By Samira Akbari
I’m a jack (or jill really) of all trades, an enabler of teams, the governance that limits risk exposure, the financial counsellor who ensures that goals are met, and the process and systems authority who enables agility and efficiency. It takes very specific skills to build to who I am today, and I am grateful for the journey and the lessons learned. I am Samira Akbari, Senior Director of Operations and Corporate Services at Blanc Labs, and this is my story.
I was born and grew up in the city of Mashhad, in Iran and was fortunate with an enriching childhood and education. Mathematics was always a favourite subject for me. To me, it has always felt like a universal language that has very little complexity in it. Anyone can speak math!
My education path led me to my first move to Tehran to complete an undergraduate degree in Applied Mathematics and then immigrate to Canada in 2010 to pursue a master’s degree with the same major at the University of Western Ontario in London, Ontario. Canada was a new start, a rebirth in my mid-twenties. Though the place was new, with a language that wasn’t my own and culture that was different, it excited me.
Building on the career path
When I graduated, it took me some time to explore opportunities and find a career path that I cared for and that matched my core competencies. I always liked and enjoyed mathematics, however, I noticed, as universal a language as it is, it is not easily transmissible to the job market.
I started my career search with roles such as ‘Financial Analyst’ or ‘Risk Modeler’. However, my search was not successful. Unsurprising ‘Operations’ wasn’t even on my initial list! A very good friend who knows me and my skills very well introduced me to that career path. As the author, Simon Sinek says “If you want to find your ‘WHY’, ask your friends what it is they think you should do.” I listened to my friend and got my first job in operations.
For three years, I worked at a London-based retail company as an operations analyst and manager. It was my first job opportunity in Canada, and I worked hard at trying to prove myself. It was only after I joined that I understood why my friend suggested I take this career path. Operations was all about people, processes, and structure. I like working with people, am very process oriented with a structured mind! It was a great fit for me. I will always remember those years where I had the opportunity to bond with an amazing team and be mentored by the company’s general manager.
The general manager was a woman, and she was mindful in how she developed the culture of the company. She made it a point to have one on one bonds with every single employee (and there were more than a 100 people at the company). She created an environment that felt very collaborative and family oriented. It was so inspiring to see a women lead in such a mature and powerful way.
Looking back, a big lesson that I learned from her was that to succeed at operations, you need to be fierce and kind at the same time. These two words are not antonyms but people sometimes feel that you can only be one or the other.
In 2015, Blanc Labs’ CEO, reached out to me about an opportunity at Blanc Labs associated with operations management. I was apprehensive at first: I had never worked in tech before and Blanc Labs was a young company. But I was inspired by the mission of the company and the opportunity to work in a fast-growing business. 7 years later, I am thoroughly enjoying the dynamism and entrepreneurial nature of the corporate culture and the tech sector.
What does it take to lead operations?
I think the most rewarding aspect of being part of operations, is to see the entire cycle of the business end to end and work cross functionally with all the departments. Not every role gives you that opportunity. When I think about operations in a dynamic environment such as the one at Blanc Labs, I attribute the following things to my success:
- Be a problem solver. Operations are the wheels of the company, and a business cannot be paused by unsolved problems!
- The ability to adopt and learn the important factors of any new topic in a short amount of time is an invaluable skill. In this role, you will get exposed to a lot of areas from finance to HR, to Legal and even Tech – some of which may be foreign to you. You will not have the luxury of time to be an expert in everyone or even one of those functional areas. Be adaptable and learn how to navigate your way through all of it without being an expert in any of them.
- Be a good listener and able to see beyond the words and ask the right questions to find the root cause of the issues. This is where the opportunity of improvement lies.
- Be prepared to say no and risk being unpopular. As a business operations leader, you will deal with change management everyday. The fact of the matter is that not every decision is made by consensus and there may not even be enough time to get buy in. There will always be team members who don’t approve of your decisions or are unhappy with the change. You need to be decisive and willing to own it.
- Be adaptive, open to feedback and always open to improvement. Operations is all about efficiency and improvement. It is like changing an old wooden wheel to a new automated one.
- Connect the dots. As an operations executive, you need to know exactly how every function in the company builds synergies with each other and help enable them.
- To be successful at this role or any other role I believe you need to have a sense of ownership. I usually say if it is there and no one is doing it, then it belongs the business operations to push it through.
Women in Leadership
Being a woman and an immigrant, you may have more self-doubt, as I did. But if you want something, just go for it! My exploration of my identity hasn’t always been smooth. Have I been told that I am too direct and come across too strong and that I need to soften up in the past? Sadly, yes. I remember trying to change myself when I was younger to be the “softer” woman that resonated with people. Today, I see my directness as a strength that helps me be successful at what I do and it helps me add the most value to my team. I have also learned that if your intentions are good and you don’t make things personal, people see through to the heart of what you are working towards. I’m unafraid to take the bull by its horns, address the gap, learn everything I can about the challenge and help the team conquer the goal.
I think about my journey, the people who have added color, wisdom, growth, compassion and so much more to it, and I am grateful for the person I am today. I am thankful of being able to embrace my true self. To quote a woman I truly admire, Brené Brown, “Because true belonging only happens when we present our authentic selves to the world, our sense of belonging can never be greater than our level of self-acceptance.” This is where I am, and this is how I choose to grow.