Although I was born and educated in Leeds, I was always aware that being part of a Muslim, Pakistani family made me different from my friends at school. As a teenager, I used to write poetry exploring the themes of living in two different worlds, having two ways of dressing, speaking two different languages. Through my poetry, I was trying to make sense of those playground taunts, where I was told to go back to where I came from. I was trying to make sense of being born in a country where I didn’t really fit in – but knowing that there was nowhere else to go back to.
Self-awareness has been an essential aspect of my leadership journey, and even though my teenage angst is over, I have spent much of my career trying to understand how my leadership style fits in and what kind of leader I want to be – in a context where I am often the only non-white manager in the room. In my early career, I tried to adopt the leadership styles I witnessed around me, but when I tried to imitate the behaviours of people who didn’t look like me, my interventions didn’t land in the same way. I invested time in leadership development programmes, completing every self-assessment available in my attempts to become a better leader. I remember struggling with some of the questions on the Myers-Briggs (MBTI) assessment. A particular question about social events triggered the thought that when I’m in a room where I feel safe to be myself, I am an extrovert; but when I am the minority in the room, I am more reflective, trying to work out where I stand and what the risks are before I speak up.
Similarly, I came away from conflict resolution training understanding the concept of assertiveness and negotiation skills, but with an uneasy reflection that assertiveness from a quietly spoken Asian woman like me would land differently to the approach that the tall, middle class, male trainer who delivered the course might adopt. This was due to a combination of my expectations as well as everyone else’s expectations about how someone who looks like me should act and behave.
I became aware that none of the assessments I had completed during my career had been developed by a diverse community of researchers or psychologists and had not necessarily been tested for bias. And then, through the Workforce Race Equality Standard Experts programme (WRES), I met the amazing Jennifer Izekor, who supported our group of diverse leaders to access Cultural Intelligence (CQ) training. Unlike many of the assessments I had completed, CQ had been tested in over 100 countries by a diverse group of researchers, and the Cultural Values Profile gave me the vocabulary to talk about my individual values and preferences and how they relate to my heritage and cultural background.
Although CQ is much more than this, one of the aspects I found particularly valuable were the insights I gained about how my heritage and background have shaped my values. The first light bulb moment for me came when I explored the value related to hierarchy and status. I realised that my upbringing had taught me to respect authority and listen to my elders. I reflected on how this had influenced my approach to job interviews — remembering one unsuccessful job application process, where I was advised that there was just “one point” on the interview scoring template between myself and the other candidate. The reason given was that the successful candidate had “a certain ease and confidence” that I had not been able to demonstrate. I wonder whether a panel who had been trained in CQ might have thought differently?
Through my discussions about the “Neutral (non-expressive)” and “Affective (expressive)” value orientation, I realised that I might have misunderstood others who were very different from me due to the way they communicated. I reflected on how quickly I built relationships with colleagues who, like me, would openly share their emotions, personal stories, and family photos, and how it was harder for me to engage with people who were less expressive of their feelings and personal backgrounds.
I am conscious that in the complex field of Equality, Diversity, and Inclusion, there is a risk of over-simplifying the lessons gained from CQ. On the one hand, not everyone from the same country or background will have the same cultural values, but on the other hand, understanding ourselves in a global context can be very powerful. CQ goes beyond simply understanding these differences to providing the skills to utilize them effectively.
I recently spent a week completing CQ Certification training with Dr. David Livermore who leads the International Cultural Intelligence Center, where we discussed how organisations put energy into recruiting diverse teams but then fail to reap the benefits of diverse thinking because of their desire to mold their diverse leaders to their way of thinking and working. The research proves that CQ is what makes the difference. I now use the knowledge, self-awareness, and strategies that I gained through cultural intelligence training every day – taking a moment to think through how the different Cultural Values of participants will impact a meeting, reflecting on my own leadership style in this context, and adapting accordingly.
30 years into my career, I reflect on those early days, looking in the mirror, trying to make sense of who I was, and whom I wanted to be. Now, through Cultural Intelligence training, I see the world from a different perspective and feel that when I look in the mirror, I have a better understanding of what I see.
*This is a personal blog, and all views are my own and do not necessarily reflect the views of my employer.
This blog post was first published on the shahanaramsden blog and is published here with the author’s permission.
Shahana is Head of Diversity and Inclusion for NHS England and NHS Improvement. She has 30 years’ experience in the public sector and has consistently demonstrated an authentic commitment to improving the working lives of staff and patients. Shahana has held leadership roles as Director of NHS Employer’s Positively Diverse program and Deputy Director of the National Delivering Race Equality in Mental Health program.
Shahana has been recognized by the Health Service Journal as a BME pioneer and was highlighted as one of 100 virtual change activists for health and social care through NHS Improving Quality (The Edge) and was nominated for an NHS70 Windrush award.