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Bossing It: Maintaining Perspectives with Alia Hassan

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Blue State's executive vice president on tangible experiences, dealing with imposter syndrome and the benefits of observing others

Bossing It: Maintaining Perspectives with Alia Hassan

As a member of our executive team, Alia Hassan works with Blue State and our partners to deliver best-in-class work that meets business goals while responding to the demands of a rapidly changing environment.

After serving as global head of operations at SecondMuse, a consulting firm in the social entrepreneurship space, where she led the operations, learning & development, and people ops teams, Alia re-joined Blue State where she had been immersed in various parts of our work for a decade.

During that time, Alia worked with a variety of clients including Teach For America, NYU Tisch School of the Arts, NAACP, United Way, Vogue, American Express and the Green Bay Packers. Before joining SecondMuse she served as our global head of operations leading our operations, resourcing, and recruiting teams. Before that, Alia was our head of creative & delivery, NY, overseeing work done for our clients based in our New York office and responsible for teams including strategy & planning, user experience, and design and Blue State’s global director of design, where she worked with clients to develop visual designs that galvanise users to take action.

Alia graduated from Carnegie Mellon University with a degree in Communication Design and Policy & Management, obtained an M.B.A. from Columbia Business School, and is a trained facilitator.


LBB> What was your first experience of leadership?

Alia> I was promoted to lead the Design Team at Blue State at a time when the company was experiencing rapid growth. It felt like a sink-or-swim moment, which added to the thrill and consequentiality of it all, and I was curious to see how I’d fare.


LBB> How did you figure out what kind of leader you wanted to be – or what kind of leader you didn’t want to be?

Alia> I mostly try to be conscious of the everyday exposures I’ve had (and am having) of other people’s leadership – whether positive or negative – and use that to shape my aspirations. Those tangible, direct experiences tend to be more likely to naturally and sustainably be woven into my actual behaviours. 

 

LBB> What experience or moment gave you your biggest lesson in leadership?

Alia> Oh, that’s difficult to pinpoint. Various moments have taught me to: just go for it; not assume others are necessarily better qualified than I am; adopt an “if not me, then who?” and “why not me?” mentality; identify symptoms of Imposter Syndrome and get out of my own way (and trust that if I flop, the sun’ll still rise in the morning). 

 

LBB> Did you know you always wanted to take on a leadership role? If so how did you work towards it and if not, when did you start realising that you had it in you?

Alia> I generally enjoy leading – not always, but often. The opportunity to take on a leadership role arises from a combo of personal interest and competence, business need, and a good amount of luck. So, in some ways, it’s something I’ve actively worked towards e.g. saying ‘yes’ often, absorbing feedback, hustling. In other ways, it’s several things aligning that I don’t necessarily have control over.

 

LBB> When it comes to 'leadership' as a skill, how much do you think is a natural part of personality, how much can be taught and learned?

Alia> There’s gotta be a basic desire and aptitude, but I believe in having a growth mindset so yes, it can be taught and learned as a skill.

 

LBB> What are the aspects of leadership that you find most personally challenging? And how do you work through them?

Alia> Balancing speed with thoughtfulness. These days, I’m experimenting with timeboxing, getting more comfortable with ‘good enough,’ and encouraging folks to 'disagree and commit' when appropriate. 

 

LBB> Have you ever felt like you've failed whilst in charge? How did you address the issue and what did you learn from it?

Alia> Yup! I’m a fan of project retrospectives, so I try to take a similar approach: understand what went well and what didn’t without dwelling on it – just enough to provide the insights needed to do better next time.

 

LBB> In terms of leadership and openness, what’s your approach there? Do you think it’s important to be transparent as possible in the service of being authentic? Or is there a value in being careful and considered?

Alia> I value tactful transparency – so, I suppose that’s both! Too far in either direction seems belaboured. 

 

LBB> As you developed your leadership skills did you have a mentor, if so who were/are they and what have you learned? And on the flip side, do you mentor any aspiring leaders and how do you approach that relationship?

Alia> Two of my past managers have been mentors (and sponsors – different and just as important) who taught me how to navigate specific work situations and who I've learned from by observing (e.g. the value of asking good questions). One lesson from my Dad, also a mentor, is the power of tailoring my leadership style to the moment/person.


LBB> It's been a really challenging year - and that's an understatement. How do you cope with the responsibility of leading a team through such difficult waters?

Alia> I try to maintain perspective – we’re part of broader phenomena (pandemic, cultural and political change, the economy, etc.). Per our Working Agreements, I also try to 'assume best intent but attend to impact' and encourage others to as well i.e. give each other the benefit of the doubt and acknowledge/address whatever arises as a consequence of my (or others’) actions.

 

LBB> This year has seen the industry confronted with its lack of action/progress on diversity and inclusion. As a leader how have you dealt with this?

Alia> What a complex question to answer in this format – especially as a person who checks several boxes on the 'underrepresented' front. But, I will try…

Blue State was founded as a values-led agency from the get-go. My experience has been that at our core, we’re a group of people committed to learning and making continuous progress. As a leader, I draw on my personal and professional experiences to guide how I influence, collaborate on, and help champion our DEI  efforts.

A quick scan of the last 50+ entries of this year’s Bossing It (2022, ~two years after the racial justice uprisings of 2020) – a series focused on showcasing leaders – shows no one with a similar background to me, no one who looks like me. I think that most people will say they’re for justice. The thing is, some people have less than they should, and some people have more than they should. In order to achieve justice, those who have more would need to give up what was never fairly theirs to begin with. When push comes to shove, is giving up power something people would actually opt into? I’m both doubtful and hopeful. That perspective also impacts my posture as a leader. 

 

LBB> How important is your company culture to the success of your business? And how have you managed to keep it alive with staff working remotely?

Alia> Very – it’s dependent. Blue State is a hybrid workplace, but I personally work fully remotely. I’m conscious of how my day-to-day interactions contribute to fostering a particular culture. Insights gleaned from company-wide ‘pulse check’ surveys also inform how I evolve the way I engage with folks.


LBB> What are the most useful resources you’ve found to help you along your leadership journey?

Alia> Observing others (do’s and don'ts), business school, and regularly asking for feedback. A colleague once told me that I’m one of the few people he knows who occupies the intersection of a Venn diagram where one set is Authority and the other is Street Cred. I took it as a compliment, a reminder of the interplay and distinction between power and influence, and have used it as a tool, of sorts.

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Blue State, Thu, 06 Oct 2022 12:06:29 GMT