Kamel started in branch as a cashier 25 years ago, and has had an incredible journey – she’s now Head of Responsible Business Projects. She has championed the ethnic minority agenda within the Group for both colleagues and customers. As a result, she has been recognised externally with a number of key awards, including the Eastern Eye Woman of the Year award and was named as one of the top 10 diversity champions in the UK by Gordon Brown when he was Prime Minister.
In my Sikh culture there are clear expectations and values which define how people in our community and women specifically are expected to behave in terms of the way you dress, the way you speak or the way you come across as being assertive. For example, eye contact is difficult. In our culture it’s quite a thing if you’re seen as staring at someone – that’s classed as rude. Respecting your elders is another key value. You’re constantly brought up with the belief that if you work hard and you adhere to the rules, that your elders will look after your future. I certainly brought those ethics to the first part of my career with the Group and sometimes this created real tension.
My behaviours and body language at meetings where elders were present might convey that I didn’t have a strong view or was intimidated and this could make it difficult for me to be taken seriously. I was viewed as someone that was not assertive and I was deemed not to be showing the willingness to challenge or show leadership characteristics. People didn’t see that I was simply being respectful – I would challenge but in a very different way to what is seen in the corporate or western world.
What changed in me? It was recognising that whilst my colleagues were being promoted, there was no rationale in my head as to why I wasn’t progressing myself. I realised that it was up to me to step up and I needed to adapt my behaviours a bit. I would say that was the light bulb moment for me which helped me to understand myself and learn how to strike the right balance that still enabled me to be authentic.
Following this, I started getting promoted and when I made it into middle management, I realised there were many other colleagues who I could see were like me but at the beginning of their journey. I realised that perhaps I could help others to realise their potential. This meant leaders needed to increase their understanding, and individuals needed help to understand not to get frustrated or irritated when they’d been passed over for promotion. It could simply be that they (managers and leaders) didn’t understand them.
The Challenges I’ve Faced
Every night I was going home and having to behave in the way that my family expected me to, in terms of a role of daughter in law and all the responsibilities and chores that came with it. And every day the reality and the difference was in my face as soon as I stepped over the doorstep. At that point as a woman and as a mother, you just have to do what’s most important to you. And for me, both were equally important.
But how do you balance both? I have to say that it hasn’t been easy. At home it was a very sexist lifestyle – and still is in some ways – and yet you’re expected to be a leader amongst men when it comes to the corporate world. For me it was about being clear about my standards, for example not to cut my hair, to wear western clothing like a skirt and ensure that I don’t drink or smoke.
What I’ve learned
I would say it’s been a complete turnaround for me to be able to share my story in the way I’ve described. I’m happier, very comfortable in my own skin and in my own personal environment at home, and happy to be challenged by people who don’t understand my culture and the extended family system. I’m very comfortable sharing my personal background with colleagues because I hope it adds value and gives diversity and understanding to the whole Group.
Would I have imagined when I started as a cashier in a branch 35 years ago that I’d have the career and personal journey that I’ve described? Absolutely not and to be fair I ask myself that question every day and pinch myself thinking I’m going to get found out!
But I would say my key learning has been really knowing yourself. Be prepared to look in the mirror and understand what your strengths and development needs are and face into these. By being honest and accepting these will I believe help you to understand what you need to do to create a game plan on improving yourself. Also really understand what drives you– knowing what really drives you can then help you to develop your next five-year plan and help you get there.
Whatever I want to do, wherever I want to go in my career has to be in parallel with my personal life. For me you can’t divide one from the other. Whatever I’m planning for at work over the next five years has to be in harmony with what I’m planning for at home. You have to make tough decisions about what your priorities are and work out where you can make compromises to achieve the right balance. Right now for me my children are older and I’m able to work harder – it is that honesty with myself that has been important.