An advocate of inclusive prosperity through investing in people and ensuring everyone is able to realize their potential, Zabeen Hirji is a strategic advisor on the Future of Work, Leadership, Talent Management, and Diversity & Inclusion. With a ten year tenure as RBC’s Chief Human Resources Officer, Zabeen covered 80,000 employees in 40 countries. Today, she is Global Advisor, Future of Work, at Deloitte, advising the firm and its clients on the changing nature of work, an issue key to the transformation agendas of business and government. Zabeen is also an advisor to governments and academia, on diversity, inclusion, and preparing youth for the new world of work. She is Chair of CivicAction, co-chairs the External Advisory Board for diversity and inclusion for the Ontario Public Service, is on University of Toronto’s Governing Council, and is a Visiting Professor, Policy Institute, King’s College, London, UK.
My first job ever was… A part-time job at McDonald’s when I was 16. I developed some foundational skills like teamwork, communication, customer service and flexibility, which helped me get my first full time job at RBC. And as this was shortly after my family immigrated to Canada, it helped me build a sense of belonging, and integrate into society.
I chose my career path because… It was where my passion met impact. When I first joined RBC, I didn’t intend to stay my entire career. One reason I stayed was because it is a great place to learn. After moving into Human Resources in 1997, I discovered my sweet spot. RBC’s success depended on its people, but what made it deeply meaningful was the impact I could have on fellow RBCers — inspiring people to set high ambitions and enabling them to realize their potential.
My proudest accomplishment is… My son and daughter. They are curious, independent thinkers, and socially conscious, and have the courage to pursue their passion with a commitment to excellence. But let me be clear: just like their mum, they aren’t perfect!
My boldest move to date was… Over 25 years ago, moving to Toronto from Vancouver — a city I loved and was very comfortable in — for more long-term career opportunities at RBC. I should point out though, I’m not big on “ests.” That move was a big life change, many more followed, both big and small, and shaped my path.
“Learning is the new currency in the future of work.”
My best advice to people starting their career is… Build a portfolio of skills and experiences. And remember, this doesn’t just happen through changing jobs. We can grow in our roles, for example by taking on new responsibilities or getting involved in projects in other areas. Go outside your comfort zone, not just once in a while, but every day and become known as someone who can learn quickly. Learning is the new currency in the future of work.
My best advice from a mentor was… Worry not about the level or title of the next job; instead, ask: what will l learn? That encouraged me to not only take on lateral roles, but even roles at a lower level for new experiences.
I would tell my 20-year old self… Judge your success by your own standards. Resist the temptation to get fixated on a singular definition of career success. Also, be active in the community; I’ve learnt that you get more than you give.
And advice to my 30–something, mother of two self… Be disciplined about making time for self-care and wellness. Whether it’s exercise, sleep, friendships, or simply reading a book — we all need “me time.”
“Resist the temptation to get fixated on a singular definition of career success.”
Work/life balance is… I think of it as work/life integration. For me it has changed over different stages of life. It even meant hitting pause on a career opportunity. For example, I declined the first executive role that RBC offered me in 1996. I had just returned from maternity leave, my children were both under the age of 3, and I hadn’t figured out how to be the kind of Mum I wanted to be and take on a more demanding role. I was prepared to take the career risk that went with this decision, but to be honest, it wasn’t that hard, because it was the right decision for me at that point in time.
I stay inspired by… My mum and the example she set. Shortly after my dad passed away, she brought her two teenagers to Canada from Tanzania, then devoted her life to raising us, giving us strong roots, but also wings to grow as individuals. She brought to life something my dad instilled in me – “do not constrain your ambitions just because you are female.” Mum is courageous, independent, curious and resilient.
The future excites me because… I was fortunate to have had a rewarding and meaningful career at RBC, sprinkled with opportunities to make a difference in our communities. I’m now building a portfolio career of roles across all sectors — business, government, academia and not-for-profit. I’m motivated by work that drives both economic and social impact, with a focus on investing in the development of people and building inclusive organizations and communities. I’m excited to be able to spend more time helping to building a stronger Toronto and a stronger Canada, one where everyone has the opportunities to realize their potential — a win/win that drives inclusive prosperity. My ambition is to have impact at greater scale. It’s a bit of a roller coaster ride, but it is fun. I am definitely taking my own advice to push myself outside my comfort zone, every day!