The road to real leadership is rarely a straight one, and among Canada’s most successful entrepreneurs, few have traveled a route with more obstacles overcome than Zahra Al-Harazi. Sharing her no-holds-barred attitude and passion for success, Zahra discusses her unique approach to entrepreneurship and leadership, as well as her personal experience as a pioneering woman and immigrant in the business world. Marketing Magazine takes a look at some of the key points Zarah made last week at an event for female entrepreneurs, that can be applied to both women and men alike:
When she left her house many years ago after wondering whether anyone would hire her, Zahra Al-Harazi went to the mall to find some solace in shopping. Instead, she wound up leaving with her first real job, as a sales associate at Danier, and a sense of possibility she says she’s maintained ever since.
“That job [at Danier] was what eventually pointed me towards marketing,” Al-Harazi recalled last week at an event geared to female entrepreneurs. From those humble beginnings, however, Al-Harazi has since become the leader of Foundry Communications, a marketing and communications consultancy based in Toronto. More recently, she’s become a Canadian ambassador to Unicef.
While much of Al-Harazi’s career advice was aimed directly at her female peers on the startup and agency side, there were plenty of insights that could be applied by men and corporate marketers as well:
Build Your Credibility Through Work That Offers Myriad Rewards
As a Canadian immigrant whose family left Yemen amid civil war, Al-Harazi said she had long felt drawn to community work and volunteering. In the early days of Foundry Communications, this became a huge part of her 9-to-5 job, too, but it paved the way for commercial success.
“We did a lot of free marketing for not-for-profits. One of my clients submitted my name for a Top 40 Under 40 (award) and didn’t tell me. I didn’t find out until I won,” she said. “What came out of that was we won a ton of paying clients.”
Exec Takeaway: You may not get closer to your objectives simply by doing pro bono work, but Al-Harazi said there was another side benefit to her approach: her staff enjoyed doing innovative things for not-for-profit clients, which in turn helped her attract other great talent who could be applied to the “boring, corporate work that keeps the lights on.” Maintaining the balance between those mission-critical projects and passion projects is important for any leader.
Use Perceptions (And Prejudices) To Your Advantage
Foundry Communications has won a number of accounts over the years, but Al-Harazi still remembers an early one that got away. It was for a company that manufactured golf merchandise. When Foundry lost the job, the client admitted to her that theirs was the best presentation and the best track record. She pressed to understand why they had been rejected — and it wasn’t what she wanted to hear.
“He said, ‘You’re women’ — there were three of us in the room — ‘You don’t know anything about golf,’” she said. “It pissed me off, but I also realized I needed to pivot a little bit. I need to diversify my team. I made sure I had the right people in the room. That’s what you do. You hit a road block, you figure out how you’re going to fix it.”
Exec Takeaway: No one — customers, the CEO, agencies — judge fairly all the time. Be willing to overcome the hurt and find solutions that will position you for long-term success.
Know When To Offer Coaching (And What Kind of Coach You Are)
Al-Harazi said she likes to be supportive on a personal and professional level. That’s why, when someone she knew was going through a bad breakup, she offered to have her over for a glass of wine and a shoulder to cry on. The friend in question refused.
“She said, ‘Not with you,’” Al-Harazi recalled. “She said, ‘You’re not the person I come to cry to. You’re the person I come to when I want my ass kicked.’”
Exec Takeaway: Employees may evaluate your strengths differently than you do. Like Al-Harazi, you may be someone who can offer motivation, confidence or a direct plan of action. By all means be emotionally present, but use your mentoring sessions to get clarity on what kind of mentor you’re expected to be.
Be As Good At Plotting Your Career Moves As Choosing The Right Agency
When her marriage was ending, Al-Hazari said lots of people around her were shocked and confused — including herself. Though she knew she wanted to start over, she felt closely defined by her marriage, a definition that could have carried over into how she developed her career. Thinking about her work with clients gave her an idea, however.
“We usually use a creative brief which says, ‘Here is the product, here is the price, here is what we want the customer to think and feel,’” she explained. “I realized I needed to write a creative brief for myself — who I was, what I wanted. And that’s what I did.”
Exec Takeaway: If you feel silly writing your own creative brief as Al-Hazari did, ask yourself why. What is it about your aspirations, your ambitions or the opportunities you see before you that would inspire ridicule or discouragement. At the very least have in your mind the kinds of answers about your next professional steps or strategy that others are likely to question. Chances are, you may be your own worst critic.