How the CTO of Sun Life is using technology to create a more inclusive workplace

The job title of Chief Technology Officer isn’t usually associated with diversity and inclusion initiatives — but Rahul Sekhon, CTO at Sun Life, sees things differently. A passionate advocate and ally for women, people of colour, indigenous people, and individuals with disabilities (among others), Rahul is using tech to contribute to a broader strategy of promoting inclusion. Through his role — and his own actions — he’s playing an important role in attracting and retaining top talent.

 

 

By Hailey Eisen

 


 

As Sun Life’s Chief Technology Officer, Rahul Sekhon’s responsibilities include cloud transformation, employee experience, DevOps, and global infrastructure services. And while his education and experience align perfectly for this position, it’s the informal roles and responsibilities he’s taken on within Sun Life that really cause him to stand out amongst other male executives. 

“People who know me would tell you I’m a relentless activist for equality,” Rahul says. And it’s through this lens that he sees all his roles and responsibilities at Sun Life. In fact, he has made it his mandate to support women’s advancement in the workplace, with a particular focus on recruiting more women into technology to support diversity, and increasing the percentage of women entering science, technology, engineering and math-related fields. 

“Throughout history, Sun Life has taken pride in being an employer that supports fairness and a safe environment,” Rahul explains. “We also recognize that we must move beyond the traditional and continue to evolve to attract and retain the best talent in the industry — operating like a tech company in the insurance space.” 

In an effort to better understand their clients and create products without bias, about five years ago Sun Life began looking at Diversity and Inclusion internally as part of an overall sustainability strategy. They began with unconscious bias training, looking for gaps in the talent pipeline, and re-writing job descriptions to ensure they include gender-neutral language. This year, they partnered with six other insurers to launch the Women in Insurance STEM (WIISTEM) program in Canada, offering female coop students in STEM undergraduate programs work terms with Toronto-based insurance companies. Sun Life has also sponsored several technology advocacy and recruitment events, such as the 2019 Girls Learning Code Day, WomenHack Toronto, and the Move the Dial Summit. And these efforts are paying off — there’s a great culture across the technology area, where men and women are treated fairly and equitably, and opportunities are available to everyone.

With a background in technology, Rahul is especially interested in how tech can be used as part of this broader strategy to improve the employee experience and promote inclusion. He’s using technology to design for an experience where employees are free to be productive in ways that best suit them, and are encouraged to be open and honest about their needs and desires. 

“We’ve actually begun to simplify our technology use to create a frictionless experience — allowing people to work from one system to the next without losing productivity, and keeping in mind people with disabilities and our employees who are based all over the world,” he says. 

Looking to amplify the voice of each employee, Sun Life has leveraged Workplace by Facebook, an online team collaboration tool that brings together its offices across 26 countries. With a similar interface as Facebook, it allows the organization to connect employees across the globe with town halls and other Livestream events, and provides a common space for individuals — from entry-level to executives — to share company news, personal stories, and feedback broadly, and comment and engage readily. It not only increases the frequency and authenticity of communication, but it also ensures everyone feels included and heard, even if the feedback is challenging. 

“We launched the platform with the aspiration to bring our organization together,” says Rahul, noting the #ReachOutAndDiscover hashtag that employees were encouraged to use, “and we’ve seen example after example of how it’s enabled us to move to a truly open and inclusive culture.”

 

“Being authentic is more than how we dress up, it’s ensuring that we lead in our day-to-day actions around driving inclusion, whether it’s allowing people to speak up and voice views that are different, or amplifying the voices that get suppressed.”

 

Like when Dan Fishbein, President of Sun Life U.S., began to use the tool to share personal anecdotes and observations with employees. “He demonstrated that it’s OK to open up and be vulnerable, and encouraged others to share their stories and experiences as well.” 

With a corporate culture focused on bringing your authentic self to work, Rahul has made every effort to follow suit. From small things, like using Zoom meeting and turning his camera on, to empowering his teams to choose how and when they work — he encourages leaders to be authentic and empathetic. “Being authentic is more than how we dress up,” he says. “It’s ensuring that we lead in our day-to-day actions around driving inclusion, whether it’s allowing people to speak up and voice views that are different, or amplifying the voices that get suppressed,” he explains. 

Coming from a place of authenticity, Rahul says, has always been extremely important to him. Born and raised in India, he admits he has experienced discrimination first-hand. But he hasn’t always been the ally and advocate that he is today. “My personal journey began many years ago, with the self-awareness and recognition that I needed to shed my own biases before I could influence others.”

