Episode 4: Sabina Nawaz

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“I think it’s so easy to get lulled into the siren call of the shoulda, what your parents may have told you, you should be doing with your career, what your mentors, coaches, people you look up to or doing, what you read about. And instead of marching to the tune of your own playbook, and even listening to it is really hard because we hide ourselves behind busy. And so we don’t hear those weaker signals that are actually strong signals coming from inside us. And so I think the first thing to do is really start to pay attention to joy and impact, how much joy are you deriving from this work and what is the impact that work is having?” (Read Full Transcript)

Tracie Edwards:

Hello everyone, and welcome to Traceability Podcast. I’m your host, Tracie Edwards. And today I’m so excited to have Sabina Nawaz with us. Sabina is an executive coach and speaker and presenter, previous career at Microsoft and for many years in human resources. And also gave a TED Talk, which I hope you all have been able to hear, very inspiring TED Talk a few years ago. So I’m really happy to have Sabina here with us and to hear your story.

Sabina Nawaz:

I’m so happy to be here. And thank you for inviting me, Tracie.

Tracie Edwards:

Thank you so much. So typically how I start out is just sort of going back to the beginning of how you got your start and your education and career and sort of how things have grown to this point.

Sabina Nawaz:

Well, my education and my career have taken quite a few divergent bats. I started my undergraduate studies in Architecture in India. Now, to explain the shift, my mom, when she was getting ready for college, had gotten admission to study medicine in England. And in those days, she was worried that she might disappoint her grandfather if as a young woman, she would leave India and go off on her own for her studies. So she never went, but to have this unfulfilled dream, which I was the lucky recipient of.

So while I was studying in my freshmen and sophomore years in India, she would track to the United States Information Center and pour over the Barron’s Guides and things like that to look at all the places that I should apply to, and when I should do the SATs and so on. And that landed me in the US at Smith College as a junior, and I started studying Computer Science & Electronics, and then did my graduate degree from University of Massachusetts in Computer Systems Engineering.

And that’s where I spent the first, almost decade of my career at Microsoft in software engineering, and then switched in a very non-traditional way to HR, where I was responsible for employee management, executive development, succession planning, running executive retreats for the company, et cetera. I left 15 years ago. So after spending almost 15 years inside, I left 15 years ago, and now I work one-on-one coaching CEOs and C-suite executives, doing leadership training, keynotes for large conferences. And then I also write for Harvard Business Review, Forbes and Inc.

Tracie Edwards:

So you had this interest in architecture, obviously art and function and that kind of thing. And you segued from that into computer science. How did that happen?

Sabina Nawaz:

Yeah, so I was definitely interested in art, but architecture wasn’t my top choice. In those days in the state that I was in, you sat for an engineering and medical entrance exam, 20,000 people sit for the exam and the first 2000 even get a slot in engineering or medicine out of 20,000. And the top 20 or so get computer science and electronics.

Tracie Edwards:

Oh, wow. Okay.

Sabina Nawaz:

Yes. So my ranking was about 800, which in the hierarchy of things, netted architecture. Architecture had an additional thing where you had to take a drawing test to qualify. And I love drawing and painting and some aspects of aesthetics and [inaudible 00:03:51] design, but I had a hard time imagining being an architect for the rest of my career. I really wanted to study computer science. And that was one of the beautiful things about coming to the US was that I could choose what I wanted to study.

Tracie Edwards:

So many of us, sometimes we have gifts in a certain area and we sort of follow that path. And it doesn’t necessarily always work out for us to follow that path, maybe speak to what that was like to sort of be able to pivot and go in a different direction than you expected.

Sabina Nawaz:

It was exhilarating. And also put me under quite a bit of pressure, but pressure was not something I was unused to, the high school system had gone through was incredibly rigorous, but essentially I had never even touched a computer. And here I am in my junior year, majoring in computer science. So as you can imagine, Tracie, I was slammed with the courses. Fortunately I could [crosstalk 00:04:56] the other degree requirements of a liberal arts education for my first two years, for the most part, but I was taking 100, 200 and 300 level courses at the same time.

