Podcast

CXperts Ep 5: Ahmad Shabazz - The Evolution of Leadership

Ramon Icasiano meets with Ahmad Shabazz, Snap, Google, and Facebook Alum, to discuss the evolution of leadership, balancing your personal and professional brand, and how customer experiences in the metaverse may evolve.

Josh Witty
Josh Witty
March 17, 2022
  •  
18 min read

CXperts is a video podcast hosted by our Chief Customer Officer Ramon Icasiano, who is a former CX leader at Earnin, Netflix, Zynga, and Verizon. In each episode, Ramon dives into hot topics around customer experience with a guest industry thought leader.This weeks episode

This week’s episode: Ramon Icasiano meets with Ahmad Shabazz, Snap, Google, and Facebook Alum, to discuss the evolution of leadership, balancing your personal and professional brand, and how customer experiences in the metaverse may evolve.

Ahmad is the former Head of Global Community Operations at Snap, a camera technology company that integrates AR photography into communicating. Ahmad has 20+ years experience leading customer experience at companies like Snap, AirBnB, Facebook, and Google.

Watch on YouTube or listen on Spotify or Apple Podcast.

Transcript:

Ramon Icasiano 00:28
Hi, welcome to the next episode of CXperts podcast. My name is Ramon Icasiano and today we have a special guest, Ahmad Shabazz, formerly of Snap where he ran global community relations. You know, my background, I started in the CX space and really fell in love with it during my time at Verizon, where I helped scale the operations there. Then was lucky to help start a company called Netflix Scale. Saw their base go from 250,000 members to over 5 million and helped them launch the initial Watch Now digital content streaming service, and then went to Zynga, really sunk my teeth into global ops there, 5,000 outsourced agents an additional thousand FTE's, 17 sites. And at our peak, you'll appreciate this, Ahmad, 20 million live support interactions, 24/7. And then, left there and helped start a company called Earnin, a fintech startup based in Palo Alto. And I helped scale that organization from 35 frontline agents to 1,200.  And I'm hooked on CX. This is probably why I still love wearing my headset, reminds me of my frontline days there. And I'm currently the Chief Customer Officer at Pathlight. And so, Ahmad, what I'd like to do just quickly for the audience is go through your LinkedIn profile.

Wow, look, you got your MBA from Howard University. Amazing. And that was in Finance. So it made sense that your first move was to TI, for folks my age we call it TI, but for most people, it's Texas Instruments, as a Finance Leadership Development person there. And then went to Deloitte as a Senior Consultant and handled their finance transformation over the clients, went to a group called TOLD group, and then a Senior Consultant at Edgewater, went to Hitachi as a Business Intelligence Performance Management Manager. Then went to Google as Director of Customer Experience as a Lead of Mobile Business Group.

And then, amazingly, while you were at Facebook, you did customer care there. I think I'm going to probably talk about your Oculus stuff there. It was really exciting. And then led customer experience strategy at Anaplan, spent some time as Director of Community Support at Airbnb. And then, as I mentioned, formerly at Snap as the Head of Global Community Operations. Just an amazing background and I'm sure, amazing kind of problems you've had to solve. But Ahmad, is there anything in that summary that sticks out for you?

Ahmad Shabazz 03:32
Well, so one, it's been a fantastic journey. Well, you know what, let me back up because I would be remiss if I didn't say thanks for having me, number one.

Ramon Icasiano 03:39
You're welcome.

Ahmad Shabazz 03:41
But yeah, I would say that one, it's been a real fun journey thus far. And in terms of what sticks out, it's the organic path that I took. I would love to take credit and say I planned all of these moves as though it was a chess game, but I did not. And a lot of these things sort of were born of themselves and then having some great leadership who believed in me and what I delivered and how I executed it and loyalty, and things of that nature that we all value as leaders. And so that helps sort of steer that ship in the direction that it is.

