AP: Can you provide a brief overview of your career to date, and how you got to your current position?
SZ: My entry into the property sector was accidental! I finished my master’s degree in food biotechnology and joined a firm working as an IT auditor and project manager. I later came across an opening for a credit control position with a housing association, which I applied to. The rest is history. I stayed with the housing association for 14 years, holding 9 different positions throughout my time, starting as a junior officer and ending in a senior leadership position reporting to the board. I created opportunities and did not shy away if I didn’t know something. Instead, I wanted to continue learning and doing work that was exciting and new. Something I learned is that you must be willing and ambitious to get to where you want to be. After some time, I was approached by JLL to become a director in their serviced apartments team, securing an advisory role rather than the operational role within the firm. However, coming from an operational background, I realised it was important for me to see a project from start to finish, so when I was approached by Long Harbour to set-up an in-house management platform, I decided to make the move. I found the opportunity exciting and different. Today, I am a managing director at Way of Life, a residential management platform.
AP: How would you summarise your firm today?
SZ: Our mission is to be recognized as the company that manages the most sought-after residential rental accommodation. To create buildings of lasting value through thoughtful design and exemplary stewardship, whilst supporting them with an ethos of hospitality. In doing so we meet the needs and desires of our residents and consolidate our reputation as trusted custodians.
AP: Going back to your experience, you went from two corporate roles to a more entrepreneurial role. SZ: What were the most exciting elements of the change, and what were some of the challenges?
SZ: What excited me most was the idea of building something from scratch. That includes shaping strategies, hiring talented people as well as creating a positive culture in the business. Of course, this can feel daunting at times because it is your name and reputation on the line if something does not go according to plan. If you get it wrong, there is no one to hide behind. However, for me the prospect of shaping a business far outweighed the challenge. Instead, it motivated me to do better. One of the major challenges that I found was convincing others of your vision and getting them to buy-in and trust your leadership.
AP: What drove you to join CREW, and what can you tell us about your experience so far?
SZ: I was connected to CREW through another organisation called Ladies in Real Estate, (LiRE), created by Adina David. She was the one who introduced me to CREW, for which I am so grateful, because it opened the door to connect with amazing and talented women within the industry. To me, CREW is all about bringing people together and learning how we can help and support one another in our personal and professional lives. Throughout my career I have mentored around 30 individuals. Each one has taught me something new, because mentorship is very much a two-way street, and you get out what you put in. I love meeting new people, staying in touch, and seeing how lives and careers evolve. That is one of my biggest joys!
AP: It amazed me how open and approachable both mentors and mentees were when I first joined CREW. This experience is not always the same in other organisations.
SZ: What I also like about it, is that CREW is professional and breaks down that barrier that can make it difficult for people to speak about their professional lives and careers so openly. CREW promotes a safe space for open discussion in a non-judgmental environment, so I find that conversations are very organic.
AP: What have you learned from being a mentor or a mentee?
SZ: There are a few things I have learned. First, as a mentee, being able to have an open and frank conversation. I learned that it is okay to be vulnerable because this provides your mentor with a true understanding of your situation, so they can talk through your options in a more informed way. Second, also as a mentee, I learned that it is important to speak to many people, not just one, because you will have the opportunity to see things from multiple perspectives, and perhaps one will sit with you better than others. As a mentor, I have learned to be a better listener, fully giving the floor to a mentee to speak freely and to guide them through their options rather than setting a fixed plan. Everyone has different ambitions, personal and professional, so we must consider both.
AP: Do you find there is a difference in the way that women approach their goals compared to the way men do this?
SZ: From my conversation with many women, I can see a difference in the way that ladies approach discussions specifically around promotions, salary, and career progression. We approach these conversations with a mindset of inequality, which automatically creates a barrier and causes anxiety even before the conversation starts. We need to change our mindset to know that we, women and men, are equal and have the same opportunities. The difference is in the approach. Women shy away from conversations about having families in these discussions, which should not be the case. It’s a balancing act.
AP: We’re increasingly moving away from the standard 9-5 workday. With smartphones and our laptops, we bring our work home, so we should be able to take time from our workings days to support other areas of our lives.
SZ: I always say, don’t count hours, count outcomes. We help the wider organisation to achieve its goals, so the organisation should be flexible and supportive in helping us to achieve ours.
AP: That sums it up nicely! Moving on to the next question, what do you think the key to greater diversity and inclusion (D&I) is in 2022?
SZ: I chair the Diversity and Inclusion committee for the wider group, and I have come to understand that employees are actively looking to leadership to make a difference because change comes from the top. It’s about taking small steps, raising awareness, and understanding how others might think and feel about a topic or situation. Taking a simple example, I am Persian, so when I was younger the way that we showed respect and attentiveness to our teachers was by crossing our arms and sitting up straight as they walked into the classroom. If you do this today in a meeting, this action may be misconstrued as defensive or being closed-minded. As the group of companies grows and evolves, we must consider the evolving mindset and experiences of colleagues as well.
AP: I agree, it’s important to ensure that all viewpoints are represented and heard before taking actions or implementing changes. I will now move on to the next question, which is, who has been your most influential professional mentor, and why?
SZ: I always say it’s not one person. I have been lucky enough to have a few key people in my life that have contributed to my development. It is my personal belief that anyone that you bump into can be your mentor and can shape the way in which you approach life. Each person that you meet is, in essence, contributing to your library of knowledge and your growing wealth of expertise.
AP: So many fantastic quotes! What is the best piece of professional advice you have received?
SZ: The first important piece of advice that I received was from my father. He taught me to know my strengths and to be aware of areas for improvement. You will never be perfect, so it’s important to stay humble and not to take things personally. Another good piece of advice is to make sure you make a difference or leave a positive memory behind, no matter how small the task. People remember how you make them feel, not what you did. Something I tell mentees is to be passionate and committed in whatever they decide to do, and if you don’t have a choice, try to look at the positive and put your own personal touch on it. Finally, in my very first role, I had a great manager that always used to say, “carry on, regardless.” That has also stayed with me to this day.
AP: Can we go back to that point about being passionate and committed, because sometimes, especially in the earlier stages of people’s careers they are not always able to work on something that they are passionate about. How would you tailor your piece of advice to those in this situation?
SZ: Give it a chance. You may not fall in love with something immediately, but you should give it a chance. Try to find ways in which you can achieve a sense of accomplishment or positivity in what you do. If you try this, but the work still makes you unhappy, this is where a mentor can play a key part in helping you understand why the role may not be right. On the flip side, you will need to dig deep and think about what you do like, what makes you happy, and what motivates you.
We have a duty as managers to provide the best possible onboarding experience, especially to new and younger talent, because this is the most impressionable moment in their careers. What happens in that first job will stay with them for the rest of their professional life, so you want to give them something positive to carry and share with others in their future.
AP: I’ve just added that piece of advice to my own library, thank you! My final question is, outside of work, do you have a hobby or passion project you are working on? Can you tell us more about it?
SZ: My passion is my family. I love spending time with them, which ties in nicely with my love of entertaining, organising events, and generally bringing people together. Lately, I have also started to focus on taking time for myself, where I can relax, read, take a walk in the park with my dog.
AP: With that, is there anything else you want to leave our readers with today?
SZ: Remember that boundaries are something we create. You can achieve anything you want in life, you just have to adjust your mindset and stop narrowing your abilities to achieve your goals!
AP: So many great quotes and one-liners, thank you so much Sowgol!