Tracie Edwards:

Oh, wow.

Sabina Nawaz:

And sometimes hiding under the desk in the computer lab when they came to lock down the lab because I had so much work to do. And it’s interesting because after I did one of my semesters, they actually did not allow students any longer to take a couple of those classes at the same time. So Assembly Language Programming and Intro to Computer Science, I think those were the two that they now separated and one became a prerequisite for the other.

So it was jam packed and really motivating for me. I loved electronics, also because I was at Smith, I had to take the bus to go to the University of Massachusetts to do my electronics classes. And it was a very different from 2,600 students to 26,000 students, from an all women college to a co-Ed education there, from 10 students in the classroom to 200. So it was wonderful to get that diversity of experience in just two years and coming to the US for the first time.

Tracie Edwards:

It seems like that would be very exhilarating. Not only are you working hard and you’re finding success in all of your hard work, but there’s just so much culture and exhilarating things happening. And so I think that sort of speaks to, we can really do hard things and there are a lot of benefits of doing those hard things.

Sabina Nawaz:

There absolutely are. And then also, I think there’s something about when we don’t have a choice that’s… There’s always a choice, but I came with $750 and two suitcases and I had to make it, so I better get my degree, otherwise there was no way for me to continue doing what I wanted to do or staying where I wanted to stay.

Tracie Edwards:

So you’ve finished up at Smith and you graduate. And what sort of led you to going across the country and going to Microsoft?

Sabina Nawaz:

Well, I don’t know if on a lark would be the right term, but essentially I sent out 180 job applications because I had no idea how I rated on the job market. And Microsoft was the first one to call me, the first one to fly me over. And I had not actually heard of Microsoft. There were only 6,000 employees at that point in the company. I did some research and heard about William H. Gates III and this company, I had no idea where Seattle was and I thought, “Yeah, they’re going to… I was a starting student, right? So I thought, “They’re going to fly me over for free to Seattle. Why not see a different part of the country? I have no intention of moving that far from Massachusetts.” A funny thing happened, Tracie, by about interview number two or three, I interviewed with a total of, I think, nine people. I loved the place. I just fell in love with Microsoft. I’ve actually just written a LinkedIn post about the 30th anniversary of my first day at Microsoft. And I just fell in love with the place and I thought, “Ooh, I would love to work here.” The people were so energized and clearly engaged in what they were doing, really smart. They just had me.

Tracie Edwards:

That’s awesome. I love how those serendipitous things end up happening after we have worked really hard. And I also love the Northwest. I have a lot of family up there, so I definitely understand the attraction of Seattle and that area. So you moved to Seattle, you start coding and then several years go by and maybe tell the story of how you segued from being a developer to actually moving into HR. I know you speak a little bit about it in your Ted Talk, but I’d love to sort of hear some more [crosstalk 00:09:17].

Sabina Nawaz:

Yeah. I had a great time developing products and various aspects, various roles of that and working my way up the corporate chain and I pretty much had big dreams and ambitions about getting to corporate vice-president and so on. And then I took a sabbatical and suddenly realized that it was no longer a matter of if, but when I would become a corporate vice-president and what I realized that it was a letdown, I just thought, “Okay, if I already know how to do that, why do I need to spend my time chasing something whose formula I know? That seems boring. Well, what the heck do I do with myself then? Because that’s all I set my goals on.” And that was my first lesson on not chasing becoming, but just sort of booming and exploring and seeing where things go.

And realized that I really, really enjoy working with people. I fall in love with people. And so I thought, “Why not switch and see what this has in store.” People were very surprised, especially as a technical woman leaving the technical ranks of senior technical woman. So my boss at the time had given me a safety net that, “You can come back anytime you want.” And so I thought, “Oh, that’s great. I don’t really have a huge risk here.” So it was really an adventure and an experiment. I was upfront with the hiring managers saying, “I might leave in three weeks.” And she said, “I’ll hire you for three weeks.” So I’m really glad she took that bet on me. And I just fell in love with the job. I couldn’t believe I was paid to do this work. So the rest is history.

