Zia Zaman: How a World-Class Speaker brings Storytelling, Experimentation & Empathy into Business

Written by Alicia Sim

On September 22, 2020
Any businessperson understands the value of selling and the art of storytelling. They are indispensable and inevitable, yet only a few have truly honed this skill. Read on as Zia Zaman, a World-Renowned Innovation Speaker from Beaver Lake Capital, shares his experience on how he uses stories to connect with customers, drive innovation and inspire change.

In this interview, Zia reflects and illustrates how a great leader:

  1. Has a high tolerance for failure, constantly experimenting with ways to improve.
  2. Uses storytelling to attract and engage audiences. 
  3. Is a life-long learner, exposes him/herself to new knowledge. 
  4. Leads with empathy, considering other’s perspectives as much as him/herself.
  5. Strives to live in the moment.

How important are storytelling skills to you as a leader? How have you applied it in your work?

Storytelling is a fascinating leadership tool. It is essential to selling. We are always selling as executives. We are selling our vision. We are selling our solutions. We are selling when we are recruiting. And we are selling when we are seeking capital or an affirmative decision.

Understanding how to sell, how to pitch, how to connect with people is essential. The process of telling a narrative to explain the vision or the future and then working backwards to say how we are going to get there is a technique I have often used.

An example of this future-back planning occurred with a sovereign wealth fund who asked me to help them work on visioning. I asked its board and its leadership group to roll the clock forward three years and describe how they want to have impacted their countrymen. This forced them to take a broader, wider aperture view on what they wanted to achieve, and then we looked at vectors we could implement today to start on that journey.

Outside of business, I like to write. Memoirs are an amazing way to bring people through your journey to empathize with you and to inspire followership.

What would you say has been the greatest lesson so far as a leader in your work?

The greatest lesson I’ve learned or been given as a leader, I suppose is the idea that you have to test and learn. Iteration is the key. Don’t be afraid of failure, find ways to de-risk the future. Apply methodologies and new mindsets to change the way we work and to embrace change through a more iterative philosophy – early and frequent interaction, testing and delivery.

When one fails early to learn fast and iterate in order to shrink future risk exponentially.  I sometimes refer to this incremental philosophy by referencing a maths heuristic called “the greedy algorithm”.

Someday I should write a book about all its applications in life.

What would you say was your greatest difficulty/sacrifice faced as a leader so far? How did you overcome it?

The greatest difficulty I’ve faced as a leader so far is creating work-life balance. I have constantly tried to balance the unending needs of work and travel and innovating for the customer with the very personal needs to stay well, fit, and to take care of my family.

In particular, I have a son who has required additional attention from me at multiple points in my career and I have found it difficult to juggle everything. One solution is to stop juggling. I am able to authentically share the challenges I face as the father of a special needs kid and allow people to get to know the whole me as a leader.

It has brought me into a more prominent role chairing Diversity & Inclusion for my company and it has forced me to take a step back three times in my career. While these sacrifices may have seemed like trade-offs at the time, I know that my career and my leadership abilities have only benefited from these decisions to take a step back and focus on the more important things.

Moreover, being a man supporting his wife’s decision to pursue her career should not seem exemplary or unusual and I am happy to role model this gender-neutral behaviour.

In your opinion, what makes a great leader?

Leadership is about followership. Leadership is more than management as it relates to how you relate to strategic uncertainty. And for me, great leaders are constantly learning, evolving, iterating, failing, and developing new skills.

To lead, one has to instil a sense of purpose, meaning and a vision around how collectively a team can move forward. This way we can draw in people who subscribe to this vision, this purpose, this individual’s style, vision, and magnetism – and creates something greater than the sum of the parts.

Strategic uncertainty is the difference between management and leadership. A good manager operates under known circumstances and follows standard operating procedures well and excels when benchmarked against widely accepted best practices.

