Leading by ServingQ&A with Abid Kazmi, FSA, CERA, FCIA, senior director, Investments Strategy, at RBC Insurance April 2021
At age 12, Abid Kazmi, FSA, CERA, FCIA, found himself back in his birth country, overwhelmed by culture shock. Abid’s parents, who are both Pakistani and immigrated to Canada in the 1970s, decided to take jobs in Saudi Arabia when Abid was six months old. In Saudi Arabia, employment, salary and social circle are all dictated by the color of your passport. That is to say, Canadians make better money and have considerably higher social status than those with Pakistani passports. While living there, Abid attended international schools and studied with the children of other ex-pats.
When Abid’s family moved back to Ottawa, Canada, in 1993, Abid was about to start seventh grade. Language was not a barrier for him, as English was spoken both at school and at home in Saudi Arabia, but he found himself caught between two sets of expectations. While Abid himself didn’t feel any different from the local Canadian kids, he noted many other visible minorities were attending English as a Second Language (ESL) classes and were not socially integrated with the Canadian children during recess. His teachers and classmates also assumed he’d prefer to interact with other minorities. It was confusion all around.
“I had to become a chameleon,” Abid notes as he reflects on that time. “That’s when I started developing the ability to blend into different social circles, which turned out to be an important life skill.”
Today, Abid is the senior director of a highly respected Canadian bank. He leads the diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) effort at RBC Insurance while also volunteering at two nonprofit organizations. In this interview, he shares his experience.
What inspired you to join the RBC’s Diversity & Inclusion (D&I) Council?
I have a unique background, having lived overseas until age 12 and then completing all of my “adult education” (high school and beyond) in Canada. So, I find I can often connect with newcomers or recent immigrants as well as those who have lived in Canada or the United States their whole lives. As a visible minority, I can relate to the challenges faced by minority groups as well as the challenges of career progression in a large, established institution like RBC.
Within the D&I Council at the company, my specific focus is on building communities—meaning how can RBC help foster prosperity locally, especially within our target groups of visible minorities, LGBTQ, those with physical disabilities and indigenous peoples. As a company, we believe we’re only as healthy as the health of our community.
What are the two nonprofits you are involved with?
I am involved with Ascend, which partners with Canadian organizations to develop and advance Pan-Asian talent. I learn from people who are more advanced in their careers about how they accomplished their goals; and for those who are behind me in climbing the career ladder, I offer insights and learnings from my own experience. This is partially driven by my desire for personal development—I want to learn and work in new (to me) areas by applying skills I already have, learning new types of skills and working with different types of people.
The other nonprofit with which I’m involved, Acces, assists job seekers from diverse backgrounds who may be facing barriers to employment (namely newcomers) and helps integrate them into the Canadian job market. I feel close to Canadian newcomers because of what my parents went through, and many members of my extended family are going through something similar today. So, with the personal connection and my own experience, I think I can help newcomers navigate their career journeys in the North American workplace.
Giving back to our community is a family priority. In addition to being part of the D&I Council at RBC, I also lead charity efforts at work: I chair an annual bike ride that raises money for diabetes research, and I help organize other charitable events throughout the year. My wife, Fathima Hussain, is the president of the Toronto chapter of the Canadian Council of Muslim Women (CCMW), which is dedicated to the empowerment, equality and equity of vulnerable women in Canada.
Can you tell me about your mentoring experience?
I have two types of mentees: those I was connected with through family or friends, who often have finance or math backgrounds with little work experience; and those with whom I have been connected through work and volunteering, who come from a variety of disciplines with some work experience. The most recurring themes we discuss are around what they want to do or what types of companies they’d like to work for. Then we get into specific challenges they may have faced or are worried may be holding them back from career progression. Often, this is related to cultural differences in communication or expectations on manager/employee relationships.
Through my mentees, I get a completely different lens to view issues I had not otherwise considered. Good examples are the disproportionate impact of the pandemic on certain groups. Women who work from home are still expected to be caretakers, while men are not. (My wife is dead tired looking after our kids, 5 and 2. I’d like to say I help as much as I can, but multitasking between my home brain and work brain is so much more challenging than multitasking within the work brain!) Disruption to the work environment also has more adverse impacts on networks of minority groups, who may have weaker networks to begin with.
