Transparency builds trust. If your team, or your client, feels that you are always being honest you will all succeed together. Distrust creates an environment where everyone has to over-explain and excessively communicate… It creates an inefficiency.

We are living in the Renaissance of Work. Just like great artists know that an empty canvas can become anything, great leaders know that an entire organization — and the people inside it — can become anything, too. Master Artists and Mastering the Art of Leadership draw from the same source: creation. In this series, we’ll meet masters who are creating the future of work and painting a portrait of lasting leadership. As part of this series, we had the pleasure of interviewing Abdi Zadeh.

As Executive Vice President, Abdi is responsible for delivering results for our clients. Prior to being named EVP, Abdi led all digital efforts at Sensis as the head of our Digital Experience unit. Abdi is a digital marketing veteran, developing and integrating emerging technologies into full scale marketing campaigns and digital experiences. Abdi started his career in software development, trailblazing the early days of mobile app design and development for various enterprises including Sony Pictures, Creative Artists Agency, Tibco and Xilinx. He then began to apply his technology acumen to marketing initiatives in the form of user-engagement experiences.

Thank you for joining us. Our readers would enjoy discovering something interesting about you. What are you in the middle of right now that you’re excited about personally or professionally?

Thank you for having me! We are in the middle of some very exciting things at Sensis, so I’ll dive into that more later. What I am currently excited about on the personal level is food! I’m trying to recreate my mom’s barley soup recipe. I recently had a version of that soup at a restaurant, and it reminded me of how much I love hers. I’ve had four attempts so far, and I’m getting closer!

We all get by with a little help from our friends. Who is the leader that has influenced you the most, and how?

I worked for a small software company when I first began my career, specializing in fin-tech. One day I had nothing on my plate, so I was reading work-related software development books. One of the company executives walked by and asked me about the status of some project that I had no involvement in. He said to me “I really appreciate that you’re trying to expand your skills and learn more with that book, but the best way to help us and yourself is to find a way to add value… don’t wait for an assignment, find a problem to solve and roll up your sleeves.”

That piece of advice has stayed with me throughout my career and it helps guide the way I assemble teams. I like versatile problem solvers that embrace unpaved paths. That initial job introduced me to a lot of great leaders, influencing and helping to shape me through their experience. It was truly a “trial-by-fire” environment that helped me learn how to navigate chaos and find success in unconventional opportunities.

Sometimes our biggest mistakes lead to our biggest discoveries. What’s the biggest mistake you’ve made as a leader, and what did you discover as a result?

A discovery I made early on that may seem obvious, but I had to make the mistake (several times) to be more conscious of the lesson. No one can do everything. You can’t throw people at a problem and expect it to be solved. Each person has their own strengths and weaknesses, and some aren’t even aware of their own capabilities or limitations. You have to know your team intimately and deliberately assign work that best utilizes their skills and traits.

In marketing & advertising agencies, we work with multiple disciplines and areas of expertise. When one group is under-utlized and another is over-utilized, it’s very tempting to shift people around to balance the work-load. In the right circumstances, that works — but the lesson is — you have to know the individual well enough to know that it will, otherwise everyone is set up for failure.

How has your definition of leadership changed or evolved over time? What does it mean to be a leader now?

I had a personal misconception that has evolved into a more accurate idea or definition, if you will.

Early in my career, I used to think leadership was solely associated with managing people. Having direct reports meant you were a leader. Truly, that is not the case. Many teams have members that play critical roles and provide leadership, without necessarily being a “manager”.

There are so many different styles and forms of leadership, but trying to think of some common threads, this comes to mind to be successful as a “leader.” Individuals must earn trust and respect, be present and show effort, and demonstrate a high-level aggregate knowledge and/or specific expertise for the work at hand.

Success is as often as much about what we stop as what we start. What is one legacy leadership behavior you stopped because you discovered it was no longer valuable or relevant?

When I first started out, I would read books on leadership and success, attended corporate leadership summits, and implement personality tests. That’s what I saw others doing — so I fell into that mold. To me, this always felt contrived and insincere. I am a firm believer in leading in your own way, being guided foremost by the work at hand.

Certainly, there is wisdom out there for us to take in, influencing our own path. But beware of the many false prophets that promise to transform you into a successful leader through their guidance (for sales, of course).

