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Authentic Leadership: Technology, Data and Being Human

12/8/2022

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At a recent cybersecurity conference, Salumeh Companieh was one of only seven women in a room of more than 150 technology leaders. While some in that position might be proud of such a moment to stand out in the crowd, “Sal” isn’t one to long for the spotlight. She’s here for the job.  

As the newly appointed Chief Digital & Information Officer for Cushman & Wakefield, there’s no question that the job is a big one—but she’s been preparing for it since she was the only girl playing quarterback in the backyard football games orchestrated by her older brother and cousins.  

“Between my dad, brother, cousins—and now my husband and two young sons—I’ve always been surrounded by male supporters,” she said. “When I was growing up, I never heard the mantra that ‘girls can’t do this or can’t do that.’ There was never a delineation in talent capability.”  

It’s a message that Sal took to heart—and one that has become a clear trademark characteristic of her leadership style. Though Sal didn’t always envision herself in the C-suite role she holds today, she possesses a deep understanding for and appreciation about why she’s here. She’ll also be the first to tell you how much she benefitted from mentors along her career path and why she’s committed to guiding and helping others grow their career trajectories—especially women and minorities in technology.  

“It has taken a long time for me to demystify taking a seat like this,” she said. “As a female in technology—and a minority female in tech—it’s easy to create this aura around the role that seems completely unattainable and so much bigger than it really is. The role I am in now is a phenomenal opportunity, and one that I’m eager to make an impact in. But I want others to see that they may not be as far away from an opportunity like this as they may have built up in their minds.”  

Sal sees her role now with a threefold purpose to drive an impact broader than the job: to lead by example by showing up as her authentic self; to create and build value for the company and for clients; and to uplift historically underrepresented groups and create space for them in technology roles.  

"I want to help others understand that what I'm doing is not that much different from what they're doing—it's just that the scale and perspective is different."  

Sal sat down with The Edge to tell us more.  

You often say that you did not “grow up in technology,” but here you are, holding the top technology seat for a Fortune 500 company. Tell us about that.  

I went to school for industrial distribution management, so I studied supply chain and logistics strategy, and started my career in strategic consulting across multiple industries. Somewhere along the way, I ended up applying my distribution skills to tech—and I discovered that the intersection of technology, data and process is all a language of its own, and I have a real passion for aligning them and weaving them together. That’s where real transformation happens, and it’s a key to growth for a lot of organizations.  

You sound really excited about this role. We can see it in your eyes.  

I am. We have such a great opportunity right now to optimize the experience of our colleagues and our clients. We just completed restructuring our technology organization and hired our first Chief Data Officer. We have world-class real estate services paired with world-class technology and world-class technology talent—all laser focused on delivering value for our clients by unlocking the value of our data.  

It seems like the technology is just one component of a much bigger vision you have. Is that true? Yes, because technology cannot be a siloed agenda. The technology and data alone will not drive real and meaningful transformation. They must be aligned to our business values and goals—and that takes an acute understanding of every function of our organization and every service offering so that we can create a holistic, end-to-end experience within our internal operations and in our service delivery for clients. That’s how we make an impact on our employees and how we consistently show up better for our clients. 

That seems daunting in an organization with more than 50,000 employees worldwide.

It’s a challenging role, yes—we’re delivering a diversified set of capabilities to our diverse clients, many of which have unique technology and connectivity challenges. But the challenges are exactly what makes the role interesting. We are transforming the company and an entire industry from the inside out, connecting the technology with the people who use it. That’s how technology makes an impact.  

Can you share some examples?  

Yes! It really starts with fundamentally changing the way we work as an organization. We’re leading with a theme of “showing up together” with a threefold strategy. First, we’re continually investing in building out the architecture of how we collect and curate our data—and how we utilize it to drive insights for both our colleagues and our clients. Second, we’re strategically integrating our cloud- and mobile-first infrastructure with partnerships and investments in innovative tech. We’re intersecting a curated, customized digital experience with a physical experience, which adds real value for our organization and for our clients.  

Can we stop you right there for a second so you can tell us more about that—combining a digital experience with a physical experience?  

