Global DEI leader, CPA, and CA Sadaf Parvaiz is GHD’s first-ever Global Enterprise Inclusion and Diversity Leader.
Maaz Rana: Welcome to Not A Token Hire podcast presented by Knockri, where we talk talent and HR with the experts. This week we have global DEI leader Sadaf Parvaiz. Sadaf is a CPA and CA who was named one of the top 100 women in Canada by Women’s Executive Network and a top 20 global diversity professional in the industry. She’s currently the first-ever global enterprise inclusion and diversity leader at GHD.
Sadaf, thank you so much for joining us today on Not A Token Hire podcast. You’ve come so far in your career and you’ve accomplished so many things and I would love for you to be able to just share your journey with the audience. But for starters, please, if you can introduce yourself I’d really appreciate it.
Sadaf Parvaiz: Yeah, no problem. Thanks for having me, Maaz. So I’m Sadaf Parvaiz, and I am the Global Inclusion and Diversity Leader at GHD. I’ve been in inclusion and diversity — or EDI or DEI or whatever acronym you particularly have an affinity for — in this space for almost 17 years now. So. So it’s been an interesting journey. I started as an accountant, actually, like every good immigrant child.
Right. And a child of immigrants. I went into the safe and respectable profession of accounting. And so I have my CPA and I started in the audit practice at one of the big four accounting firms. So certainly something that my parents were very proud of and I enjoyed it. I learned a lot in that space. But three or four years in, I was sort of asked to be a part of our inclusion and diversity efforts at that particular accounting firm.
And this was in the days when there really wasn’t many organizations that were doing much in the space, let alone having a dedicated role where you get paid to do this work. And so I had no HR background. I had no, you know, sort of background in inclusion and diversity other than a huge passion. And I was part of a ton of committees and sort of things I was doing on the side, off the side of my desk.
And the rest, they say, is history. I sort of decided to do a career change after that and stayed in the inclusion and diversity space ever since. So I’ve had a lot of questions in those early days on “What do you do, what do you do for a living? And you actually get paid to do that?” But, certainly now, times have certainly changed since then.
And now most organizations have some focus on inclusion and diversity in some way. So, I definitely feel like all those questions from the aunties who would be like, “I thought you were a CPA, why aren’t you doing accounting anymore?” You know, certainly, this has now become much more well known. And I hope that we continue to, you know, make workplaces much more inclusive.
Maaz: Definitely. And that sounds like such a great and interesting transition. Right. And what was your why — like the reason as to you sticking there and building the base for DEI?
Sadaf: Yeah, it’s a good question. Certainly, as someone who was so early, I was still pretty early in my career. I just made manager in the audit practice and what I found really exciting and interesting was the fact that this particular topic was high on leadership’s agenda in that particular organization. And I was all of a sudden in these boardrooms and meetings with such senior, you know, leaders in the organization who were focused on “how do we retain women?”
At that time, it was really, the focus was mostly on women. “How do we retain more women? How do we get more women into the partnership?” And I felt like I was making more of an impact by being able to advocate and be the voice of the people in the organization, raising some of those issues and problems that — and challenges people were facing in the organization — to the senior leaders.
And I never would have had the opportunity to be in those rooms if it wasn’t for the platform that that, you know, topic allowed me to. I mean, if I would have just been another accounting manager working on a particular file and maybe a few leaders might have known who I was, but I have to admit, at the early stage of my career, that part was exciting, but also the impact I felt like I was having on individual people’s lives.
So I still remember so early in my career just the conversations I would have with women who just had their babies and were questioning whether they should stay at the firm or not. And I just felt like, wow, this is more fulfilling. I feel like I’m making more of a difference than, you know, sort of, ticking boxes on an audit checklist.
So I think for me, just that fulfilling nature of the work and having some of those tricky conversations is what made me stay and feel like I was actually making a difference right now.
Maaz: Thank you for sharing. And, you know, it’s been quite the journey. And I’m just wondering from when you started to where you are today, I mean, you’re a global enterprise, within global enterprise, you’re the inclusion and diversity leader. So as you think about your challenges that you kind of faced during this entire process, can you kind of recall maybe one of the biggest challenges that you might have faced or a few of them, anecdotally speaking?
Sadaf: Yeah. I mean, anyone who does this work knows it can be emotionally exhausting. It can be mentally draining because so many people who are doing this work are doing it because they personally have experience in this space or have felt the effects or impacts of not feeling included. And so when you hear some of the challenges from the people that you’re working with, it’s easy to take that on yourself.