Tracie Edwards:

I think that’s wonderful. The willingness to sort of take a different tack. I think so many times we get into a career and we don’t want to sort of give up on the experience that we’ve had so far and the time that we’ve invested in that experience and that kind of thing. So I think sometimes we’re a little reluctant to make some of those changes. So maybe if you could give some advice for folks who are sort of bumping up against that, where, “Okay, this is sort of the next step, but I’m not sure that that’s really what I want to be doing.”

Sabina Nawaz:

Yeah. I think it’s so easy to get lulled into the siren call of the shoulda, what your parents may have told you, you should be doing with your career, what your mentors, coaches, people you look up to or doing, what you read about. And instead of marching to the tune of your own playbook, and even listening to it is really hard because we hide ourselves behind busy. And so we don’t hear those weaker signals that are actually strong signals coming from inside us. And so I think the first thing to do is really start to pay attention to joy and impact, how much joy are you deriving from this work and what is the impact that work has having?

For me, I actually loved each of the jobs I’ve done, but I would say if I looked at the curve of the joy, maybe I had peaked and now I was starting to get to a place sometimes where I would draw my eyes at the, “Oh, I know exactly how this meeting’s going to go.” That kind of thing. And so it’s about paying attention to, can you not wait to get out of bed on Monday morning because you’re so energized, even if it’s hard work, even if it’s tough challenges? Or are you feeling really kind of jaded? And paying attention to your inner signals, taking the space and the time to pay attention to it. And then figuring out how you advocate for yourself and how you carve up that new path. But first is just the realization that it might be time to get to a new path.

Tracie Edwards:

Could you maybe offer some advice? This, I think is coming up more and more today, especially as we’re all working from home more than we ever have, and sort of what setting some of those boundaries is like, so that you can have that reflection and opportunity to sort of feel your way through.

Sabina Nawaz:

Yeah. Great, great question. Because one of the things that I do with the people I coach is this concept of white space. If you look at a page, there’s the print, and then there’s a bunch of white space around it. And in between the words and paragraphs and sentences, and it’s that space that allows you to actually comprehend what’s on the page. Otherwise it’d be just a bunch of garbled letters. And similarly schedule white space time on your calendar, about two hours contiguous time, where you’re not reading, you’re not on the web, you’re not on email, you’re not talking to anybody. You’re simply unplugging. You can do a mind map, you can sit back and think, you can go for a walk and think. We know through research that our best insights are already there. They’re just waiting in the anterior chamber, waiting to come out there in that green room, not yet on stage. And they come out when we are not busy and our brain isn’t on overdrive, right? So we get our best ideas in the shower and when running and when driving. So let’s foster some more of that time.

Now there are many techniques that can help you keep those boundaries. First of all, don’t call it white space on your calendar, call it something important sounding, so people don’t trounce all over it, like strategic review, [crosstalk 00:15:14] discussion, just call it something really important. Then also book some time before it to get through your to-do list in your emails so it’s not distracting from thinking through the longer term, bigger thoughts when you’re there.

Tracie Edwards:

I liked that. I know that it can be very difficult for me to kind of come down, especially from the concept of multitasking. And I know we all know that multitasking is not as successful as you would perhaps make it out to be, that I can get very addicted to sort of that multitasking and the not letting go. So I appreciate the advice there on setting better boundaries.

Sabina Nawaz:

Yeah. We all sort of delude ourselves that we’re being more “productive” if we’re multitasking and we really aren’t.

Tracie Edwards:

Something else that I wanted to get into was specifically regarding HR. I know that there’s a lot of philosophical discussion back and forth today about really the role of HR and who HR really represents in the organization. Some people would say that it’s management, some people would say that it’s the employee and sort of, where do you fall on that?