I will say the fact that I've been a part of some of these great organizations is the piece that stands out, right? That these are things, experiences and lessons learned that you cannot manufacture. These are things that you have to go through. And so part of my journey, part of the lessons learned and part of my testimony and story is just that. I've gone through some of these things that, unless you were a part of it, there's no way you could mimic it. And so I'm grateful for that.

Ramon Icasiano 04:55
Yeah. A couple of things. I love what you said. It made me think what Patty McCord at Netflix used to always say, and I believe this truly, "Great judgment comes from great experience." Just seeing the decision making and the trade-offs and how they use data and coming up with solutions where you didn't have all the kind of information you needed, but really from the strategy and the collaboration was always coming out something that was truly better than any individual could imagine.

And the second thing, I'm sure you get asked this, how did you get to where you were? And it's like you said, it's not a series of totally planned-out chess moves. To me, it's like being on a sailboat. You kind of know you want to head west, but sometimes the wind isn't there, the ocean doesn't agree with it. And so there's a lot of lateral moves. Maybe you're just sitting there in the sun, not doing anything for a few days. But I appreciate the journey. And I know from just my own kind of experience, how much grit and really your passion leads you to wanting to continue. So with that, things have changed a lot in the last year, two years, with COVID, but what's worked for you in the last 12 months?

Ahmad Shabazz 06:23
Yeah. So one great, great summary. And it dovetails nicely into your question. Let me say this, there's the saying that "Great sailors are not made from calm seas." And so I said today that some of the biggest takeaways in my career had come from bumping my head, stubbing my toe, or some would even call maybe even having a failure. I always like to think of a failure as not responding or correcting something but that's part of experience. And so I've gone through that iterative process over and over and over. And it leads me to answer your question. What's been new or challenging, or how have I dealt with us in this most recent time, which hopefully we're in the tail-end now, the pandemic? It's been really eye-opening for me just as it has been for just about everyone.

It forced us all to take a step back and assess what's truly important. And we hope it has a lasting effect but it helped us to become more humanizing. We started looking at each other in a more empathetic, caring, or kind lens, and therefore we wanted to behave and/or treat and interact differently. And so for me, over the course of my career, where early on in my career, I could win on delivery. It was all about, "Did you deliver? Are the metrics being met? Did you deliver this on time? Was it the ROI you said you would get?" And so now here, recently we know, is, "Are we treating our team in a real empathetic, kind, and understanding way?" And I'll go one step further. "Are we treating ourselves that way, as well?"

And knowing, as I used to always tell my teams, we're not curing cancer. We're not solving world hunger. And we're certainly not working on a vaccine for COVID. So one, have fun. Let's have fun.

But number two, let's challenge ourselves to not only be kind, but we can still hold each other accountable. Those two can coexist. And so that's been one of the huge differences for me, particularly as I've seen the workforce turn over, as well. And then I would say probably 1B, if that's 1A, 1B is giving myself grace, allowing myself time to exhale and to make sure that I'm in a good place from mental well-being to physical fitness, and knowing, again, that we're more than just who we are at work, we're entire human beings.

So those have been the really two big instances. And I'm only hoping that our conscience wasn't just pricked for that, but that it will have a sustained change in terms of how we interact and work with one another going forward. And particularly placing ourselves in the shoes of being a customer and having that mindset and mentality, no matter what product platform or hardware you're solving for, but thinking about it in the real sense of being human and "What if it was me?" So those are the big takeaways.

Ramon Icasiano 09:51
Yeah. That's really deep. That's great. I think when you said people are evaluating what's important to them, it's really finding meaning in what they do. Are they really supporting a brand that they believe in? Are they really... they'll believe that the product and services they're providing are helping and bettering people's lives?

And also, I think work from home has equalized everyone's experience where everyone is essentially suffering and challenged with... And as I mentioned in an earlier podcast, the first year of working from home, every time I walked by the refrigerator, I would open the door, right? I had to learn to create some boundaries around that. And the fact that leaders, frontline team members, leads, directors, VPs are all going through this transformation. We've made the change. Making the transition is a personal responsibility we all have to make. And maybe that's caused us to be more empathetic, really, in terms of what our customers experience, what our employees experience. And now it really feels, even though it's virtual, there's a higher degree of empathy I believe that I'm seeing now.

