The finalists for WashingtonExec’s Pinnacle Awards were announced Oct. 8, and we’ll be highlighting some of them until the event takes place virtually Nov. 12.
Next is HR Executive of the Year (Small Company) finalist Mahreen Rashid, who’s executive vice president of people services at Excella. Here, she talks key achievements, future focus areas and overcoming career struggles.
What are you most proud of having been a part of in your current organization?
My time at Excella has been a rewarding journey. In many ways, my journey has paralleled with the growth of Excella. In recent years, Excella graduated from a small to mid-size business. With Excella’s growth and expansion, there have been numerous opportunities to create solutions aligned to a future vision of the workforce and workplace. I am proud to be part of this organizational transformation and an organization that constantly pushes itself to have best-in-class people-programs that enable exceptional careers and a highly engaged workforce.
I would have stopped there, however, 2020 has brought unique challenges with COVID and the renewed focus on racial injustice. I am even more proud now to be part of an organization that is working hard to provide our employees with stability and a clear path forward, while also investing the time and energy in continuing the difficult conversations around racial injustice. Excella wants to improve not only the Excellian experience, but our impact on the community.
We are exploring new community partnerships focused on racial inequality and further investing in these partnerships with a focus on minority recruitment and advancing access to careers in tech. As a company that has long invested in inclusion, diversity and equity education and initiatives, this year showed clearly there is room to do more, and I am proud to be part of the solution.
What key achievements did you have in 2019/2020?
The last two years have involved a significant amount of change at Excella for our leadership model and employee programs. We saw a need to continue to develop and mature our people programs to align to the growth of the business. We wanted to focus on retaining our top performers, creating opportunities for future leaders and ensuring all employees could envision their long-term career trajectory with Excella.
In 2019 alone, we moved from a partnership model to a C-Suite executive model, created a new VP level, redesigned our performance management system to be more agile, refreshed career paths for all leadership roles and established a robust workforce planning program that ensures data driven decisions are at the center of workforce-related efforts.
As we enter the end of 2020, we are continuing to refresh and revise career paths, rolled out a new employee engagement and performance management tool and established a new committee to support our increased focus on ID&E.
What are your primary focuses going forward, and why are those so important to the future of the nation?
Our clients have grown to expect that we are bringing a strong team of technologists to every engagement. Therefore, recruiting has always been an area of significant investment and pride for us. We continue to focus on this area with renewed efforts to ensure we have a diverse applicant pool, from our intern programs to our leadership positions.
As we watch the trends of 2020, we know women have been exiting the workforce at an alarming rate due to the significant pressures of households. We also know that communities of color have been hit hard, from higher infection and morbidity rates, to higher unemployment levels. Although employment opportunities for technologists have generally remained high, we know that entry-level employees may have less of a safety net.
All of these factors and more may affect our applicant pool. We are working to identify potential barriers that we haven’t seen before, create channels to screen and support candidates in ways that create more equity and limit potential reductions in diversity within our applicant pool. In addition, we are standing up a program that partners with Historically Black Colleges and Universities to help bridge the gap between “graduate” and “effective employee.”
This is not only good for Excella, as we strongly believe diversity is essential to provide the most innovative solutions to our clients, but it is also good for the nation as a whole. We all have a role to play in creating equity through opportunity.
As we tackle this issue, our parallel goal will be to ensure we maintain a workforce culture that retains employees from all backgrounds with the same level of engagement. Our goal is to be a leader among technology companies, not only in recruiting, but also in retaining a highly diverse and inclusive workforce.
What was your biggest career struggle and how did you overcome it?
My biggest career struggle was finding my voice as a leader. I had confidence in my experience, expertise and value in each position that I’ve held. I have a natural tendency to be thoughtful and deliberate in my communications, which can be misconstrued as quiet or timid. In my efforts to speak up more often and demonstrate more leadership presence, I also had to navigate the challenges of being a women of color in predominately white leadership spaces.
This required me to spend time working on techniques and practices that allowed me to remain authentic to my leadership style, while increasing my presence and impact. I have worked on this through leadership assessments and executive coaching.
I have also surrounded myself with trusted colleagues and advisers to provide real, honest and valuable feedback for my continuous improvement. Now, in my current position, I have built strong relationships with all executive team members and we are committed to each other’s continued development with open and honest feedback. Being in a supportive and collegial environment is one of the best ways to overcome our areas of development.
What’s your best career advice for those who want to follow in your footsteps?
I think the best advice I would give anyone interested in following a similar career path would be to trust your instincts, stay authentic and find mentors that will give it to you straight. There is no “right” path.
You will learn things from each of your positions, and you will have new experiences and lessons learned from each new organization. Make the most of each of these experiences by surrounding yourself with people you don’t only get feedback from, but whom you can listen to and really take the feedback you need — even when you don’t want to hear it.
Finally, staying authentic doesn’t mean that you don’t change. It means as you grow, you change in ways that still align to your core values and your vision for yourself.