Evaluating our extensive experiences throughout life’s journey, we can evidently perceive that nothing creates happiness in a person more than a sense of purpose. Yet, for most of us, it is elusive. A sense of purpose can be comprehended as a meaningful mental model that provides a reason for being happy and a guiding set of personal goals and objectives. A sense of purpose provides clarity of direction, unifying people to operate beyond their business objectives. A sense of purpose evokes passion and commitment; it makes sense of the world and the person’s role within it.
Over the past decade, there’s been an explosion of interest in purpose-driven leadership. There are certain common traits among the most successful leaders, which include the need for work ethic, the necessity of sacrifice, the urge to serve others, the passion to succeed, the willingness to adapt to change, the desire to break the mold and profound attentiveness to human condition. An exemplary example of such a values-based authentic leader is Iram Shah, a Global Senior Corporate Executive and a Thought Leader in the world of business. Iram is a woman who stands as an independent example of a quintessential inspiration with the power to create, nurture and transform.
Iram as a Leader
Iram believes that the most important job of a leader is to paint a compelling picture of the future. To understand what makes the company successful today – what motivates the employees, and how it will grow and evolve in the future – purpose is important as well. “Purpose is about the fundamental nature of the mission of the organization. The more worthwhile is the mission, the higher is the loyalty of both, the customers and the employees. Good leaders see the path ahead and frame it explicitly for those whom they lead. They have clarity of the strategy and the conviction to stick with it. Finally, they get right teams to implement the strategy,” asserts Iram.
Iram is a general manager expert in top-line growth, customer experience, digital and cultural transformation, and has worked for big companies like Coca Cola, Pepsi, BP, Zurich Financial and Schneider Electric in five different countries.
The Challenges and the Comebacks
Throughout her decorated career with big brands and companies, Iram has won many business and community awards from one of the 100 most influential business women in U.K. to one of the 11 international Women business leaders in Chicagoland. She has also encountered a mix bag of some good leaders and some not so good leaders. Among them, the ones who were good, opened doors and mentored her to success. Iram adds, “I have tried to focus and learn from them (good leaders) and have tried to role model them. I also learned from poor leadership as to what not to do….. one thing that is common in good leaders is that they themselves are empowered, they have integrity and bring the best in others. They are committed to the success of their teams and the company. They have the insight and courage to take risk and take the teams and companies to the next level.”
When it comes to women, we have come a long way, but we’re not there yet. We have made a lot of progress in having more girls graduating from college than boys and having more women in junior and middle management positions but we are still far behind when it comes to senior executive and board positions in corporate America. Research has shown again and again that diversity starting with gender diversity delivers higher business results. The CEOs and board members talk loudly about gender equality but few walk the talk. Their senior teams still look like the teams from 1970s. Some women executives have started to help other women and we have role models like Cheryl Sandburg, who doesn’t shy away from tackling sensitive subjects such as this. However, we still have senior women who tend to pull the ladder as they go up. It is again from the fear of losing the only seat available at the table.
‘Our work should equip the next generation of women to outdo us in every field. That’s the legacy we’ll leave behind.’ Iram is the righteous example of such a persona, who believes that diversity in general, and gender diversity in specific becomes part of the DNA of the business, because it makes economic, social and logical sense.
The Incident that let to Philanthropic Transformation
In addition to her corporate efforts, Iram also contributes to philanthropic causes and has served on several non-profit boards, including Habitat For Humanity, Central Asia Institute, Seeds of a Peace, Schneider Foundation NA and now chairs Sonia Shah Organization, which was started by her late daughter Sonia. The unfortunate loss of her beloved daughter was a tragedy that shook her to the core, but at the same time it metamorphosed her into a person with deep insight, confidence and freedom that Iram had never experienced before. She recalls, “It was a life changing event for me but after I picked up the pieces, I realized my life puzzle looked a lot more meaningful. My view on life, religion, culture and business evolved and I felt that I had gone up the ladder of transformation from day to day short term crisis management to long term sustainable transformation and growth, both in private and business life.”
Iram found the courage to practice more openly what she had learnt from her experiences and make a difference in people’s lives and in companies that she was associated with. The tragedy empowered her to be part of a higher purpose, believing that every individual can help to change the world for the better with their actions and values, one day at a time. Purpose is more motivating to employees than profit, and when employees are motivated, profit naturally comes in.
