Tasneem Azad, Managing Director, Alvarez & Marsal

Tasneem Azad originally wanted to be an astronaut. Seriously. She studied hard and even exchanged letters with NASA as a teen. Over time, however, she came to realise that being isolated from the world, several thousand miles away in orbit, wasn’t an ideal career for a people person like herself. Having spent just a short time in her company, it’s clear to us that she made the right choice: Tasneem’s vibrancy, warmth, and razor-sharp intellect really would’ve been a great loss to the world had she been cast out into space.

Thankfully, Tasneem found a new passion, this time in the decidedly terrestrial field of economics. “Many think that economics and the study of markets are boring, geeky even,” she says, “but as my phenomenal sixth form teacher—who was female by the way—framed it, it’s actually like biology—a living organism that needs to be studied, learned, and treated like an organic entity, much as a doctor would treat a human.” Tasneem’s curiosity evolved, and she developed a particular interest in understanding how different types of markets worked at a cellular level. “The more I learned, the more I realised it was exactly where I wanted to be. I literally knew my life’s work, and career aspirations, from that point forward.”

Finding her way

In retrospect, it may seem inevitable that Tasneem—the self-professed people person armed with two degrees from the London School of Economics—would find her perfect career in the consulting world. But this was not her first choice—she began her career as part of the UK’s Government Economic Service Fast Stream programme, which puts young graduates with drive and an ambition to effect positive change on the fast track to lofty positions in public service.

Over the course of the next nine years, Tasneem worked at the Department of Trade and Industry, the Cabinet Office, the Office of Fair Trading, a sectoral regulator, and the European Commission, using her economics expertise to influence how markets worked across various industries. Tasneem soaked up each experience with zeal, despite the gruelling demands. “It was at times brutal,” she says. “When cabinet ministers need an urgent explanation or if a briefing has to be ready for press before dawn, you’re in the office at 3 a.m. working on it.”

After nearly a decade, Tasneem decided it was time for a new challenge. “I looked around and thought, ‘Where can I take my economics, apply it in the outside world, still do good and have exciting, varied work?’” A tall order, to be sure. Ultimately, Tasneem decided to take her talents to a boutique consultancy firm, where she served as a director, specialising in competition and regulatory projects across the financial services, communications, and utility industries. Nine years later, a new challenge presented itself when Tasneem received a call from Alvarez & Marsal (A&M) asking her if she would like to join the firm to launch its European Economics practice, focusing on disputes and litigation across a broad spectrum of industries. “At first, I wasn’t sure,” she recalls. “This was a giant of an American firm with a global footprint, a far cry from a London boutique. I wondered whether they’d be just like those American firms in movies: highly charged with colleagues high-fiving wins in the morning. Could I cope with that?”

I committed myself from that moment forward to be the force for change within the organisation.

Confident in her ability to rise to the challenge, and casting aside her fears of American enthusiasm, Tasneem decided to accept the offer, ultimately finding herself at a firm she loves and which she has called her professional home ever since. Contrary to expectations, the biggest culture shock at A&M wasn’t an unrelenting vigour but the realisation that she was the firm’s only—and indeed first—female European partner. “I committed myself from that moment forward to be the force for change within the organisation,” she says.

A force for change

True to her word, Tasneem has led numerous initiatives aimed at moving women up through the system, helming an initiative to get A&M’s share of female managing directors (partners) up to 15% by the end of 2019. As a woman who once missed her own birthday party on account of a project’s demands, Tasneem recognises that achieving that goal will mean ensuring that her path to career success is not the only one: “I think about this a lot, and I’m genuinely unsure whether I could maintain my current professional lifestyle if I had children,” Tasneem says. “Going to Tokyo for two weeks on a case is a less formidable challenge when you are not grappling with the logistics of childcare. How I operate simply wouldn’t work in some cases, and I’m very mindful not to put myself forward as the only example women feel they need to try to emulate.”

Indeed, Tasneem is cognisant of the fact that having more women in leadership roles demands family-friendly policies that allow employees to achieve a good work-life balance through flexible working arrangements, and she has sought to promote consideration of a wider range of working options for the staff at A&M. “It’s hard,” she admits, “not just for women, but for the men as well, not least if you are in a challenging role, on call at all times, travelling constantly and working across multiple time zones. We need to find ways to make consulting work for someone with aspirations of a big family as much as it does for someone without children.”

Confronting self-directed biases

Tasneem has also driven an initiative to offer unconscious bias training to all staff at A&M, tackling not only biases men may hold towards women but also those women may hold in respect of themselves. Indeed, addressing these internalised biases is, in Tasneem’s opinion, a critical step towards achieving workplace equality. Pointing to research that shows that women tend to downplay their own competencies and accomplishments, Tasneem says: “Sometimes I think a self-perpetuating barrier to progression through the ranks is women demanding so much of themselves.” When it comes to self-appraisals, she tells us: “Male consultants invariably note that they are performing exceptionally well, drawing attention to few if any developmental needs, whereas female consultants, who are patently delivering the same quality outputs, will generally appraise themselves as being average or below par, highlighting a range of possible deficiencies that might be worth addressing. This reinforces a cycle of women feeling less qualified, choosing not to push for more senior positions until they have not only tackled each and every developmental issue but have excelled with flying colours. Contrast this with men who might shoot up the ranks, riding a wave of confidence and self-belief, allowing developmental points to be tackled in their own time.” Tasneem believes that turning around limiting thought patterns can help to turn the tide by empowering women to own every accomplishment, big or small.