In short, I spend a lot less time learning how to be a leader — and spend a lot more time focused on the task/business at hand.

What is one lasting leadership behavior you started or are cultivating because you believe it is valuable or relevant?

My favorite philosophy and way of living is “Be curious and take initiative!” It’s a borrowed line from a cousin, and I personally live by this line daily.

That advice is especially true in our marketing & advertising business, particularly here at Sensis. With every new client, we fully immerse ourselves into their world. We have to understand their market, operations, opportunities, constraints, competitors and much more. We have to fully immerse ourselves so that we can authentically represent them in a way to best support their goals.

With every client, every project, every task, our team is “constructively curious” to ask the right questions and do the right background research to understand and strategize effectively. We take initiative to push the needle to create a wonderful partnership that drives positive results. I encourage everyone to live by this simple line, to challenge yourself each day- I know the results will be major!

What advice would you offer to other leaders who are stuck in past playbooks and patterns and may be having a hard time letting go of what made them successful in the past?

If the Covid-19 epidemic taught us all anything in a positive manner, it’s that you have to rewrite your leadership playbook with every new development or circumstance. This will enable your team to be nimble and resilient, adapting to unimaginable environments, while still being able to generate success. Don’t be so set in ways of the past. Look forward, not behind you, the only constant we have in this life is change, so positively work with it.

Many of our readers can relate to the challenge of leading people for the first time. What advice would you offer to new and emerging leaders?

I always think about the classic, “fake it, till you make it” because it does, indeed, work in a lot of scenarios, but, when it comes to leading, I do not think it applies. I think people need to be reminded that it is ok to be vulnerable and to be transparent about areas of uncertainty. If you fake it, you risk being branded as an unfit leader, losing trust and respect.

Based on your experience or research, what are the top five traits effective leaders exemplify now? Please share a story or an example for each.

I’ve had the privilege in my life to have good mentors and leaders that helped me from the beginning of my career. Here are a few traits that I feel top leaders exemplify.

  1. I’ve said this before, but be curious and always be eager to find ways to learn more. Our CEO of Sensis, Jose Villa, consumes more information and knowledge than anyone I have ever seen. I love having conversations with him, because he usually supports his statements with a recent article or data-point that he learned about. He is a great example of how to aspire to learn something new each and every day.
  2. Another point to reiterate- take initiative! When team members come to the table with an idea, or a solution, having someone take initiative is something that truly stands out. A few years ago, someone on our staff experimented with Figma, as a tool to collaborate. We already used several tools but lacked standardization. That staffer saw the opportunity to standardize this part of team collaboration and implemented it, trained the users, and ultimately made us better. No one asked her to do this but she took initiative and demonstrated valuable leadership skills.
  3. Be decisive. Do your research, put in the time and effort to think through different scenarios, and come to a conclusion with the best interest of the business and of your client. I think it sets a terrible tone for any initiative when a leader in the team seems uncertain about their direction. Of course, we make uncertain decisions everyday, but exuding confidence in the choices you’re making (for better or worse) makes it a lot easier to get buy-in from all team members.
  4. Transparency builds trust. If your team, or your client, feels that you are always being honest you will all succeed together. Distrust creates an environment where everyone has to over-explain and excessively communicate… It creates an inefficiency.
  5. Finally, show up each day with a passion and dedication to do the very best you can. Enthusiasm is contagious and results in better work from everyone.

American Basketball Coach John Wooden said, “Make each day your masterpiece.” How do you embody that quote? We welcome a story or example.

We are given the opportunity to learn and grow each day, with a fresh canvas to make it a “masterpiece.” Not all daily experiences are going to feel like “a win,” but we can certainly find success by learning and growing from anything that comes our way. In my opinion, putting this thought process into action is a beautiful thing.

What is the legacy you aspire to leave as a leader?

I am extremely passionate about instilling growth in others. Each day, I look for new opportunities for my team to be challenged to experience new opportunities. I want nothing but the best for them, and would be honored to be someone who helps them achieve their career goals. Another legacy that I hope inspires others is to “get things done.” A lot of times, there are people who are not able to put meaningful action into place to accomplish great things.

How can our readers connect with you to continue the conversation?

I’d love to connect! Please reach out to me via LinkedIn

Thank you for giving us the opportunity to experience a leadership master at work. We wish you continued success and good health!