Elham Fardad – Together changing the world

You may know about my migrant youth story. How I camped outside Birmingham City Council offices for 3 days in a row to be counted as a home student, how I had to join a college after my degree because I didn’t have a work permit and how by the time I was 25 I landed my first big break as a financial controller in GE. Was that my happily ever after?

What I may not have elaborated on is the struggle that took. I had to zig zag between jobs in multiple companies in order to get some relevant experience and financial support to finish my professional exams. Every time a recruitment consultant told me how competitive the market is and the kind of people who land those big jobs in big companies, I came back stronger having addressed every point in their feedback that I agreed with and could do something about. There were some dark moments when I was bombarded by self-doubt, anxiety and despair. But in those moments, I did not let go and managed to hang on to that last grain of hope. At some point I had to choose me, my belief and my vision for my future, even if at times no-one else seemed to see it.

‘At some point, I had to choose me!’

On that tough journey I was lucky enough to gain the support of many great people and I have had a very rewarding career as a director in GE, News Corp and EY. The best thing about this journey wasn’t the career achievement or even the skills I gained. The best thing was knowledge, learning about the people I came across in my endeavors, which determined the kind of leader I chose to become for the rest of my life.

My typical day – I always gravitated towards roles which alongside the routine elements of financial management, needed me to solve a business problem. There was no typical day in my career. For instance, when I joined News Corp after my time in GE, the brief was to use my structured thinking to reduce revenue leakage in their business. To begin with no-one knew exactly how much that revenue leakage was. After some data analysis and understanding their operational processes, I went to the leadership with a great sense of urgency. Their revenue leakage was 15% in an industry where 1% leakage was typical. That was the bad news. The good news, I told them, was that the leakage can be resolved at just two specific points in the operational process. We put together some key controls, reporting and a great team and within 3 months we had reduced the leakage to consistently below 0.3%, among the best in the industry. That started the pattern of my roles in News Corp going as FD and turning around their underperforming businesses. I have had an interesting career!

I have spoken much about why I chose a career in finance. It would be more interesting to explain why I decided after 23 years to launch Migrant Leaders charity in 2017. I want to make good use of my migrant experience, skills and network to help young migrants fulfil their potential in Britain to lift migrant communities, to grow the economy for everyone in Britain.

I have benefited from my drive, determination and vision for where I wanted to take my career. But I also have suffered from many of the shortcomings and disadvantages which hinder migrants’ progression in large companies. 

‘There is no confidence class that will really make you believe in yourself like success’

First the imposter syndrome. I sometimes doubted myself, attributing what I had achieved purely to luck. I remember after a few promotions at GE, despite my high performance, I had to sit myself down and calculate the odds of multiple good things happening. I finally accepted that no-one is that lucky and that I must be deserving of my success. 

Second the outsider syndrome. I questioned whether I fit in as a young migrant, ethnic minority, female in an engineering company. Some of my colleagues in the management team were from such posh British backgrounds. I questioned whether I fit in and this was despite how my heart literally fluttered with excitement every time I worked on six sigma projects in the factory. I was meant to be there but I still felt that I am an outsider. I was learning so much and with their engineering expertise and my instinct for numbers, we did great things together for that business.

Third not realising early enough, how much of my success will depend on my network. I only realised how important a network is when I launched Migrant Leaders in 2017, because hundreds of previous colleagues jumped to support me and the charity. I had enjoyed making friends and working with them and trying to add value to others throughout my career, not really expecting anything in return. I hadn’t realised that is a network. A really valuable supportive one. 

Everyone is different, but for me my formula for gaining confidence is to achieve some early quick wins and success. The way I overcome setbacks is to keep believing in myself no matter how tough things get and to succeed while keeping my character and integrity. 

There is no confidence class that will really make you believe in yourself like success. There is no networking technique that will make people follow you like credibility. There is no strategy book that will build lasting partnerships like personal integrity. I remember my father telling me from a young age, that it is better to achieve less with integrity than achieve more without it. This is not to say I am a better person than anyone else. But we were brought up with a strong sense that we will work hard and use our talents to win, but that it matters how you win. 

‘I can overcome or accept any setback as long as I know I am still me’

Migrant Leaders is my baby, it feels like every hardship I ever went through in my life was for the single purpose to help the next generation of young migrants achieve everything I ever dreamed of and more. It is my way of saying thank you to the British for welcoming me to this country and supporting me to succeed. The stories that emerge from our mentees and their successes, elate me to levels that I feel like the richest person in the world. 

I was always a very aspirational child and rather idealistic. I believed (and still do) that I can change the world in my own small way. I remember one of my bosses at GE who I had a very good relationship with said to me that by the time I hit 30 I will lose this idealism and energy. In a few years I will be 50 and if anything, I am more determined than ever because I now have the network, experiences and resources to make a difference, which I didn’t have before.

It is great being a female in my role. In my time as a finance director in industry, at times younger females came to me and shared that my case proved to them that you can have a family and succeed in your career. It means a lot for me to hear that they somehow feel inspired by that. I should have told them that it is incredibly hard work doing both jobs, but I didn’t want to put them off!

‘I can change the world in my own small way’

Without any doubt my biggest achievement is my children. I am proud of how hands on I have been and how much of my energy, time and soul I have given to my children from the moment they were born. Like all parents I sometimes question if I am doing things right and if I could be better but someone told me that only good parents worry about that. So, I must be alright!

Gender expectations have played a role. People have biases, they make assumptions about what stereotypical character a female Asian like me should have. I have had people tell me that my decisiveness, structured thinking, and direct communication are masculine traits. I find that illogical, considering none of those attributes are scientifically related to gender. I am a female and I am unique like everyone else. I have seen women all my life make the toughest life decisions under difficult circumstances and manage a household with very little resources. If that doesn’t take decisiveness, structured thinking and good communication, then I don’t know what does. Women are often misunderstood and underestimated. Let’s support and lift each other and believe in each other. 

Outside of work, my favourite hobbies and pastimes are spending time with family and whenever I get the time, I read on wide subjects I am curious about, I play the piano and I learn languages. Admittedly since having kids I haven’t had time to do as much of these hobbies as I’d like to but every little helps as they say.

I follow my formula of ‘Say what you think and do what you say’. If you do this, you would be authentic, honest, reliable and results driven. You wouldn’t go far wrong in life if you do that.

The first 10 years in your career is crucial in setting the direction and gathering momentum. If you choose to have a family then inevitably you will make decisions in your career that best suit your children. So, make sure you achieve as much as you can before starting a family.  Sponsorship is very important and you may be surprised to hear that the white male would support and promote you if you are positive and align your success to his success and that of the organisation. The only enemy is probably only in our own heads. Be happy. Remember career success is not an end in itself. It is a means towards fulfillment and happiness.

A more prominent individual role is only a by-product of success. Always link your efforts to the success of the organisation and the colleagues around you and make sure your success is visible to key stakeholders who are decision makers and have influence. 

To get to this position, you need to work out if you are in an organisation whose purpose and approach inspires you. Whether your key strengths and skills can make that organisation succeed and whether the people around you are supportive.

You may need a mentor, exposures and thinking to help you land in such a positive environment where you share their purpose, and that they need your talents and support you to succeed.

One key leadership lesson I’ve learned along the way would be to work with the best people who are different to you but share your purpose and values.

What I would say to my 16-year-old self: Don’t worry, everything will be alright!

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