July 4th 2019 was a really important milestone in my life and no, it didn’t have anything to do with American Independence Day. It was the day I officially became Co-Chair of the Muslim Network at my workplace.

It’s been two years and every time I think back to the day, I’m still shocked that I won. I’m even more shocked that I applied for it.

I had no intention of applying for the role. My colleague suggested I apply with her and I don’t know what came over me, I just did it. I remember thinking that the network could benefit from my organisation skills (I’m probably too organised for my own good!) but I had no idea that I would win.

Now, in hindsight, I know that this and everything over the last two years came from God. That’s the only way for me to explain how unforeseen everything was. I realise now, life was changing and pushing me to become the person I am today. It’s the lessons I have learned from the network that 17 months later, I was able to relaunch Speaker.

I’m a completely different person than I was two years ago; something my colleagues, friends and family have also noticed. Being in positions that made me uncomfortable taught me a lot about myself, teamwork and leadership.

I’ve been reflecting a lot over the last few weeks and want to share my lessons from the last two years, as it’s something everyone can benefit from.

1. I’m not perfect
One of the things that hit me hard and fast after being elected was that representing a large group was a huge responsibility. People were relying on me to be their voice and there was a lot of pressure to get it right. Over time, I realised that I didn’t actually need to be perfect. I definitely made mistakes along the way and there are things I would do differently now.

I also realised that no amount of training or planning could prepare me for this role. The only thing that would is actually doing the role. I was learning something new every five minutes that I could never plan for in advance. I used to think I had to master everything and know everything before I could do it but there is nothing wrong with learning on the job; this is something that helped me to launch Speaker. I didn’t need to know everything. I just needed to keep an open mind, continue learning and accept when things didn’t go to plan.

2. Trust yourself
In a role like this, there are a lot of different opinions and it’s easy to get overwhelmed. When I first started the role, I felt I was changing my mind often because I was trying to make everyone happy by choosing what others thought would be best. The hard truth is though, no matter how much you think you can, you can’t please everyone. YOU have to make a decision and trust that it’s the right one.

This doesn’t mean I was doing whatever I wanted. I listened to everyone’s points of view and collated information but trusted myself enough to make the best decision. I found that looking to others made me indecisive, which was making me stressed and a poor leader. To help with my indecisiveness, I looked at what was the best interest of the group and always brought it back to our collective aim.

3. Always listen to the other point of view – even if you disagree with it
There were times in this process that I just could not understand the other point of view. This was the most challenging part of the role but also the one that developed my emotional intelligence. No two people are the same. People have different opinions and listening to them all helps make a well-rounded decision. I had to remind myself that I am representing a large group. So even if you disagree with an opinion, you owe it to the other person to understand their argument and be fair.

 4. Self-awareness is key
The more I checked myself, the easier it became. It’s so important to know what triggers you and what you feel passionately about. Knowing my strengths and, more importantly, my weaknesses, allowed me to identify where I needed help and be a fair leader.

5. No man is an island
I’m a highly independent person and my core role means I tend to do most of my work alone. Before this process, if you told me to run the network alone, I would’ve said I could do it all by myself with no help. But I couldn’t have been more wrong! Having a group of trusted people around me and building relationships was one of the biggest blessings. There were times when I didn’t have the capacity to do a task or I was busy with the workload of my core job, and colleagues would offer help and support. There is no way the network would be a success without the amazing people around me, who were always willing to help and give me honest feedback.

6. Get comfortable with the uncomfortable
One of the reasons why I could never imagine myself in a role like this was because I hate public speaking. I know there are very few people who actually enjoy it but I detest it. The 20 minutes before I have to speak publicly, I feel nauseous and dizzy. My heart beats so fast. My jaw is locked shut and I’m visibly shaking. My mind goes blank. I feel like I can’t breathe.

When I was elected, I realised I owed it to the members who chose me to be able to public speak. I went on a course organised by my workplace and in one of the exercises, we had to watch a video of ourselves public speaking. Once I started speaking, I realised that I’m not as bad as I imagined which made it easier after that. I even received feedback that I was good at it! It’s probably not what everyone wants to hear but the best way to master public speaking really is to practice. I still feel nervous every time I have to do it but it’s now at least bearable.

