Sonia Brar, VP of Customer Ops, leads the strategy, design and delivery of Bell’s customer service experience. Since joining Bell in 2001, Sonia has thrived in senior leadership positions, leading large-scale systems strategy and implementations across a diverse set of businesses, including consumer and small/medium business, call centre operations and media broadcast management, as well as BCE’s corporate compliance, financial, supply chain and HR systems. It's no wonder that in 2020, Sonia won WCT's Innovator of the Year Leadership Excellence Award. Sonia now sits on WCT's Board of Directors as the Bell representative.
WCT spoke with Sonia about her role models, imposter syndrome and her leadership style. Check it out below!
WCT: I understand you obtained a degree in psychology first before completing an MBA in e-commerce. Can you tell us a little bit about your career trajectory?
Sonia Brar: Growing up, I had an aptitude for and thought I would build a career in the sciences or healthcare. To challenge myself, I used electives throughout university to explore different disciplines across sociology, business, and somehow ended up with a minor in economics, which brought me to a crossroads during my fourth year. I had both my applications for clinical psychology as well as business school ready to go. It was a conversation I had with my mother that ended in me pressing send on the latter. Her guidance was to fast forward and visualize where I could bring the most value, by bringing a different perspective and making unique connections using the skills and knowledge I had gained thus far. While I could see it, I felt largely unprepared to go out into the world. So I completed my MBA before landing my first role with Bell Canada in IT. Over the last 20 years, I’ve pulled from both backgrounds to build cross-functional teams and take on new challenges to build a rewarding career in technology and business.
WCT: Do you have any tips for women looking to make a pivot in their career, or work in a field that is different from what they studied?
SB: I’m a big believer in creating a toolbox of skills and experiences throughout your career journey. Because in that toolbox, you’ll find your skills are applicable to many different fields. Whether it’s the ability to set a strategy, build high-performing teams, or a discipline like financial analysis or IT development. When you boil it down to the nuts and bolts, it opens up possibilities to take on the same function but in a different industry or a different role in the same industry. When I transitioned from a Bachelor of Science (in Psychology) to business school, I went from Behavioural Science to Organizational Behaviour, and from labs to project management. Grounding yourself in what you know and what you bring to the table helps in how big the leap is and how to take it. If you’re going into a completely different role in a different industry, that’s a big transition, but not impossible. It's truly distilled down to the elements and your willingness to commit to the learning curve.
WCT: Was there anyone who had a tremendous impact on you and your career journey, be it from your personal or professional life? How did they influence where you are now?
SB: As a young girl, I had tremendous role models in my mother and my aunt who were forces of nature, both at home and in the workplace. I didn’t fully grasp the ”glass ceiling” until well into my career for that reason. They never let up even if they found themselves bumping up against it. They were relentlessly optimistic and creative about how they approached obstacles, as if they were minor speed bumps. As a result, I was actively encouraged to be aspirational first and work through any bumps along the way, without compromise on the objective. Where it’s benefitted me the most is I learned to ask “why not” a lot! To get at my own fears and barriers along the way, and question inherent biases and assumptions.
WCT: You won WCT’s Innovator of the Year Award in 2020, which is an award given to those who have raised the bar by re-creating knowledge or technology in new and useful ways. Do you have any advice on how young women can begin innovating and introducing new thinking, processes, and problem-solving styles from the very beginning of their career? Do you have any tips on negating imposter syndrome that might hold women back from introducing new ways of doing things?
SB: I’ll start with addressing imposter syndrome. I have suffered from it in various moments in my career. That voice inside your head saying “you don’t belong” is very real. Changing it to “you’re already here” quickly shifts the thinking into action which breeds confidence. Reframing is critical and quick to get past it. It’s also important to recognize that it is very common—over 70% of individuals will suffer from it at some point in their careers. That’s almost 3 in every 4 individuals. Next time, look around the (virtual) room, and you’ll see that even the most confident fall into that bucket,
The way I look at it is, innovation is a powerful word for simply doing things differently to achieve a greater outcome. The range of “innovation” is in small practices we can incorporate into daily rituals to large strategies as a response to shifting customer expectations or industry threats. What women and diverse teams can bring to the table are their experiences and perspectives. It was Einstein who said, “you can’t solve a problem from where it was created." Transporting the dialogue to a different place opens up new possibilities to solve what may seem like impossible issues. At the crux of it, that is the true value of diversity—to build an innovative culture.
WCT: What is your leadership style?
SB: Great question! I would describe my style as one that sets aspirational goals and then focuses on building and empowering my team to get there. My role then becomes one of foreseeing and removing roadblocks, coaching to grow talent, and providing air cover as necessary so the team can focus on building quality solutions. To me, it’s just as important to have built sustainable people capabilities and capacity as it is to deliver on a strategy. So spending my time and energy on coaching, re-evaluating at each milestone, and coaching some more is well worth the investment when you see that set of individuals replicate their success in other areas.
WCT: Is there a quote (or book) you live by?
The quote that has guided me thus far is by Maya Angelou: “I've learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel." It’s been so critical in my leadership style when setting aspirational goals, navigating difficult discussions, and making unpopular decisions. Doing it with the respect and the radical candour that your colleagues deserve.
Thank you, Sonia!