Ahmad Shabazz 11:03
Yeah. Listen, I think there is a higher... so that's loaded, right? I think there is a higher degree of empathy because we know it's very intentional. It's very thoughtful right now. The challenge is, and what I hope will occur, is that this is a change in fundamentally how we do business, not just for the moment. And so I'm hoping that that takes place. The other piece is that we all, because it was the pandemic, we were essentially trapped inside, for lack of a better word. You had to sit with yourself. You had to listen to yourself. You couldn't just be a busybody and scurry about, to stay, to keep noise. You had to sit still. And therefore, I think it forced everyone to take stock on one, what was important.

And two, it really played into our space, because now people have moved beyond the collection of things and wanting to collect experiences. We now said, "Man, I wish I could go somewhere. I wish I could travel." And so that has become magnified. "I wish I could see loved ones." That has become magnified. "I wish I could go to a game." That has been magnified. Those are all experiences so it plays nicely into our space, which makes what we do all that much more important now.

And it shifted the light on our space because CX, it's been quite some time getting some footing as a respected vertical within the confines of an organizational structure. It used to be bits and pieces strong throughout all these other different verticals. Well, now folks know that you need to have a dedicated team who specializes in understanding what the customer experience is, end to end, soup to nuts. And are we keeping folks happy and giving them and delivering on the promises? And so it served us well, but yes, it also pricked us to say, "Are we going to fundamentally change as individuals and human beings?"

Ramon Icasiano 13:06
Yeah, that's true. And you sparked a thought, too. As leaders, I'm wondering too, around those experiences, how much of our leadership was brought upon by the physicality of the office. We were in the office, we were walking around, we were having meetings and it was visible who was in charge. Right or wrong, we casted a shadow. And I'm wondering now when there's virtual space, there's just a degree of equality or really more leveling of the influence now. Everyone in this digital virtual world can really be a publisher and lead teams virtually now versus being in an office where it's obvious who's running things. I don't know if you have any experience or thoughts.

Ahmad Shabazz 14:01
Yeah, listen, I think we're in the latest stage of the evolution of leadership. You can go all the way back to when leadership was authoritarian. It was pound your fist on the table, throw a chair and get something done. It was intimidation. And then we evolved, you start hearing these other buzzwords. Now I think the most recent sort of wave has been this whole idea of servant leadership. And even I think that, this is my own humble opinion, even that has sort of swung the pendulum too far to the other side. Because it's not about being a servant, it's about being a partner. So it's not about being authoritarian, certainly not about being a servant, it's about being a partner.

And so now leaders have to, not only because... again, the workforce is as dynamic as ever. It's as diverse as ever. Great leadership now, you have to be a motivator and an influencer able to gain buy-in. You have to be willing to roll sleeves up and be in the trenches at some point, but also be strategic enough to guide the team. And so there's this whole dichotomy. There's this tug of war between flying at 60,000 feet and actually being on the ground for leaders. That's a new challenge for us.

But people are looking to see, why? If you can come down to their level and be there with them, why? Because it does what? It humanizes you. So we're talking about fundamental psychology with people. And at the end of the day, if you can't motivate folks, influence them, lead by example, but then strike that balance where you can still hold people accountable and have difficult conversations in a kind manner, then you're just not going to make it in this world, in this work environment today.

Ramon Icasiano 15:50
Yeah, that's very important. So I think this would be a good kind of segue into what I would want to ask you next is, what do you think people should be focusing on now or anything that you have that you're focusing on now that might be helpful?

Ahmad Shabazz 16:05
I love it. The questions are so timely. You know, one thing I've always said is we should all recognize that we're not independent of, we're interdependent of. We're all in this together. I'll give an example. Part of being a great leader is being multidisciplinary, being able to draw from pop culture, civics, current events, sports, whatever it may be that can help you gain buy-in or influence folks. So with that being said, let's talk about this. In sports now, collegiate sports now, folks have now have the rights to their own names and likeness. And so that's a big deal. Remember the NCAA had all of those rights. And so these kids could not make any money off of their own likeness, although they were a part of this billion-dollar machine known as college sports. Across the board, never mind the sport, across the board.

