A conversation with a pioneer helping companies expand their inclusive management practices
The workplace should provide a culture that’s accessible and transparent to its employees of all identities, but that reality isn’t always guaranteed. What happens when you’re faced with a workplace culture that lacks clarity and inclusion in its management and policies? Consultant Attia Qureshi handles these cases, providing trainings, leadership coaching, strategy planning, and speaking engagements to companies. Sheville sat down with her to learn a bit more about what motivates her and how she innovates in her nebulous field to bring about positive change.
What inspired you to do the work you do?
“When I came across this work, one of the things that was really compelling to me was how much of a positive impact it can make on individual people and an organization’s entire culture. I thought it was smart to focus on individuals and make sure they learned techniques and methods that really worked for them and showed them why they and the organization would be better off through more principled techniques. In this case, principled means finding a way to communicate more effectively and problem-solve together. It’s a holistic, positive way of bringing people together, and it makes a difference when people apply it.”
Tell us more about your career before you got here. What were some of the biggest challenges you faced and what were the biggest catalysts?
“I initially started my career in management consulting and then I worked for a couple of start-ups. I also started my own company. Working in entrepreneurship showed me that the challenges of not having a good culture or clear, transparent communication can totally destroy an organization. It was a challenge with the companies I worked with, and I also saw that play out in my own organization. The catalyst was when I started using these techniques in my own company and started seeing how impactful and effective they were and realizing I could help organizations do the same thing. What I’ve now learned is that no one starts off as a great manager, and we don’t train people on how to be good managers. We don’t take that seriously enough in our organizational culture right now in terms of giving people the tools they need to effectively lead people. Another catalyst for me was realizing what those tools are, using them myself and starting to help other people. It started organically for me, and I realized I loved the work and should do it as my career.”
What resources have you found that help you succeed?
“The first thing would be having a group of other entrepreneurial women who work in the consulting space. Having that support system is huge because these people are going through similar challenges and have similar questions. I would also strongly recommend having a mentor. At MIT, John Richardson brought me into this work and has been my guide, mentor and coach since 2016. I wouldn’t be here without him. Having someone who understands what the path is and helps and encourages you along that path, even when you fall down, is huge.”
Who are some of your role models?
“My mentor, John Richardson, is a lecturer at MIT, and he also helped develop the Harvard Negotiation Project to set the framework for a lot of the work we do now. Sheila Heen has been a huge role model for me. She epitomizes a strong, successful, ambitious woman who has a family, great relationships and has balance in her life. She’s written two successful books, lectures at Harvard and runs her own consulting company. She shows me that you can do it all as a woman–you can have a family, have a social life, and have an amazingly successful company and earn good money without having to sacrifice a part of yourself to do it.”
What’s the most important thing you’ve learned? Has it translated to or affected other aspects of your life?
“The most important thing I’ve learned is it’s all about the people you meet, the impact you make, and the reputation you have. What is your reputation? Do you build strong relationships? We can be good at our jobs and be data-driven, but at the end of the day, it’s about the impact you make on people and the reputation you leave behind. It’s not just about being the smartest–it’s about being a good person and having values and principles that you live by.”
What’s the best advice you’ve ever been given?
“The best advice I’ve been given was at the first start-up I worked at in San Francisco. There was a guy who worked in a different department, and he told me this piece of advice when I was really stressed out. He said, ‘Whenever you’re stressed and not sure if you can handle something, look back at everything you’ve faced so far, and let that give you the confidence that you need to be able to know that you can handle whatever comes.’ You are strong enough because you’ve done it before and you can do it again.”
What advice would you give other women looking to follow in your footsteps to create a more inclusive culture either in their workplace or in other aspects of their lives?
“Find a mentor who can guide you and help you navigate this space. No one knows how to become a consultant in this space. It’s not written out anywhere and there are no courses on it, so having a mentor who shows you what it might look like is really important. At the end of the day, it takes time, so it’s also important to be generous, patient and have grace for yourself. One of the things I still have to work on is that I’m so hard on myself and put so much pressure on myself. We as women tend to do that, so I would encourage everyone to be kinder to themselves.”
Where can those inspired by your story connect with you?
“You can learn more about me from my website. There is an email address and a contact form, so you can learn more about me there and reach out!”
Attia embodies a strong woman breaking barriers and pioneering in her field, and her work is truly inspirational. Amplifying all voices is important in every community and relationship, including in the professional world and beyond, and Attia strives to spread this message.
She concludes, “It’s hard work, but it’s really important work. There are a lot of opportunities to become more inclusive in the way we act. That goes all the way down the pipeline, but it starts with the individual. How are we being inclusive with every interaction we have, and how can we broaden that to create more inclusive frameworks and foundations for this type of work? It seems overwhelming, but breaking it down on an individual level is something we can work towards in a lot of different ways.”