personal well-being which is very closely tied to performance.

You know that, as having been an Olympian, how those two things are, they just go so much hand in hand. And it’s those behaviors where you unite in common purpose, in a crisis and that’s what inspirational leaders do. It’s a direction. The purpose provides a direction and the people then are empowered and have this confidence to take whatever action is required to move towards that purpose knowing full well that it’s safe. If they’re going to make mistakes along the way, the team will be there to help them pick themselves up. That’s that resiliency bit and move forward.

Sarah: Oh my gosh. Yes. Unite in connection and given the tailwind through purpose is what I hear you say in that.

Zabeen: Yeah.

Sarah: I love that. I love that so much. You’ve already given some great suggestions on character traits to keep working on. If someone were to come to you and say, “Hey, I want to be more inspirational to my team.” What is one tactic you would give them to work on that on a daily basis?

Zabeen: At the risk of sounding like a broken record, I think it is to be always learning. We talk about it sometimes as growth mindset. And sometimes as people get more senior, you think that you can step back and you stop learning. I would argue it’s the opposite. As a leader you need to be learning even more so that you can stay ahead of the curve, so that you’re listening and paying attention to what’s happening around you in the world and are able to bring it into the organization. So always be learning would be one piece of advice and learn from others around you. Learning is not as you know, it’s not just the formal learning. It’s just learning into the flow of life. That’s what you want to do.

You want to build it into your life. And if I may just make one other point, leadership is not a title. Leadership is your beliefs, your actions, your behaviors. People can lead in any situation that they’re in. That is something that has so much power if we really feel that and believe that leadership can come from all levels and that’s going to happen more and more. Just think of what we could do collectively, how on so many important issues we could really turn these moments that we’re in, into movements.

Sarah: Absolutely. I think we’re hearing a lot about reverse mentorship these days as well, because it’s no longer the mentor, mentee or the leader and the team member. Inspirational is mutually beneficial, it’s mutually developing. And so I love that so much. This has been incredibly insightful and you are so wise and you have such incredible experience, such poise in the way that you operate that I’m so grateful for this time with you. Thank you for sharing your definitions, all your insights, the actions we can take. I really, really appreciate that Zabeen. And I’m looking forward to continuing to follow your incredible journey that you’re on. So thank you very much for your time.

Zabeen: Thank you, Sarah. What a pleasure it’s been to have this conversation with you.

Sarah: Thanks, Zabeen.

Leave a Reply