Sabina Nawaz:

I don’t fall on either side. My answer is, it depends, because there are some HR professionals who will say, “Yep, I’m facing the manager. And my job is to protect the company.” And some who say, “I’m going to straddle both.” And so if you’re in an organization and you’re wondering, to what extent can I partner with my HR person on my career growth? To what extent will they keep things confidential? I would ask them and see where they pivot, and then use your judgment based on that.

Having worked with a number of HR business partners, when I coach people or even coached heads of HR, I’ll say that the vast majority of them that I have worked with are incredibly invested in the development of their talent. It is extremely expensive to go find talent somewhere else. Not only that, whenever we have a meeting, they say, “This is the favorite part of my job. I don’t have to fire somebody. I don’t have to deal with other hairy issues. This is about growth and productivity and nurturing. Who wouldn’t love this.” So for the most part, they are very embracing of people coming to them with a request for partnership. If your HR partner is in the room, when you’re running a meeting and you’re working on something, ask them for feedback, it doesn’t cost them that much more, extra time to do that for you.

Tracie Edwards:

That’s great. I think that, especially as women, that sometimes we assume that people are going to just recognize how well we’re doing and sort of put us forward. And I think we’re reluctant to kind of have those conversations ourselves.

Sabina Nawaz:

Absolutely. Absolutely. We just think the recognition fairy is going to tap us on the head and give us some goodie. And of course, that’s not the case. Now, not only is it helpful to partner with your HR business partner in that regard, but it’s also great because you can ask them questions, and if it’s not okay for them to share, they’ll tell you that, but you’re not out anything. So if your organization has talent reviews, for example, you could ask your HR business partner, “Hey, what did the discussion cover when my name came up?” And you’ll be surprised at how many people will share that information with you, because they want you to know, and they want you to work on that. But most people go through life ignorant of those discussions because they just don’t ask.

Tracie Edwards:

Right. Right. And I think that really speaks also to making sure that we are having crucial conversations. And when I say crucial, I don’t mean necessarily difficult conversations, but crucial career conversations about our career choices.

Sabina Nawaz:

Yes, that reminds me of a story of when I was in the product groups and had just managed a very large division-wide project that was filled with 20 different agendas from each of the 20 different groups. It was way worse than herding cats. But I did that and I did that successfully. I was good at that. However, I did not enjoy that. So back to joy and impact, it had good impact, there wasn’t so much joy for me.

So I actually went to my boss, thankfully, this was one of my better bosses. And I said, “I know that this is a skill that’s important in the company. I know that there are many other hairy projects like this, and you’re probably starting to scheme as to which one of those you’re going to give me next, while it has great visibility, it’s not something I want to do. I want to work on something that has a bigger strategic impact. It’ll be a smaller set of people, that’s fine. But I would appreciate doing that. Of course I’ll do whatever’s needed for the company and train someone else up, but this is what I want to do.” So it was back to not getting swayed by something that was going well, but more thinking about how’s it going for me in terms of where I need to grow and what I really enjoy doing.

Tracie Edwards:

Yeah. I can very much appreciate that. I know that as I have taken more time to have some of those conversations in the last couple of years with bosses, I have felt much more empowered in my career, but also just much more effective as an employee and that kind of thing.

Sabina Nawaz:

It is way more effective for the company when you are fully plugged in and charged up. So, yes, absolutely.

Tracie Edwards:

Yeah. Something that just sort of came to mind is I have had a lot of junior folks reaching out to me lately, asking for career help and that kind of thing, but I’m sort of asking questions that perhaps they could have found out some of the information beforehand on their own. And I think maybe today, junior folks coming up in careers haven’t sort of thought that they would even really have this particular career and here they are. And they’re not sure what to do with it, that kind of thing. What would be some advice that you’d maybe give to some junior folks who know that they need some help, but also ways in which they could be a little more self-reliant about it?