 In order to grow, you have to push yourself towards the actions that make you uncomfortable. For me it was public speaking but for others it may be voicing their opinion in front of large crowds or speaking to senior staff. Roles like this make it a great way to discover what scares you but it also gives you the opportunity to work on them.

 7. The ‘quietest’ people usually have the best suggestions
I’ve always found that the world is unkind to quiet and shy people. They can be labelled as boring or unintelligent. It’s unfair and it’s something I really dislike. Speaking up in front of large groups isn’t for everyone and some may argue that it’s harder to do virtually; you can’t read colleagues’ body language and it can be hard not to accidently interrupt someone. It’s important to encourage ‘shy’ people to speak up.

One of the ways I did this was by sending out anonymous surveys. I also make it a rule in meetings to ask members to ‘raise their hand’ on MS teams or write comments in the chat box. I encourage people to ask questions anonymously by asking them to message me separately. I have found that the best comments and suggestions come from those who you think have no opinion. Those who you label as ‘unimportant’have the best skills to offer – lack of confidence does not equal stupidity.
And to those of you who are labelled as the quiet and the shy – use your voice; no matter how small you think your suggestion is, or how stupid or insignificant you think your idea might be. Your perspective, your ideas, your way of thinking might be just the thing someone needs to hear. I’ve always found it takes one person to speak up before you realise the whole room is thinking the same thing.

 8. Engagement is the hardest thing
Trying to get people involved was the hardest aspect of the role. I still don’t have the answer to this. Trial-and-error really is the only thing that worked. Instead of asking the whole group to get involved, I would speak to individual people and found members were more likely to get involved this way. Also, I recognised that not everyone has the same interests and I often experimented with work strands. Over the two years, we held different workshops on the pillars of Islam and called speakers to talk about topics, from Islamic wills to mental health in Islam.
I also advise that in the process of trying to get people involved and achieving your goals, don’t do everything by yourself. Don’t take on too much or you will burn yourself out and resent the work that you do.

9. Involve others
We collaborated with other internal networks, sought advice from external Muslim networks and invited them to share their wisdom in network meetings with us. We asked internal colleagues to speak on issues such as pensions and mentoring within the workplace to see how we could collaborate. We had regular conversations with HR and our Equality, Diversity and Inclusion Team. We asked our Senior Management Team to take part in our Ramadan Fasting Challenge. If you want others to understand why your network is important, don’t just tell them, show them and get them involved 

10. No one will understand you
“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.” –
Theodore Roosevelt, the Man in the Arena. Delivered at the Sorbonne (Paris) on April 23rd, 1910.

I came across the above quote after watching a Brene Brown talk. I was lucky because there were two Chairs who did the role with me, so I didn’t feel alone. The truth is most will think they can do your role better than you. People will question your decisions. They may even get frustrated with you. It’s only the person in the arena that will truly understand.

There’s a lot of work that happens in the background that members don’t see. You won’t be thanked for the work you do. At times you’ll get negative feedback and your methods will be questioned, which will make you wonder why you do anything at all. There will be rough days but the days that you do something to help members, or you achieve something that you’ve been planning for months, will make it all worth it. It is one of the hardest parts of the role but it’s also made me empathetic towards others in leadership positions.

In a previous article, I mentioned how so many reached out to me, telling me how they wish they had a network at their workplace. It has been amazing to combine work, somewhere that I spend a lot of time, with my faith and I know I’m really blessed to be able to do it.

During my time as Co-Chair, I’ve seen the world change in the pandemic but my work for the network is one of the things that has remained consistent for me. I’m sad my time is over. I had the opportunity to re-apply for Co-Chair but I decided against it. However, I will still be involved in the day-to-day running and my passion for the role has led me to change job roles, where I’m working on similar work strands.

Do I wish I did anything differently? Pre-pandemic I would have had a list of things ready. But the pandemic has taught me to be easier on myself. I realise if God wanted any part of this journey to happen another way, it would have. The decisions I made turned into lessons and have made me the person I am today. God tailored the trials behind those lessons for ME.