Post-pandemic, a lot of clients are seeking to explore what the future of the office is going to be. Cushman & Wakefield has the largest survey data set in the world in this arena with our Experience per SF™ (XSF) survey. This data, coupled with our property and facility asset data allows us to have a rich dialogue with our clients on how best to optimize their portfolio. One of the overarching themes from the XSF survey is that people want flexibility and choice when it comes to choosing a physical or virtual space to work. It needs to support their personal circumstances, and the functionality and experience of that physical or virtual space is critical. So, we use ubiquitous digital interfaces that help our clients and employees have seamless, compelling experiences, whether they are in a corporate office or working from home.  

Is there even space and time for a third strategy?  

Definitely, and it’s a big, critical strategy. The third component is fortifying our Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) commitments by reducing our carbon footprint and making our Diversity, Equity & Inclusion (DEI) goals an integral part of who we are as an organization. We’re giving our employees the support, the tools and access to learning, all of which creates a more inclusive workplace where people feel a sense of belonging.  

How important do you think that is today—to have a sense of belonging at work? And have you always felt that?  

The ability to drive a sense of belonging at work is no longer a “nice to have.” It’s the most important sentiment you can drive as a leader, especially in this competitive talent landscape. I was born in Iran during the war, and we moved to the U.S. when I was eight years old. When you’re accustomed to looking at life through the lens of an immigrant, your sense of belonging is tested on a regular basis. As a female in tech, the sense of belonging can always feel tested. But if the past two years taught us anything about work, it’s that it’s critical to have a sense of belonging—at home and at work. Before the pandemic, we had our work persona and our personal personas—and those personas have melded quite a bit over the past two years. I hope this level of concentration on bringing your whole, authentic self to work stays because it’s a critical component to feeling like you truly belong. The pandemic gave us the gift of conversations, connection points and transparent dialogue, all of which yielded meaning and authenticity vs. the rigidity that often comes with everyday work conversations.  

What’s your superpower?  

I love this question because I think we all have superpowers in some way. I would say mine is the ability to intentionally listen to connect the dots across an organization. My lived experiences afford me the ability to quickly pivot and see situations through the eyes of others. And my years of consulting helped me build the muscle of learning at pace. Combining that with my deep desire to bring human and business connections together results in my ability to be present, listen, educate, and connect with colleagues and clients.  

If you could send a note to yourself—say 20 years ago—when you were at the beginning of your career, what would it say?  

Surround yourself with a network of support—family, friends and colleagues who have core competencies you want to learn from and those that genuinely believe in you. Continue to push your North Star and your goals to the next level and always remember no individual or setback defines you. I’d also remind myself daily that I don’t need to apologize for being a committed parent and member of my broader community, and that balancing my commitments is my responsibility and no one else’s. Also, I’d tell myself to double down on what you know, lean into every chance to learn, and embrace every opportunity that allows you to show up and be authentic to who you are.  

Do you think you’ve followed that in life and in your career?  

I believe I have. It’s always a work in progress—life is a work in progress. We keep forgetting that we’re all human. But I think walking through life, really leaning into it, and knowing that you always have more to learn is a good way to live.  

Does that play a role in leadership too?  

Yes, I think it’s a good way to lead as well. It’s my intention to be a great tech leader, and that means being a constant learner. I believe that supporting others and creating space for them to excel are key fundamentals to great leadership. I’m learning daily, and I’m creating room for others to learn, make mistakes and grow in a space where they can be who they are, authentically. I see that as my duty.  

What is one piece of wisdom you hope to impart during your tenure in this role?

That we all matter. Every single one of us has knowledge or talent to add, a connection or a voice to be heard. When we hear someone say, “Someone should do something about that,” remember that you may be that someone. Raise your voice to speak, raise your hand to volunteer and roll up your sleeves. You can lean into the situation, learn something new and not allow it to be someone else’s problem to fix. Also, don’t allow yourself to get stuck, bound by the notion that your title equals your impact. Your impact can go far beyond organizational structure and job title. We are all here for a purpose, and we all have something to add. 

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