So I think managing your own emotional well-being and your strength to be able to speak truth to some of those experiences is important. But I would say that the biggest challenge, in my mind, is being able to be in the moment and be there for your people, but also keeping the long-term goal in mind. So, an example would be, you know, some of these terrible events that have been happening, whether it’s, you know, school shootings or, you know, uncovering of mass graves of indigenous children.
Certainly, those are traumatic incidents that really shake people, impact people in that particular moment. And it’s really important to sort of stop whatever else you’re doing and be there for your people. Create safe spaces, create spaces to have conversations and healing. But by the same token, we have to balance that with not, you know, losing sight of the long term as well.
So it’s very easy to sort of get caught up in the day-to-day, but also the systemic pieces of working on the performance management system. How do, you know, leadership appointments take place in this organization? How do we change the system from within to allow for more opportunities and equitable opportunities for people? So it’s always that fine balance where there’s very visible things that we should be doing to support people.
But then there’s all this behind-the-scenes work that oftentimes people don’t know is happening. But it’s also equally important because we have to — if we don’t change the structural systems of how organizations operate, then, you know, we’re just putting out, sort of, fires and sort of fixing, you know, problems as they come up, but not really addressing the root cause.
So I think for me, it’s always just trying to strike that balance of, you know, continuously challenging to try and change the system. But then also at an individual level supporting people, you know, who need the opportunity to have visibility and get promoted and all those things. So it’s both. And I think that’s the challenge because more people are focused on some of those more visible actions and interventions and maybe aren’t as aware of all the work that goes into making systems-level changes.
Right. That makes a lot of sense. And, you know, Sadaf, you were earlier talking about as you were making your transition into the DEI space, one of the challenges that, you know, people were trying to overcome was how do we help with retention with women in the workforce? And also, you know, how do we actually get them through the door?
Of course, being a representative of that group and being in a leadership position. As you think about your career, has there been any challenges that you’ve experienced that might have been unique because of you being a woman? Or is there maybe something that you can think of that generally you think goes underappreciated as a leader within an enterprise?
And you also being a woman, I just would love to learn from your experience.
Sadaf: Yeah. I mean, look, I can only speak to my personal experience, but I know that anecdotally, many people I know, racialized women, you know, women of color certainly have unique challenges and experiences. Those intersecting identities only compound the challenges that those people face in the workplace and certainly any intersecting identities that just continue. It’s a compounding effect.
I would say for me personally, there were often times when I was one of the younger people in the organization. So like I said, because I started in EDI at a pretty early stage in my career, I was in rooms with people much older than me in seniority and age. And so I would say that, you know, that there can often be — and it’s, and I don’t even know if it was often intended.
And maybe it’s just when people see someone that looks visibly younger. I’m also quite small in stature. All of those things, there’s like microaggressions that you might face or people just more senior in their career feeling more confident in what they’re saying. And sometimes when they say things, it’s kind of like they say it with such level of authority that it’s meant to make you feel like you can’t question that decision or comment or idea.
And so those are some of the really specific things. And because the systems and the workplace has been set up to sort of maintain that environment that makes certain people more comfortable voicing their opinions than others is probably what I faced more early on in my career. But I think as one establishes their credibility, their expertise, their knowledge in this space, then, you know, people are more receptive.
But I think the initial sort of, especially visibly, is the assumption is, you know, maybe not thinking that this person has as much to contribute or is as knowledgeable as they really are. So there is that additional — I feel like I was always and many people have shared this with me always really overprepared for meetings because of that knowing — like something one of my bosses early on said you have to be six questions deep.
And what she meant by that is, you know, you have to anticipate not just what the first layer of questioning might be on a particular topic, but you have to know that topic six questions deep. And it’s interesting because I think that that particular boss, that’s how she made it in that generation. She had to be the smartest.
She had to be the most overqualified in the room the most — and what I’ve actually learned over my career is that there’s so many people that go through life there, only not even one question deep. And they’ve been very successful because the system has been set up for them. Right. No one actually questions them after the first question. Yet, you know, women or minorities or other underrepresented groups, are asked to go through much more of those hurdles.
And at some point, I stopped doing that, you know, because at first, I thought it was the way to be successful, always be the smartest person. But then I realized sometimes the most powerful person in the room is not the smartest person in the room. So I think I’ve given myself some of that grace and understanding that even if I don’t know something, I have the ability to find out what the answer is.
You know, I have the skill set, the network, the ability to learn. And that’s enough, right? I think that’s a trap that many racialized, underrepresented, you know, marginalized communities fall into is that they just want to get one more degree and one more, you know, I guess, credential to prove that they deserve to be in that room when in fact, they always deserved to be in that room.
