How Bringing My Whole Self to Work Made Me a Better Leader, More Empathetic Teammate and More

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Zohra Yafai

Photo courtesy of Cisco.

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April 14, 2024 at 5:25AM UTC

Cisco Vice President of Talent Acquisition, Zohra Yafai, is a successful leader, an immigrant, and mother to a baby with a CHD (congenital heart defect). All these parts of her matter — and recognizing her full self at work has been imperative to her becoming a better leader and a more empathetic teammate, too. 

Explaining who you are and how your brain works is extremely helpful in a professional environment, Yafai shares. For instance, by doing so, you can determine if a colleague and you are on “two different ends of the spectrum [when] working together,” she shares. This enables you to proactively find a working style that works best for all parties. As Yafai notes, “You’ve got to explain who you are, and that is a brave thing to do.”

At Cisco, Yafai is her full authentic self when leading the Global Recruitment Organization that supports the talent growth for one of the world's largest multinational technology corporations, Cisco Systems. 

In her keynote talk at the Fairygodboss Inspiration Summit, Yafai shared how authenticity and being honest with yourself are key, the importance of gaining new perspectives and more! Here, we share abbreviated and lightly edited highlights from this inspirational talk. Read on to learn more! You can watch the full discussion here.

The topic of our conversation today is bringing your whole self to work. If you had to distill it down for us, what does bringing your whole self to work really mean?

It really is just being honest and true to who you are, being comfortable [as yourself] and knowing what your strengths are — and not apologizing for them. Knowing what you need to develop and not apologizing for that is the other part.

Early in my career, I went to my boss's office, and I was super upset about something and was crying. That boss told me, “You should read this book called Women Who Worry Too Much.” At first, I took that feedback, and I thought I was going to label myself as a worrier.

But now, I realize that's my strength. My strength is that I look ahead, I anticipate, and I forecast — it's the way my brain is wired. It's why I'm good at my job. So that's what I mean when I say to bring your whole self to work. You can carry a badge that someone can give you as a negative and unapologetically own it.

Early on in our careers, I think many of us are often encouraged to “find our passions” in our jobs, and it leaves many of us feeling really disconnected and dissatisfied with what we’re doing. What advice would you give instead?

If you feel like you've got to show up every day and be super passionate about the job, you're setting yourself up for failure. Instead, you have to find an organization where you believe in their higher purpose.

[For me,] I love Cisco's purpose: powering an inclusive future for all with our technology. And I like what I do in terms of people strategy. 

[Instead of using passion as a metric,] you need to write three lists:

  1. What am I good at? What are my strengths?

  2. What do I like to do?

  3. What does the market reward?

Anytime in your career, you have to look at the balance of those things, and you have to sometimes [weigh a certain item higher]. And, if you start thinking: What am I not strong at but love doing? Then, that’s your development path, and you can get passionate about that journey. You should be passionate about owning your journey and finding an organization or finding a job context where you're excited about the purpose. That's how I wake up every day and get excited about my opportunity to help Cisco achieve its goal.

How did becoming a parent during the pandemic change how you think about work and being authentic at work?

I was eight months pregnant when the pandemic hit. I had a baby boy at the end of April, and we really struggled [and neither of our parents were close by to help]. We couldn't feed him, and it got to the point where the hospital would say to me, “I think it's your anxiety. Why don't you let your husband feed your child?” And I really doubted myself. Then, at his eight-week checkup — and I'm going to preface this by saying he's absolutely fine and thriving now — we discovered a heart murmur. Then, at 10-weeks-old, he had open-heart surgery for every notch hole in his heart, and that was what was causing the feeding problems and struggles. 

This experience taught me a lot in terms of how I approach my work because I realized that the doctors were seeing me as an anxious, neurotic person who was a first-time mother. I’m so much more aware of how [these unconscious or conscious] biases impact how you move through society … I really want to live in a future where we don't have to worry about that.

If you had to leave the group with one piece of life advice, what would that be?

Prioritize travel. I know travel is really hard, and it's expensive, especially at the moment.

But, so much of my life perspective has come from experiencing what it's like to live in East Africa, and then experiencing what it's like to live in the UK and expand. 

While I know not everyone can do that journey, you don't have to physically travel [to achieve this wider mindset and perspective]. I read a ton of really good books. At the moment, I have one called Destination Wellness about how different people in different parts of the world interact with their environment and how that helps them from a home health perspective. So, in my mind, at the moment, I'm in Jamaica and Norway, and I'm learning and being active. 

The more you experience and the broader context you have, the more you will realize that you're a pretty awesome human being and you've got a wonderful place in this world. And, there's a lot of good you can do. I think more people need to recognize that and realize that it's a great way of getting out of your habits and thinking a little bit more broadly.

Fairygodboss is proud to partner with Cisco. Find a job there today! And, if you’d like to discover more insights from the Fairygodboss Inspiration Summit, check out this article summarizing the event!

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