Rahul began by participating in learning opportunities to engage with women and other minorities, to understand the challenges they were facing. “At first, I wasn’t a huge contributor, because I was trying to build my skills as an active listener,” he says. “But, in 2017, I took a personal risk and participated in a series of unconscious bias videos to share my own story. That’s when I realized I was in a position to influence change and new behaviours, and made it my mission on a daily basis to do so.” 

While Rahul sees the value in large gestures, he believes real change takes place on a grassroots level, and that small, conscious actions have the most impact. As an engineer by trade, he says he’s generally inclined to want to ‘solve’ things, but in this case, it’s more about making subtle changes in how you act and how you show up, and, in doing so, influencing others to do the same. Leading by example, Rahul makes it a priority to actively mentor and sponsor women, create awareness about bias and discrimination, and volunteer on a regular basis.

As such, Rahul’s commitment to inclusion has always been part of his home life as well. “My wife and I have always taken turns in our careers, to raise our daughters while still allowing each other to grow professionally,” he says. It’s these beliefs that he’s ingrained in his daughters, too, who are now 13 and 17, and active diversity activists in their own right. 

The advice he offers his girls — and other young women — is the same advice he has had to heed himself over the years. “As immigrants, my wife and I consciously chose not to let go of our identities when we came to Canada,” he says. “This advice translates to women as well. Don’t be someone else, be yourself, focus on your personal brand, be authentic and curious — and never settle for second best.” 

As a strong advocate of the role that men need to play in driving equality, his advice for young men is around respecting women and building courage to stand up against bias. “Supporting women is not about giving up your spot, rather it’s about making room by being an ally,” he says. “It’s ok for men to show their vulnerability and still be passionate about what you stand for. But we need to be accepting of other views, and most importantly, we need to take accountability for our actions.” 

While he believes nothing is going to be fixed overnight, Rahul is prepared to keep pushing for change. “We are trying to undo 15,000 years of damage, and we need to dig our heels in and commit to achieving equality for the long term,” he says. “It’s less about a revolution, and more about evolutionary change. It’s how we show up and how we acknowledge the other 50 percent of the human race. And how we become their allies. Equality is not optional.” 

 

What is the role of men in gender equality? Over the next year, the 30% Club Canada and Women of Influence are partnering to explore this question. We’ll be sharing the stories of allies — men who are pushing for gender equality in the workplace, or making it happen in their own business. These Champions of Change can act as visible role models, inspiring and guiding other men to follow in their footsteps. If we’re going to level the playing field, we need men to be engaged.

 

Stephania Varalli: The three things I learned about leadership

Leadership is a complex ideology, with so many different forms and approaches. It’s common to worry about whether or not you are an effective leader —  however, with an array of tools and resources at our fingertips, we can lay those anxieties to rest, and be the leaders we were born to be. Stephania Varalli is Co-CEO of Women of Influence, and oversees the organization’s media offerings, including the website, social media channels, newsletters, partnered content programs, and Women of Influence magazine. She recently completed the Queen’s Leadership Program at Smith School of Business and shares three very important lessons that she learned. 

 

 

By Stephania Varalli

 


 

Until recently, when people would ask me what I did for a living, my standard response was always: “I work for an organization called Women of Influence.” The statement wasn’t incorrect, but it took my husband being in earshot to point out that something was wrong. 

“Why don’t you ever mention that you are Co-CEO?” he asked me one day. 

I didn’t have an answer. Yes, I did the work of a Co-CEO. I had a team. I made key decisions. I considered the big picture and the company’s future. I was a leader. But was I a good leader? Or maybe a terrible one? Was I transformational? Authentic? Inclusive? Any other buzzword? And that was the problem: I referred to myself as just one of the gang, because I didn’t really know who I was as a leader.

 Which is why I chose to sign up for the Queen’s Leadership Program at Smith School of Business. It appealed to me because it wasn’t just designed to teach you about great leadership, or provide tools for leading effectively (though it did do both). The intensive, five-day course offers insights on you — your strengths, your weaknesses, and how you, specifically, can become a better leader. 

In June of this year, I packed my bags, said goodbye to my three-year-old daughter, my 18-month-old son, and my very supportive husband, and boarded a train to Kingston. Over the course of the week, I would completely change the way I think about leadership, and gain clarity on how I was perceived as a leader. Here are the three key lessons I learned.