Maaz: So some of the people in our audience might have direct reports themselves or they might be managing people on their team. And as we think about being able and encouraging behavior where people can have their own voice and ask questions, what would you, given your experience and your own personal journey, what would you recommend for them to tell their team members as to how to navigate within this space and kind of find their own voice?
Sadaf: Yeah, that’s a tough one. I mean, because if you’re the more junior person, it’s all about whether that person feels psychological safety, right? This concept of psychological safety, where they feel like if they were to raise their voice, there would not be any negative consequences or repercussions for them. Right. And so I would say they should first kind of see what environment they’re in.
You know, is their manager someone who’s open and empathetic and is creating those forums and opportunities for people to raise their voice or share their perspective or ideas? And if that’s not the case, to find an, you know, there’s employee resource groups or other safe spaces within the company or the organization you’re in to try and raise your voice.
But I can truly understand, like, I think it’s so — I find it frustrating when leaders say, “oh, my door is always open, you can tell me anything.” But then they’re really not displaying any of those behaviors that make it okay for someone to actually say what they think, right? So people are watching, right? So I think leaders have a role to play, especially in those particular situations, to create the environment and safety that, if you truly mean it, then when someone does raise their voice, how is how do you respond?
People are watching in terms of how you respond to that. You know, do you take it personally or do you actually say “thank you for bringing that up? I had no idea that’s how you felt” or how can I create, you know, elevate your voice and things like that? So, you know, it’s one thing to tell people, oh, just, you know, advocate for yourself and say what you really think.
But it’s not that simple and it’s not that easy, depending on who you are and where you are. And certainly the power dynamics at play in any particular situation. But that being said, we shouldn’t feel disempowered if even if we are the most, you know, junior person in the room or the most — the person with less maybe positional situational power.
It’s about just trying to figure out how, you know, what is a safe way to say to speak up and say what we really feel. But I’ve heard specifically from a lot of, you know, marginalized communities, underrepresented communities that they’ve seen negative things happen to people who have raised their voice. And so they’re just not comfortable doing that.
And I think that’s the opportunity here is we all have a role to play to create more safe spaces.
Maaz: Absolutely. So Sadaf I’m going to switch gears a little bit and, you know, speak to the fact that, you know, for the last let’s say last the last few years, there’s been quite a lot that has happened between, of course, you know, COVID, you know, in America, everything that happened with George Floyd and a series of events that have kind of brought us to where we are today.
And I think things like DEI have been a hot topic for the last few years and when you think about and I know you come from a place of practically and tangibly making differences, but sometimes when we hear people talking about it, it almost sounds like a buzzword or something that they feel is good to talk about, but there’s no real change sometimes.
Can you speak to your experience about that? Is that something that you’ve kind of seen yourself or do you think it’s different? And how do people actually — where do they start? When do they even think about DEI and potentially making an impact within their organization?
Sadaf: Yeah, yeah. It definitely has become, like I said, now, all of a sudden everyone knows what I do. When I started in this space, no one knew what I did. So, it certainly has changed. Times have really changed and it’s become, certainly in a positive way: organizations are focused on it. The flip side is the reasons why organizations are focused on it.
Some are in it to tick boxes and say, okay, now we’ve hired this DEI person and they’re just going to take care of all of our problems. Or is it organizations that are willing to do the work? Right, because, you know, research is showing now over two years on after George Floyd’s murder, that many DEI leaders who were, you know, hired in that initial rush of, you know, focus on this, have now already switched positions, have left those organizations because they weren’t set up for success, they were not supported by the board or senior leadership, were not given any resources, were not given budget.
So, again, those organizations really were just trying to either tick boxes, performatively, you know, show their customers or their employees that we’re, okay, we’re doing something about this. But really, there was no tangible, to your point, tangible support and efforts being put around this work. So, you know, I just think that any organization that’s going to go on this journey really needs to think long and hard about why they’re doing this.
And it really has to come from a place, first and foremost, about trying to, in their small way, no matter how big or small the organization is, you know, ultimately, very simply, make the world a better place. And that can start with their particular workplace, their particular organization, and create a more, you know, equitable and inclusive environment, at least for their employees and their clients and customers.
We can’t necessarily impact world events or things like that, but we can do our small part and then also be really smart about who you hire in these roles. And because I have to say, you know, this work, there’s things that can be done, like I said, more performative, and then there’s things that can be done more systemically.