A good manager manages teams to deliver results effectively in situations with low uncertainty and where strategic decisions/pivots are not present. A great leader does all the above and can manage through a pivot by motivating and guiding his/her teams through change, by dealing with uncertainty through testing and learning, and who leads by example through a crisis, an opportunity, or an unexpected event.

This requires the leader to identify “Pull the Goalie”-type risks, where one is under pressure to perform a turnaround. This means making unpopular risky decisions that require courage.

Leaders evolve. Good managers hone their existing skills. Leaders are constantly challenging themselves to try new things, are hyper curious, work out loud, are social and authentic – which shows vulnerability, change, and a tolerance for failure.

What is the best piece of advice you have ever received?

The best piece of advice I have ever received is not really business advice at all.

In fact, it counters some of the work I do as a futurist or strategist. It is to Live in the Moment. If we breathe, and we are alert and present right now, we can find peace and be our full selves and be successful.

I use this technique sometimes before speaking in front of very large crowds. I remind myself to breathe, to enjoy the moment, to speak slowly, and finally to have fun.

If you had to offer a piece of advice to someone just starting out or who aspires to lead a team/organisation. What advice would you give?

One of my favourite pieces of advice for a first-time manager or aspiring leader is empathy.

Try to understand the world from others’ point of view. Think about how your employees see the world. Take the business partner’s point of view from their side of the negotiating table to look for a win-win.

Finally, truly put yourself in the shoes of your customers to understand what they really need in their lives and then obsessively focus your efforts and your team’s efforts to solve their problems. Do that and you will be wildly fulfilled.

What have you started trying this year that has been working well for you as a leader?

Meditation has been working for me. I just started committing to my practice this year. Perhaps, it’s changed me for the better as a leader because I am more present and more attentive to my team members? The simplest aspect of the technique, which I have used, is the ability to declutter.

For example, before judging at a startup panel, a simple meditation can increase your focus or link you to your purpose, before you start something that would reflexively be evaluative.

Share with us something you learned recently that changed how you intend to run your team/business.

I suppose the full recognition of our collective human impact on the planet Earth has made an indelible mark on me, my choices, and how I and my teams need to keep this in mind in everything that we do.

Successful companies will embrace change and suggest solutions that are confluent with the key principles of equality, the environment, inclusion, and sustainability.

What is one book you would recommend that every new leader or storyteller be reading?

Creativity, Inc is a few years old but still so relevant for innovators. It’s the story behind Pixar.

Now, more on Zia’s backstory:

What’s your story?

I have spent 27 years, across three continents as a corporate executive leading growth, strategy, and most recently as a chief innovation officer. I was lucky enough to be able to speak across the world at WEF Davos, IIF, Global Summit for Women, Milken, InsurTech Connect, RISE, InsurTech Rising, Digital Hollywood, Consumer Electronics Show, and UN Women. Much of my inspiration for new thinking sprouted on the two campuses where he studied, Stanford and MIT, and since then I have written about probability, traveling salesmen, small towns in Asia, parenting special needs children, The Price Is Right, innovation, and hockey.

How did you get into your current line of work/ why did you decide to do it?

After spending 22 years in the software industry, I decided to pivot and take on a role in an insurance company, to build an innovation lab. Out of my ambition to do something that no one has done before, I founded LumenLab and it has been a wonderful award-winning success story for six years. Now, in late-2020, it’s time to reframe. I expect to be working on ESG, potentially helping grow companies’ impact, especially around preventative health and inclusion.

How can people connect with you?

@zzaman – Twitter

Article Written By: Alicia Sim

Alicia is a content writer at HighSpark covering leadership interviews and self-help content. A self-professed homebody and neat person, she loves getting into a deep work mode. When she's not writing, she enjoys reading the works of other journalists and bingeing on riveting films on Netflix.

Written by:
Alicia Sim

Alicia is a content writer at HighSpark covering leadership interviews and self-help content. A self-professed homebody and neat person, she loves getting into a deep work mode. When she's not writing, she enjoys reading the works of other journalists and bingeing on riveting films on Netflix.

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