 

  1. It’s about you

Prior to leaving for Kingston, I completed the Attentional and Interpersonal Style (TAIS) questionnaire online. The assessment is a deep dive into who you are and how you perform, especially under stressful conditions. It provides insights about the way you work, how you view yourself, and how you interact with others. We received the results one morning, and were given time for some quiet reflection as we read through the report. 

I liken the experience to looking in a mirror for the first time. There wasn’t anything surprising — I could recognize this was me, with all my strengths and faults — but seeing my personality mapped on 20 different scales brought me to a level of self-awareness I had never before reached. All my unique traits, and how these elements worked together, were suddenly clear. Most importantly, it helped me to see how my behaviour was impacting other people. 

The point was hammered home all week, by our professors and in one-on-one sessions: to be a great coach and a successful leader, you have to know who you are. 

  1. But it’s not about you

Knowing who you are, however, is only the first step. We were challenged to ask ourselves if we were observing the impact we were having on others — and taking responsibility for it. For me, the most difficult part of this exercise was coming to the realization that other people were seeing things that I didn’t think they’d see. I have a tendency to start solving a problem before someone’s finished explaining it to me, which means my listening brain exits stage left halfway through a conversation. And I had to admit to myself, my team sees this. Not to mention, solving other people’s problems by providing them with the answer isn’t what I should be doing. As a leader, my role is to develop learned optimism, not learned helplessness.

“People are remarkably sensitive to the way in which they are treated — and will respond accordingly,” said Dr. Julian Barling, one of our session leaders, and a renowned expert on leadership. 

“Great leadership can seem a little out of reach — a pedestal for the likes of Nelson Mandela — and realizing success could come from developing a few traits and focusing on key moments made it feel much more attainable.”

 

Fortunately, I also received direct insights on how my team felt they were being treated. Another part of my pre-work for the program was the 360 Degree Feedback process, which involved gathering input from my peers and direct reports through confidential questionnaires. In one of my coaching sessions, we compared my own perception of my leadership skills with how others saw my effectiveness in my role. 

The good news? I was doing pretty well. As the kind of person who isn’t content with doing pretty well (yes, that was in my TAIS report, too), I wanted to fix everything. But that would go against the biggest lesson I’d learned all week. 

 

  1. It’s about the little things

The first Julian Barling quote I wrote down (of many) came on our first day: “It’s a course on leadership, not sainthood,” he said. 

The point? You don’t need to be perfect to be a great leader. In fact, after the class had listed off all of the hallmarks of effective leadership, Dr. Barling advised us to pick a few that we were good at, and focus our energy there. 

He went on to explain that demonstrating these traits doesn’t have to be about grand gestures. The best of leadership, he said, is about moments. The small and routine interactions that you have with your team. And so he asked us, repeatedly, “What are the smallest things that you can do?” 

I was thankful to have this perspective early on in the program. Great leadership can seem a little out of reach — a pedestal for the likes of Nelson Mandela, whose quotes we heard often — and realizing success could come from developing a few traits and focusing on key moments made it feel much more attainable. 

The sentiment was echoed throughout the week. Dr. Peter Jensen — another impressive session leader, and founder of Performance Coaching (now called Third Factor) — continued to remind us that coaching is all about the little things. We heard the same words from our guest speaker on crisis leadership, Darby Allen — fire chief for the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo, who led the largest evacuation in Canadian history when he safely guided 88,000 residents out of Fort McMurray during the 2016 Alberta wildfires. An undertaking of that scale, he said, requires the efforts of many people to come together like a jigsaw puzzle, and “all the little things that they do will make the difference.”

Theory is much more powerful when you are able to put it into practice, and our daily small group sessions offered that opportunity. Our team quickly bonded as we rotated through roles: sharing a personal problem, helping that individual to explore the issue, and observing the process. Each role provided a unique perspective and learning; not only did I work on my active listening and coaching skills, I was able to hone in on what I needed to do as a leader to address stumbling blocks at work. 

Thanks to these group meetings — plus the class sessions, one-on-one coaching, and more self-reflection than I ever thought possible — I came out of the course with specific goals to focus on (but, as advised, not too many). 

I also received my Queen’s Executive Program Certificate, having now completed enough Executive Education courses (I did it through a personalized combo of two week-long programs at Queen’s, and some two-day, new-mom-friendly courses at their Toronto facility). I’d been working toward this goal since 2016, when I took my first course as a very pregnant new business owner. 

