Smarter Workforce Profile: Zahir Ladhani—On Climbing the Career Mountain

By Rudy Karsan, co-founder and CEO of Kenexa, an IBM company.
Zahir Ladhani, IBM Software Group, Kenexa
Zahir Ladhani,
IBM Software Group, Kenexa

Can you tell us a bit about what you are doing in your current role?

I am trying to accomplish two things:
1. To inspire and show people the amazing future they have ahead in IBM
2. To reinvent work via workforce science

You have had a very eventful career, having made a number of transitions. How did this interesting career trajectory come about, and how did you handle these changes?

It actually began through greed—and let me frame that—a greed for personal and career growth, looking for bigger opportunities. Somewhere along the way it became a passion and thirst for learning. I think the best analogy for my career is climbing a mountain, rather than a ladder. In the past, you typically started your career as an intern, and moved to full-time employee to junior associate to senior associate to director to vice-president…each move was like climbing to the next rung of the ladder. When I was an accountant, I dreamed of becoming a product manager, and someone advised me that one can’t be a good product manager unless one is able to sell the product. So I moved into Sales, although it involved a move down and a pay-cut. This move was certainly not, for a variety of reasons, but turned out to be the best career move I made.

Like climbing a mountain, while growing your career you move up, sideways, down, but there is and must always be momentum. And the difference between the mountain and the ladder is, the mountain is much higher, offers more challenge and discovery, and the view at every point is wider and better. To make your career journey you must have a strong base (your talent and drive) and the right tools (your mentors and sponsors) in order to climb. Many people regarded my move into Kenexa as a downward move, and initially one could see it as that. But the rewards have been far greater than I even imagined. I was able to fulfill my dream of leading an integral business unit at Kenexa, and have now added under my leadership our exciting Workforce Sciences BU. My career journey has and will always be about learning. Always.

What are some of the best lessons you have learned along the way?

1. That certain qualities of a good leader—empathy and compassion—are hugely important in any role you play.
2. Never come into a new role thinking you are the smartest person in the room. Stop, listen and understand those around you. A good leader will harness the talents of the team to create true business success.
3. Also, personally, when a job loses its challenge and becomes easy, I don’t perform as well—outcomes are better when there is a level of challenge and of stretch.

Given the level of success you have achieved, what are the three most important factors you attribute this success to?

1. Grounding from family and values
2. Openness to learn and adapt, and willingness to accept mistakes
3. Ability to work through adversity and challenges

All successful people have their own rules in life; what are your operating principles?

Integrity tops the list for me. Let me give you an example: When I was with another organization, I was heading a particular division and one year our numbers were really bad. I was with the CEO, and he said there’s a gun on the table, and either you take it and shoot someone or I pick it up and shoot you. And I told him he could shoot me if he wanted, but as the leader of my team the poor numbers were my responsibility and the product was one I had agreed to, so I was not going to let anyone else take the bullet for it.

The other characteristic that drives me—I can’t really call it a principle—is my inner need for people to like me. On the other hand, I am a hardcore businessman—these dual aspects can create conflict when I am trying to drive a hard bargain.

What is it about the products and services you are working on that makes us world-class?

A Smarter Workforce is world-class. We are bringing talent, technology and science together to create  an efficient, engaged, productive, profitable and predictive workforce for our clients and, ultimately, the world. Right now, we are the only ones who have the recipe for successfully creating Smarter Workforces and reinventing how people think about and do work. That, to me, is really exciting.

What are the three most important reasons you would buy from IBM?

1. Reputation
2. True Innovation
3. Security

When you look at your career today, what excites you the most?

In addition to the work we are doing to create smarter workforces, the opportunity that we have to impact one of the largest organizations in the world and change its culture and the way it works.

Also, having the opportunity to do so many different things in my career; the different roles, the learning, and the growth. It’s been an amazing journey, and I feel I’m only halfway along; the best is yet to come. At IBM, our opportunity to grow and learn and to scale and to share with the world is just tremendous, and that is so exciting.

What does Energizing Life’s Work mean to you personally?

Energizing a person so completely that, no matter what, they are doing their work to the best of their abilities, they have passion, are enjoying it, and are completely fulfilled. We know this kind of engagement creates the best outcomes. And this applies to every facet of an individual’s life—personal, work, religion, and so on. This ties back to our knowledge that when people are fully engaged, they are better parents, better spouses and better community members.

What’s the story you like to tell, that makes you smile and makes you happy?

Well, it’s not work related, but it never fails to make me smile. It is the day our daughter—our youngest child—was born. She was a late—8 years late — addition to our family. When her siblings first met her, they held their new sister in their arms literally seconds after she was born. It was a tremendous moment of bonding for the whole family, and one of the memories I cherish most.


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