Another theme I’ve noticed is visible minorities and newcomers tend to anchor themselves on technical skills. We’ve been taught that the way to bridge socioeconomic gaps is through education or professional credentials. This is also not uncommon in the actuarial industry; we assume our technical ability will take the lead in our career path. This line of thinking can be detrimental, especially at more senior levels where communication, networking and strategic thinking become much more important. First- and second-generation immigrants already lack the generational wealth transfer, and I think we also miss the generational network transfer, compared to those who have lived here much longer. It’s our responsibility to build a stronger network for our kids.
You are on the Canadian Institute of Actuaries (CIA) Election committee. How does the committee ensure the CIA board is diverse and inclusive?
I’ve heard the Society of Actuaries (SOA) has done a lot of work on diverse representation on its board. At the CIA, our main focus is ensuring fair geographic (across Canada) distribution as well as by practice area. Recently, we made changes to allow ACIAs to run for board positions, which naturally creates a better age distribution. We have not formally introduced any diversity requirements on the CIA Board, but it is definitely a topic of discussion and a key focus of our President-Elect Jacqueline Friedland, FSA, FCAS, FCIA, MAAA.
I’m on three other committees for the CIA in addition to Election. What would be more useful for the CIA and SOA to think about is how to increase participation from minority groups in the actuarial space. This means not only looking at how to get fair representation on committees and boards, but how to ensure the actuarial population is fairly representative of the general population. For example, we know the Black population is underrepresented in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields, which is part of what led me to work with the International Association of Black Actuaries (IABA). Groupthink can be dangerous, and we’re seeing more often now that stronger diversity in decision-making can lead to better results.
How has working remotely impacted networking?
Ascend just held a virtual event titled “Networking From a Distance,” where we discussed how workplace disruptions like working from home due to COVID-19 have a disproportionate impact on minority populations and how to combat that. Even equalized for access, minorities have weaker networks, which are harder to maintain and build on when you cannot interact face to face. A study presented at the IABA annual conference revealed how manager changes have a greater negative impact on the career progression of Black employees than non-Black employees.
But there are silver linings, too. Because almost all conferences have gone virtual, we now have the opportunity to attend, or even speak at, many conferences at a fraction of the in-person cost and time commitment. Use this as an opportunity to learn and network with like-minded people, and then connect with them on LinkedIn to reinforce that relationship.
We also are better at thinking beyond geography now. There are fewer geographic barriers to finding and supporting talent. This is especially important as most visible minorities in Canada and the United States are concentrated in certain parts of each country.
You already have a senior role at RBC. To what do you credit your career progression?
My career progression has been driven by my relationship with my direct manager, meaning the more common ground and trust I can build with them, the better the results have been in my career. This, of course, means recognizing what you may—or may not—have in common and working to build on those common values without letting differences create barriers. Role models and mentors do not have to be only those along your projected career path; it helps to learn from a diverse group of people who have different working and communication styles, and who are from completely different industries.
It also is important to advocate for yourself. I have been lucky that my manager has been a champion and sponsor for me, but I understand that may not always be the case throughout one’s career. Within your firm, it’s important to demonstrate the value of your work to people outside of your immediate team—and you do that by getting involved in cross-functional initiatives.
External to your employer, it’s imperative to have a LinkedIn profile and build your network in the industry. You don’t need to be on LinkedIn daily, but you should try to go on once a week and “like” and/or comment on five updates. The act of “liking” costs you nothing, but it will be a nod to the other person. This is how relationships are built—not overnight, but through small, consistent gestures.
Between raising a young family, advancing your own career and various volunteering commitments, you have a full plate. How do you find balance?
It has been challenging, especially with the current work-from-home environment where boundaries between work and home life are blurred. A lot of the commitments I have all came about in the past two to three years, so I haven’t had a chance to review and reset priorities—but that is the plan! Over time, I plan to figure out those areas where I can offer the most value and find what is most useful to me. I am driven by career aspirations and wanting to grow my skill set and my network. My priorities will be impacted by which opportunities allow me to not only learn but grow as well.
How do you define success and fulfillment?
Pursuing a job or career that fulfills my core work values (autonomy, authority and variety of work) and also gives me financial freedom and time to pursue personal goals equals success for me. That’s not only spending time with family, friends and traveling, but also having the ability to give back to people who may be facing the same challenges as me or my family, such as newcomers to Canada or visible minorities navigating the corporate ladder.
What is your vision for the next five to 10 years?
I’d like to take on more responsibility, both at work and in the nonprofit space. I also am aspiring to serve on for-profit boards.
For those who show interest, potential and talent—especially those who may be underrepresented otherwise—I want to do my small part in helping them achieve leadership roles.
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