And I think understanding what’s necessary for your organization is really important. This, there’s been a ton of jobs in this space. And I wouldn’t say that you necessarily need certificates or degrees to be someone who can do this work. But just understanding what your organization needs and making sure that the person that you’re having lead up this effort is the person that can really do it.
What needs to be done. So yeah, yeah. I think that’s probably what I would say too. What’s happened in the last few years, I think it’s created a great opportunity for those individuals who are already always doing the work in their organization, whether they were like someone leading a diversity committee and had all these great ideas but just never had a platform.
So I wouldn’t say — I know there’s some people in the DEI space who think, “Oh, not everybody can be a DEI leader.” Just because you are from a racialized community or some underrepresented community doesn’t make you a good DEI leader. I don’t think that’s necessarily true. But on the flip side, to quote Dr. Ibram Kendi, he, you know, he also said not every racialized person is meant to do this work.
Right. So it’s really not to say that it has to be a racialized person either. So I think really understanding the skill set necessary to do this work is really important, but that there shouldn’t be a minimum bar for entry or anything like that because I think that a lot of people have a lot of really great skill sets and might have been doing this work in different ways and just not formally acknowledged for it.
Right. And that makes a lot of sense. You know, so as someone who might be thinking about getting into the DEI space, right. And maybe, you know, entering into this, let’s say there’s an opening within an organization and they want to make a transition. They’ve always been interested, to your point earlier, in terms of how some companies might have this as a performative type of initiative and others who earnestly want to make a difference, what would you say?
Like, you know, some of the things are to look out for for someone who wants to make an impact within an organization and see if they actually have that support. Like do they have a budget as an example that they’re allocating? Is there anything else that kind of comes to mind?
Yeah. Yeah. I mean, look, I was very particular about I, you know, my previous organization I was at for almost 18, 19 years. So I didn’t take it lightly when I left, right. And I was very particular in the interview process on what I wanted to have in place if I were to come to this organization. And a couple of things that are top on my list is really how engaged and involved is the board?
If there is a board or the executive management team, like is this truly something that’s part of their overall business strategy or not? Or will it be, you know, and what representation or voice will, you know, this topic have at that table? So that’s a really important question because if it’s just sort of and I don’t think it necessarily has to be a topic, I know some people are like “you have to be directly reporting to the CEO” or otherwise it’s not you know, I think it depends on the organization.
You can be very effective in different ways, but you have to understand how that organization works. The other thing is absolutely budget. You know, if there’s no money, it’s really hard to make a difference. That’s just a reality. And also, it signals to the organization that it’s important because when you’re given a budget, it means that, you know, they’re willing to put literally their money where their mouth is, resources.
The burnout is real in this work. So anyone, you know, who I know who’s about to take this on, especially in organizations where they’re just hiring one person for this role, I always encourage them to ask, “okay, if I were to take this role, can I build a team? Will I be able to hire some staff?” Because I don’t care if it’s like, you know, a super small organization or, like it’s just not possible with one person.
So whether it’s, you know, being able to leverage, HR, you know, people or other people in the organization and get their time in some way. But I would truly not advise anyone to do this by themselves because it can be very lonely work, very difficult work, and you need that support and ability to make change by having a team.
And then I think, you know, how, how, where is the — so I like that there’s, the top has to be really engaged like the board, but how much are the employees engaged? So, are there already employee resource groups or is there a groundswell of support or grassroots, you know, efforts around this space?
You know, do the employees really want this? I was part of a conversation last week and some organizations were saying it was all coming from the top, but employees didn’t really, you know, say they wanted it or weren’t really engaged. And I think that’s really important to figure out. And maybe they just weren’t comfortable voicing that. But then you have to figure out like, you know, can you talk to some employees to hear their perspective and find out what they’re looking for?
Because without the employee support and engagement, it becomes very corporate.
Maaz: Right, that makes a lot of sense. Yeah. No, thank you for that insight. That’s amazing. And, you know, this one. Sadaf, I think it might be very obvious to us, right? So when I think about what’s happening today, people are talking about there might be a recession coming or, you know, some companies are tightening up like their budgets.
They’re making cuts in terms of their, you know, their staff and their teams at a time like this or even generally, as I said, like for us, I think it’s quite obvious as we think about, you know, the larger audience of people, why should somebody care about DEI right now? Yeah.
Sadaf: They don’t. I mean, the short answer is there’s many people who don’t care. And I think one of the biggest obstacles that leaders have is to make — because there’s going to be people who obviously care about this personally. They’re emotionally invested. They think it’s the right thing to do. That’s great. You know, you’ll have people like that.