Sabina Nawaz:

Yeah, absolutely. There’s one of you and you’re getting 50 different requests, I’m sure. So there’s an article I wrote on Forbes of nine ways to ask a stranger for help. And it’s specifically about approaching mentors and asking for help. Some of the basics will make you stand out as an exceptional person. It’s that simple, and yet that rare. The basic thank yous, and pleases, if they’re requesting a huge favor of you, actually finding out your time zone and sending you the meeting times in your time zone versus theirs, those little things make a huge difference.

And then of course doing the homework. Because not only do you want to do the homework to save the person you’re talking to their time, but so you get a lot more out of the person, because if they’re coming to you and asking questions that they can do in a basic internet search, they’re leaving so much on the cutting room floor that you will provide over and above that, that they cannot find in a simple search. So learning the basics to understand what’s the next level of questions they can ask you. So they, and you both feel fulfilled at the end of the conversation.

I think it’s also really, really making sure that they close the loop. So it’s not just doing the pre-work, but the homework. So when they do the homework and whatever happens, closing the loop with you, some people have this mistaken thought that your time is so precious, they don’t want to waste your time to close the loop, but why did you give them that time? You gave them that time because you like to help people. You did it out of the kindness of your own heart, and you actually would probably love to hear what happened and that you made a difference. And if you know that you made a difference, it’s going to give you a little dopamine hit to want to talk to them again. So even if you do it for purely self-serving reasons, tell them how it worked out and how you contributed to it so that they will come back and say, yes again.

Tracie Edwards:

I love that. will certainly remember that.

Sabina Nawaz:

I think there’s one last thing, which is reciprocation. And of course, [inaudible 00:25:09] we’re not doing this to get something back, you’re not charging money for it, none of that. And none of us do that when we are giving back, however, if people are thoughtful and they give back again, that stands out. And what I mean by giving back, again, these are really simple, yet so rare to do.

Somebody sent me… They saw an article about some great somebody who was profiled. They highlighted three bullets there, cut it out, sent it to me with a thank you card and said, “These three bullets, remind me of you. This is why I’ve learned so much from you.” I will always remember that. And my door will always be open for that person. Or find me on social media and promote some of my work. That’s very easy to do it. Doesn’t take that long to tweet out an article that’s already written by somebody. So do some of that to show that you’re willing to give your time when you’re asking for this person’s time.

Tracie Edwards:

Ends up helping you both continue pursuing the path that you’re on, trying to inspire more people. And that kind of thing.

Sabina Nawaz:

Yes. I think there’s also a… You’ve got me on a roll. Can you tell I’m passionate about this [crosstalk 00:26:26] because I get asked a lot. There’s a Goldilocks principle, just the right amount of principle, which is I’ll get complete strangers, send me a message saying, “Hey, can we set up some time to chat?” “Who are you? Why should I be chatting you? What is it that you want? What is it that I’m going to get in return?” There’s no context whatsoever. Why would I set up time to chat with a complete stranger with no context whatsoever? On the other hand, I might get six pages, I kid you not six pages of writing about that person’s story. And I’m trying to sift through six pages to understand what it is that they want. So having a really tightly framed request. And again, there’s an example of that in the article, will help you net a yes, more often.

Tracie Edwards:

Thank you for that advice. I’m definitely going to be taking that as I continue pursuing some of these things. So as we wrap up today, maybe what’s coming up next for you?

Sabina Nawaz:

I just finished about a six week streak of extremely packed stuff. Yesterday was the last of it. Where I was speaking with Corriere della sera, which is Italy’s biggest newspaper. They had a conference on sustainability and I was giving a keynote and then on a panel with their CEOs on the topic, which was fantastic. So what’s coming up next is a little bit of white space time, a little bit of fallow time. I have of course my regular clients, but the next class I teach is not for a few weeks. So I’m really looking forward to enjoying the fall and some walks with my dog, and my writing.

Tracie Edwards:

I think that’s another great plug for the white space, making sure that we’re giving ourselves that room to breathe.