Changing the World: ‘One Girl at a Time’
There is a strong link between educating women and girls and the positive outcomes of maternal health, economic empowerment and social mobility. Education gives a voice to girls and women in their communities. Empowering women through education is also an important factor in promoting peace and economic well-being.
With a similar noble intent, Sonia Shah Organization was started by Iram’s daughter, Sonia Shah, when she was only 17. Envisaging from her grandma’s stories of their ancestral village in the Northwest of Pakistan, Sonia thought of it as some third world sketch until she took a year gap and decided to visit the village to understand the need for school for girls. She lived in the village with very poor conditions, interrupted electricity and water supply during the summer months with over 90 degree F. Sonia conceptualized her vision into reality, established the school’s foundation and raised funds; but, unfortunately died a year later in a car accident.
Iram and her friends took the mission forward, and today, Sonia Shah School in Pakistan has over 130 poor children enrolled for a better life, most of them being girls. Sonia Shah Organization provides free education, uniforms and vocational training to older girls and women so that they can become economically independent. They now have uninterrupted electricity 24/7 with solar panels, whereas the rest of the village gets electricity for only 4 to 6 hours a day. They’ve also installed a water filtration plant that provides clean drinking water to the entire village. Girls’ education goes beyond getting girls into school. It is also about ensuring that girls learn and feel safe while in school, learn the life skills necessary to navigate and adapt to the changing world; make decisions about their own lives; and contribute to their communities and the world.
“Great spirits have always encountered violent opposition from mediocre minds.”
The biggest issue Iram faced, in the remote and non-liberated areas of the world, is the rise of extremism and terrorism, along with poverty and ignorance that most of the times translates into marginalizing of girls and women. It is a strong culture with strong values and beliefs, which again is very suppressive towards women in general and rather more targeted to younger girls. However, the hunger for learning and education among the girls has always been amazing and motivating to Iram.
In the U.S, the challenge is the high cost of college including the cost of books that is rising and making it difficult for students to graduate from college. Once the global leader in producing a talent pool of college graduates, the U.S. is now losing ground and lagging behind many nations. In 1990, the U.S. ranked first in the world in four-year degrees among 25-34 year-olds; today, the U.S. ranks 12th. The cost of higher education has increased more than 500%. Sonia Shah Scholarship program provides college scholarships to deserving girls in U.S. Sonia Shah Organization is driving diversity and equality at a basic level of education and empowerment of girls in Pakistan and U.S., especially for those girls in Pakistan who would never have the chance to go to school, or for those girls in U.S. who would not have a chance to go to college. Iram proudly mentions that their first sponsored recipient in Chicago will be graduating with an associate degree next year. “I don’t have any full time paid employees, it is friends and volunteers who give their time, talent and treasure and we all have a lot of fun…. changing the world one girl at a time!” she adds.
How Important and Effective are Social Efforts!
“The ones who are crazy enough to think they can change the world are the ones, who do”. Iram advises young enthusiasts to first have the conviction that each one of us can make a difference, no matter how minuscule. The road to changing the world starts with the first step and it is not restricted to only charitable organizations. Business leaders can play a key role in transforming their companies to have a purpose that goes beyond top and bottom line. In the face of socially conscious customers and rising consumer activism, markets will be won by those who become purpose-driven social brands. To do so, the CEO, CMO, CCO and other business leaders must align to bring a cohesive brand story to life that clearly defines the company’s “social license to operate”.
In the future, companies who will integrate higher level purpose and mission in their daily operations will have a competitive advantage and thrive. “Do good” go hand in hand with “do well.” Millennials and generation Z are the future customers who are attuned to a company’s social consciousness and one of their criteria for allocating their purchasing power is putting dollars behind a company that is truly purpose driven.
Several companies in different industries have made inroads on this topic from Salesforce, Accenture, IBM to Marriott and Unilever. Purpose is built upon trust. Unlike reputation, which is based on an aggregate of past experiences with a company or brand. Trust is the forward facing metric of stakeholder expectation. It needs to be managed like any other asset and be seen as a building block of a long term relationship. The employees of companies with a clear purpose feel that they are making a difference that is bigger than they could have done themselves. The higher purpose motivates all stakeholders including institutional investors who are getting the message as well!