But I always talk about that frozen middle, right? That layer of the permafrost that there’s, you know, sort of particular people who have multiple things pulling at them, usually their operational leaders, people who are running lines of business, people who just have to do their day-to-day or manage their team, you know, hit revenue targets like, you know, deliver products or services to their clients and so it it’s really trying to make it clear to them that this isn’t something that they have to do in addition to their day job.
Right. This is in mindset shift of how to do your day job more inclusively, that’s all. And so, trying to figure out how do you do your job that you have to do anyway, but just do it in a more inclusive way, right? So it’s not that you have to go and read a ton of books and do all these.
I mean, those things are great if you have the time or, you know, the interest, but how are you going to engage in a different way and do your work, you know, in in a way that’s more safe, inclusive, and encouraging of different voices and opinions. So it’s really just helping them get that skill set and mindset shift.
And then of course, you know, there is some education and learning and behavior change that has to happen. But I think that’s the biggest hurdle, is really that for so long it has felt like the conversation has felt like this is something. In addition, it’s like extra work. I have to do this on top of this or like a compliance or something that I have to just tick off as opposed to if I do things more inclusively, we benefit the team benefits, productivity, benefits.
You know, the client is more happy, like all those things. And I just need to be able to bring and create the conditions for all of that to happen. It sounds simple. I know it’s not easy because it takes commitment and a willingness for people to learn and try and do things in a different way.
Maaz: Yeah, absolutely. And you know, Sadaf I want to close us off with one final question here and I want to bring this back to you. And, you know, there’s a lot of — because just talking to you today and knowing a little bit about your background, I can see and I know how accomplished you are in your career and how you’ve kind of come to where you are today and think sometimes there’s a lot of people that throughout their career, universally, they might be taking on a new opportunity or what have you, or maybe there’s a new task that they’ve been given within their current role.
And they have that sense of like you know, imposter syndrome, and they don’t know whether or not they’ve won. They’re going to feel like they’ve made it in their career when they’ve owned themselves. Do you feel on your end that you’ve made it and maybe when was that moment in your career where you felt that you finally made it?
And you’re here and you’ve arrived? Or are you still kind of trying to figure it out? I would love to hear your perspective.
Sadaf: Yeah. Yeah. I think for me, I always say that I’m going to feel like I made a difference when I’m out of a job. So when organizations no longer need a DEI leader, when it’s just the way that they operate, it’s just the way that managers conduct themselves. It’s just the way that people feel like they can bring their whole selves to work, right.
When that day comes, I’m going to feel like, okay, we as a collective community of people in this work have made a difference in workplaces and have really made organizations change from within. Certainly, that day is not any time soon, sadly. But I think that’s a really great aspiration to work towards for me. I think that that I had, you know, when I got to a point where I didn’t feel like I had an end goal or I needed to accomplish something, is probably when I felt like I made it.
So by that I mean, you know, because you’ll never really feel like you’ve made it. There’s always going to be something else to do or someone else is doing something else. And so when you let that go and you actually just do the work you really love to do, or you feel like you’re making a difference and you’re happy in trying to make a change in the work that you’re doing.
To me, that is enough. And that, you know, because having goals is important. But I don’t think that, you know, that’s the be all and end all. It’s really the impact you’re making in the work you’re doing today that and when I got comfortable with that and not thinking about something down the road. Yeah I think that it frees you up, right?
It frees you up from all of that imposter syndrome that you were talking about. And it just allows you to be in the moment and do the work that needs to be done and just following, I think for me also just being more comfortable in following my gut, you know, and not really always listening to what society’s telling me success looks like or what a book is telling me.
You know, these five steps, seven steps, all these things. I think really understanding what drives you is the most important thing. And then being and knowing when that’s not working for you anymore is also important. And I think for me, I am in a space and a place where I think I’m comfortable enough saying when something’s not working for me anymore.
And so being more in tune with when that is and then making choices, you know, choices to make it different or better.
Maaz: Amazing. Thank you so much. So I really appreciate your time today. Where can our audience find you if they’d like to just reach out or connect?
Sadaf: Yeah, so I’m on LinkedIn, so feel free to, you know, and I use this name, so on LinkedIn. So that’s the easiest place to find me and I’m happy to meet, chat with anyone who wants to discuss this work. And certainly you can tell by this conversation how much I’m invested in it. And, to me, it’s all about creating more inclusive workplaces across the globe.
And so I’m very happy to share and chat with anyone who’d like to connect.
Maaz: Absolutely. Thanks again Sadaf. Take care. And all the best.
Sadaf: Thanks so much, Maaz. Take care.