Sabina Nawaz:

I think yes. And Tracie, especially in 2020, so much has happened is that we are all at some point or the other, if we have a pulse, we’ve also felt deflated, overwhelmed, exhausted, wiped out, whatever. And that’s not counting people who’ve been afflicted with the virus or anything else, just even life as usual is not life as usual. And I found that to my absolute shock and surprise that 2020 has been a more productive year for me than most years, because 2020 is the time where I’ve given myself more time, more permission, more grace. I’m probably exhausted, cannot really function, have a bunch of stuff to catch up on, but I’m not going to work this weekend. And I’m on fire [inaudible 00:29:27] because I’ve had the time to refresh my batteries.

Tracie Edwards:

As regards 2020, not only has it been perhaps a more productive year, but that it’s actually been a year where I felt more abundance then lack as I often do. So I have found that as challenging as a year as it has been, it has also been sort of a very blessed year. Do you have any advice for folks who may be sort of trying to process things emotionally these days as they’re… Because I know so many of those are definitely feeling the challenge, and you talk about giving yourself grace and that kind of thing that may be any techniques for helping to sort of process some of that.

Sabina Nawaz:

Yes, absolutely. I actually wrote about this also on Forbes and it’s about the fact that we are all going through a grieving process. In this time, there’s actually a great article by, I forget the name of the person right now, but on Harvard Business Review about What You’re Feeling is Grief. And so I took that and then talked about, how can you be productive in the midst of all this stuff and all the processing that you need to do? So it’s about really taking the time to acknowledge firstly, what you’re going through. I get worried when people, especially at the top of the management team are too quick to declare optimism or too quick to say, “Oh, but we’re resilient. We’re better than this.” Yes. And when somebody is really struggling and facing a whole range of emotions, when you say someone is resilient or the culture is resilient, you’re negating the other very real lived experiences that people might have.

So I would say [inaudible 00:31:42] your feelings and acknowledge those because the only way out of it is through it, banish comparisons, do not get into a competitive match with someone else. And then recognize the ongoing patterns that you might have formed. The title on Forbes is called Work In A Time Of Crisis: How To Maintain Productivity In 6 Steps. And the first three are all about this question that you’re asking of how to process what’s going on right now. And how to give ourselves space for that, and space for grace.

Tracie Edwards:

Yeah. I think that, that has definitely been very important as I’ve been talking with friends and colleagues, being gracious with each other and being a little less inclined to the… Can’t find the word that I’m looking for, but perhaps being less inclined to judgment or something like that.

Sabina Nawaz:

Yeah, yeah. Absolutely. Both for ourselves and others.

Tracie Edwards:

Yes, for sure. For sure. Sometimes I think we’re quite hard on ourselves and so I appreciated that plug there. So how can folks find you?

Sabina Nawaz:

Well, they can connect with me on LinkedIn, on Twitter, it’s @sabinanawaz. So my full name, Instagram @sabinacoaching. They can also join my mailing list for the latest articles on Harvard Business Review and Forbes by either going to my website sabinanawaz.com or if they email me info@sabinanawaz.com and mention your podcast, I will also send them a one page guide to working from home and having energized video conversations.

Tracie Edwards:

Wonderful. We will make sure that that gets into our transcript and show notes. So thank you so much for your time today for your graciousness and the willingness to be part of the program. It’s been a wonderful conversation.

Sabina Nawaz:

Likewise, my pleasure. I really, really enjoyed getting to know you a little bit, and I hope that this is helpful. People are always welcome to reach out back with questions.

Tracie Edwards:

Wonderful. And so as we close today for our listeners, that your call to action is if something resonated with you today, please shoot me an email @tracie that’s T-R-A-C-I-E @traceabilitypodcast.com. I’d love to hear what you have to say and encourage you to give yourself grace and don’t be discouraged and keep moving forward. So Sabina, thank you so much for your time today.

Sabina Nawaz:

Thank you, Tracie.