But if you ask me about my biggest accomplishment that came out of the program? This fall marks my fifth year as Co-CEO of Women of Influence, and it’s a title I now confidently share with others.

 

The three traits of successful entrepreneurs

As a professor of organizational behaviour at Smith School of Business, Jana Raver looks at how people overcome the challenges of starting a business. Jana has identified three factors that predict the likelihood a business owner will excel or fail. She explains why these matter, and what entrepreneurs can do to succeed.

 

By Hailey Eisen

 

 


 

Launching a business is extremely difficult. Half of all new businesses fail. What fascinates Jana Raver is the notion of psychological resilience — or the capacity of entrepreneurs to try, fail, bounce back, and try again.

“One of the most challenging and stressful occupations you can have is to be an entrepreneur,” Jana explains. “And often you have to do it alone.” As a professor of organizational behaviour at Smith School of Business, Jana has long been interested in entrepreneurship, not only because of its challenges, but also its unique opportunities. 

“As faculty members, we basically live and work as entrepreneurs,” Jana says. “We have to launch research projects from the ground up, and, like a business, we have to secure funding, hire teams, and ensure results are met in a timely fashion. We’re familiar with failure.” 

Having held organizational administration positions and worked in HR between her undergraduate and graduate degrees, Jana brings real-world experience to her research. When the opportunity arose to launch a research project on psychological resilience among entrepreneurs with Ingrid Chadwick, associate professor at Concordia University, Jana leapt at the opportunity. 

“We wanted to understand how individuals can overcome the challenges of entrepreneurship and be successful despite all the hardships they face,” she says. “We were also looking for ways to identify individuals who would be better equipped to succeed at the helm of startups.”

 Jana’s research studied first-time entrepreneurs over a two-year period as they developed, launched, and operated new businesses. The research specifically looked at individuals enrolled in a government-backed program to train new entrepreneurs and it measured their resilience levels before the participants even began creating their business plan. 

 

“You want to keep one step ahead of your competitors, go out and talk with your customers and potential customers, understand what their needs are, and be creative in the ways you solve for their needs.”

 

“Then we studied them and the way they thought about entrepreneurship and behaved as entrepreneurs over the next two years. We were able to predict whether they would ultimately be successful and still have viable businesses two years later.” 

Jana’s findings are of value to both individuals starting their own businesses and investors looking to identify entrepreneurs likely to excel. Most successful entrepreneurs share three tendencies, she says: psychological resilience, a challenge mindset, and proactive behaviour. 

An individual who is psychologically resilient will be able to fail fast, take an experimental approach to a new business, and not let setbacks be indicative of failure. Resilient entrepreneurs bounce back with a new idea or approach, Jana explains. 

Even more important than resilience is a challenge mindset that allows a person to see obstacles as opportunities to learn. “The way you mentally approach the game is so important,” Jana says. “The mindset of success is one that says, ‘Hey, this is hard, but I can get through it.’ It’s about catching yourself before you go down the path of doom and gloom.” 

A challenge mindset can be learned, and people can train their minds to be more growth-focused. How? By treating problems  — be they financial or logistical — as obstacles to overcome, as problems to solve, and as opportunities to learn, Jana explains. 

Finally, proactive behaviour is an indicator of startup success. “You want to keep one step ahead of your competitors, go out and talk with your customers and potential customers, understand what their needs are, and be creative in the ways you solve for their needs,” Jana explains. “The key is to never rest on your laurels.” 

Based on her research, Jana has developed helpful advice for entrepreneurs (that she’s applying to her own work, too). Her suggestions include: 

  1. Focus on self-care. Some people think it’s selfish, but taking care of oneself is the opposite of that. To be a successful entrepreneur, eat well, sleep well, and pursue activities that calm your mind — so it’s ready to handle whatever comes up. 
  2. Surround yourself with supportive, positive people. Quite simply, it’s hard to get into a challenge (or growth) mindset when surrounded by people with fixed mindsets. Instead, spend time with people who will build your confidence, challenge you to think outside the box, support your ideas, and stand by you — even when you fail. 
  3. Fail Fast. Accept that failure is part of the entrepreneurial process. See failures as opportunities to grow. If something doesn’t work, it’s the idea, not you, that failed. Then move on quickly and try again.

 

Over the long term, success hinges not just on your skills and knowledge, but also on your ability to recover, remain focused, stay energized and show up motivated every day; in other words, your ability to be resilient. Queen’s Executive Education offers in-person and online programs for managers and entrepreneurs looking to build their resilience. Learn more here.