In my interview series with leaders making an impact, I had the opportunity to interview Rani Mani. She is the Head of Global Employee Advocacy at Adobe. Rani is passionate about cultivating and nurturing communities and coaching others to do the same. 

She is currently working across Adobe teams to drive understanding, excitement, and advocacy among the global workforce in order to enable and empower all employees to be the company’s biggest brand ambassadors. Nicknamed the “Velvet Hammer,” Rani’s mantra is to make the impossible seem possible through her humor, grace, and passion. When she’s not asking provocative questions and making declarative statements at work, Rani is making magical memories with her husband and four kids as they continue to visit the many wonders of the world.

Who is one person you’d like to thank for being a positive influence on who you are today?

Well it’s incredible, I was blessed to work with Mother Teresa.

When I was nine years old, I went on a trip to India with a nonprofit organization called “The Partnership and Service Learning” and there was about 10 of us stationed with Mother Teresa’s Missionary of Charity. I was under the impression that we were there to do PR and fundraising and much to my surprise we got there and there was Mother herself.

She specifically handed me a rag and said, “see this line of people, go help them die with dignity.” I have to tell you my heart was coming out of my chest, I didn’t know what dignity meant and it has forever changed who I am. Ultimately, nothing else really matters. Her whole point to me was that everybody has a story to tell and your mission is to validate their existence.

It was supposed to be a month endeavor and I stayed there for a year. I was convinced I was going to take over for her, but she absolutely convinced me to go back. She advised us to make as much money as you possibly can because your head and your heart isn’t mutually inclusive. She did not want me to go down the path she did where she felt like she went all heart. She said that when you’ve got money you can make far more impact.

I love your nickname of “The Velvet Hammer.” Could you share a little bit about your how you approach to the power of positivity?

I’ve just had the most magical childhood. I grew with Indian parents who were so uplifting. I was born with cerebral palsy and when they found in fetus that I was going to be disabled; they were under tremendous pressure to abort me. There was this notion that if you were born with a disability that somehow you had sinned in a past life and that you would not be a contributing member of society. Luckily my parents were able to escape all that scrutiny. My mother came on a full ride scholarship to nursing in the US and we were able to create a life for ourselves. We have tremendous allegiance and love for India but just happened to be the thinking mindset at the time.

But all through my childhood it was instilled in me that you can be and do absolutely anything you put your mind to. I’m living proof of that. When I left the perfection of that childhood, the brainwashing began. I had a very well-intentioned cabinet of advisers telling me what they believe I should and shouldn’t do. “If you want to do education why don’t you do it as an online thing just so you don’t have to physically burden yourself with all the walking and campuses.” “If you want to volunteer why don’t you just give some money as opposed to go and volunteer with Mother Teresa?”

My whole life has been a series of experiences. If you open yourself up to positivity and possibility that’s what manifests and if you don’t the very opposite is available to; you get to choose.

How have been able to help people with some things without feeling obligated to help everyone with everything?

Whether it’s in my personal life or work I tried to be focused on the few things I believe will move the dial the furthest and the fastest. Things where I feel like I’m uniquely in a position to make a difference that makes my heart sing, like this influencer work and mobilizing employees. So, those things that I lean into heart and heavy versus when I see there’s a whole community of people working on other things. I just let somebody else go shine.

I’ve disciplined myself to figure out those things that I’m really put on earth to do and just make sure I do those and do them really well because whatever I do, I want to be world-class. I don’t accept this middle ground. I think the way to do that is to really go deep on a few things.

In this society we’re trained to be all things to all people, and we feel we’re missing out if we decline invitations. It just takes being secure in your own skin to say “no” and let somebody else take that stage.

You use this phrase “a year from now you wish you started today.” Can you tell me a little bit more about what that is?

I’m such a believer that fear is “growth clothes in wolf’s clothing.” I’m convinced whenever I procrastinate or am fearful to start something that is more than like exactly what I need to be doing. So, I always think what it is I am going to wish I completed, and I try to work backwards. So, if at the end of the year I want to make sure all 22,000 employees at Adobe are feeling exceptionally mobilized, I think about what I need to do today to make that happen. So, making sure everything I’m doing is in service of that, or at least 80%.

Is there a strategy you use to find the people that you can rely on the most to be influential within Adobe?

We need to tap into everyone. We can’t afford to have an elite few, but to your point some are very naturally akin to this kind of evangelism and advocacy. They naturally rise through the ranks. We’ve put out programming that they latch onto that like fish to water and you want to be able to acknowledge that, cultivate that, and ask them to be champions and liaisons for you.

I also relinquish a lot of authority and power to these folks and I equip them to be extensions of my team. They’re given an autonomy and an opportunity to shape where we’re going because a lot of times if people can see their fingerprints on a road map, they’re far more invested and they will be biggest supporters. I think just that psychology of tapping into what people naturally want to do and help them shine and get there is the way to go.

How can we be better collaborators in our diverse workforces?

The diversity of background and of thought are not just a good way of being human; companies actually perform better and put a better product. You do better work when you draw on a lot of diverse backgrounds and experiences and thoughts. There’s research after research that says, homogenous teams versus diverse teams and how diverse teams out-perform. It’s hundreds and thousands of percentages higher. Why fight that, it’s just a known thing.