When Tasneem encounters resistance to her empowerment initiatives, she’s quick to remind her peers that equal opportunity isn’t just good for women—it’s good for business. “I present to our executive leadership team about driving our female leadership agenda, and one of the things I stress is that this is not a personal agenda in solidarity with fellow female compatriots: I am no suffragette. Rather, this is a business imperative. In failing to address the issues we would be failing to meet head-on both our clients and our competitors. It is with the support of every male colleague and team leader, with a collective vision of change, that A&M and indeed any business will thrive.”

Women leaders, feminine power

As more women file into the leadership ranks, leadership itself begins to look a little different, and getting comfortable with those changes is another key step in normalising women being in positions of power. “I used to feel nervous about going on a spa day with female clients,” says Tasneem, “but then I thought, ‘Why should I feel this way? Men go on golf days all the time!’” Those types of interactions, which men have long enjoyed, can help consulting and other professional services companies serve an increasingly female client base more effectively. “We can and should engage with female clients in a different way, because we are fundamentally different. We do and enjoy different things. Let’s take advantage of those differences and build and grow business that way.”

Indeed, the main piece of advice Tasneem would give to her younger self would be to not fight your genes: “Earlier on, I wasted time thinking I needed to,” she says. “I read the usual books about leadership—all written by men. The tips and tricks were modelled on the male approach to leadership, which, in the main, didn’t resonate with me.” Sounding as if she were recalling plot points from an episode of Mad Men, Tasneem tells us about the kinds of advice that she encountered early in her career: “I remember reading about lowering the pitch of your voice, to mirror that of the men in the room.” And then there was the fashion advice, concerning what clothes, make-up, and shoes to wear or to avoid. “None of it felt true to who I was. Eventually, I stopped trying to emulate the men and decided instead to embrace and own my femininity: I love high heels. Like it or lump it. In any event, it doesn’t affect the quality of my advice or the support I provide to my clients.”

You really have to speak up to be heard, and in turn to climb the ladder.

Tasneem recounts an occasion where her feminine touch came in handy, allowing her to defuse an explosive situation—much to the appreciation of her male colleagues. “I was the only woman in the room with 14 men during a high-stakes negotiation. It started to collapse with the two sides becoming increasingly aggressive, and with myself becoming more and more uncomfortable, so I stood up, put my hands on the table, and politely ordered everyone to calm down, take a break, and allow me to mediate on the five apparent blocking points. You could’ve heard a pin drop!” Tasneem realised she was on to something and pledged from that moment forward to follow her own instincts, rather than a male-authored playbook, no matter what the situation: “If I had been the 15th man in that whole shouting match, we would’ve left the room with nothing from the negotiation,” she argues. “Being a woman and dealing with it how I felt I would like to deal with it produced an entirely different—and effective—outcome.”

Finding your voice

Giving women space to be themselves in the meeting environment, Tasneem maintains, is key to amplifying the power of female voices: “I often go into a meeting and see young women who will sit quietly throughout a meeting, awaiting an invitation to offer their opinion. I know they’ve got really amazing points to make, but they will still wait.” It’s an impulse she understands, because she has felt it herself: “I used to be one of those young women, but after a while I realised time is of the essence, meetings are short, and invitations may not always be forthcoming. You really have to speak up to be heard, and in turn to climb the ladder.”

It was as a young and fairly naïve economist with the European Commission that Tasneem started to find her own voice. “I was one of the acquis assessors for the new countries joining the EU. The other assessors were 50-year-old men with grey hair. I was in my 20s, female, and I’d happily ask the unexpected, slightly left-field questions which no one else would dare ask for fear of looking foolish. But it was the answers to these that were often the most enlightening. I just thought, ‘What’s the worst that could happen?’”

Of course, many women (and men) would say that the “worst that could happen” is being revealed as not knowing your stuff. And so Tasneem stresses the critical importance of doing your homework and always staying at the forefront of your field. In order to earn the freedom, and have the confidence, to hold your own with—and even disagree with—more senior people in the room, you need to be a true expert. To illustrate the point, Tasneem recalls a meeting with the then Chancellor at the Cabinet Office early in her career: “I was in the back row, listening in, when someone made a reference to the latest research that I knew had been taken out of context and was a misquote, having read the research myself that very same week. I scribbled a little note and passed it to the Chancellor. He looked at it and said, ‘Oh that’s interesting, because one of our economists here in the back tells me that is a misquote, what the authors of the research actually said was . . .” Tasneem’s decision to “speak up”, albeit via the use of a Post-it note, was a pivotal moment for her, proving that with the right preparation and by simply staying abreast of developments within her chosen field, she had the power to flip the dynamic of meetings at the highest level.

Being a woman and dealing with it how I felt I would like to deal with it produced an entirely different—and effective—outcome.

Furthermore, a reputation for being a constantly learning expert travels fast, Tasneem says, and has led to her being recommended by countless clients and peers, either as a sounding board, to lead on new projects, or to testify as an expert on matters: “Clients often remember and recommend me based on the fact that every time we’ve had a conversation, I’ve been able to provide them with insights they hadn’t heard before or present novel ways of tackling age-old problems,” she tells us.

“It’s in that sense,” she continues, “that no day ever really feels like work.” It’s a sentiment truly driven home by Tasneem’s confession that she often feels slightly bereft without academically challenging conundrums to ponder when the weekend arrives. “Maybe I’m a bit of geek,” she says, “but even on a Saturday I will enjoy reading articles with the latest thinking on economic issues, pondering the implications and taking notes. In fact, I have a little notepad by my bedside table and will scribble notes in the middle of the night if they occur to me. Yes, actually, I must be a total geek!” We won’t be offering an opinion on that, but we do admire her passion.