And so I'll go back. We're not independent of anything, we're interdependent. And so these are cross-functional, multidisciplinary lessons to be learned. And so you say, "Well, what should people do? Or what could people be doing? Or what am I doing today?" The same thing. You have to know and understand that you are a corporation in and of itself. You are the corporation of you. What does that mean? There's opportunities for you to not only serve well, put in a hard day's work for a hard day's pay at your organization. But guess what? The knowledge that you took the time to learn and discern, the money that you spent in getting educated, the experiences that you have had, the lessons that you have learned, you can now start developing content. You can develop your own channel. You can write an article. You can speak at an engagement. Building the brand of yourself is not contrary to being a good employee.

And so what have I been doing? I'm doing just that. I think it's now time to start sharing those things that I have experienced from my own point of view, my own paradigm, the good, the bad, and the ugly, because there are lessons to be learned in all of that. And still know that at some point, I still want to make sure whomever I'm an employee of, I want to help them become profitable, remain profitable or become more profitable, but that does not negate the fact that I still have a brand of me, Ahmad. So that's what I've been working on.

Ramon Icasiano 18:38
Amazing. In that brand development, so am I hearing that the listeners here should take their own personal and professional responsibility of their own brand in that regard and still kind of work on their "resume" as well? Are those two different things or are they the same thing?

Ahmad Shabazz 19:03
No, that's the holistic approach. That's that entire... What do I say? We're whole people. We're not just who we are at work. And so you're a whole person. The lessons that you are learning and the experiences that you are getting from, whether that's parenting or being a sibling or a spot, whatever, it may be, a spouse, along with that which you've learned over the course of the years throughout your career, as well as what you do at work, that's unique to you. That's a story that's only your story.

And again, when we start talking about having these deeper human connections, particularly with empathy and kindness, because of this pandemic, which we became more humanizing to one another, your story has value and it may provide insight, guidance and/or uplift to anyone. Now it's not made for everyone. Not everyone wants to do that. But if there's ever been an opportunity ripe, particularly in the space that we are in, in the growth of technology... "Content is king." Used to be able to say "Data is king." Content is king now. And if you have content that is of value, then it's almost a fiduciary duty. It would behoove you to share that. And by default, you're building a brand.

With regard to your resume, your resume is a two-dimension of you. You are the three dimensional, you're the real you, and that's why I think content is a better representation of who you are, more so than what you show up on a piece of paper, which is two-dimensional.

Ramon Icasiano 20:42
Got it. And so really this is a perfect segue into the next question is, in the next 12 to 18 months, on this content journey that I'm on and that you're on, how do we help others around that, as well? I think that it is an active thing you have to participate in. It doesn't just come to you. You actually... One of the learnings for me in publishing is I was kind of used to letting my work do the talking and there would be inbound thought leadership opportunities. Now it's more outbound and more proactive looking for those things. In terms of advice or focus for the next 12 to 18 months, how do you think we can help people who are interested in that, doing that for themselves?

Ahmad Shabazz 21:36
Yeah. Listen, I think you're doing it far greater and better than I am. So let's be clear with that, and you're right. I, too, was of that mindset that my work will speak for itself. And it does, but that's a voice. You're not at the top of a minaret shouting out, it's certainly not that level, but it is a voice. I think I'll go back to the word I used earlier. I think we have to be very intentional and very methodical about what you want your brand to represent. You don't need to go out and create this slogan, but what do you want your brand to represent? What is your area of expertise and/or focus that you'd like to build that content in? And then fundamentally just do some of the basic things for it, writing an article for the medium, co-authoring something, getting on a panel to speak, doing a podcast, create a YouTube channel, whatever may be.

We have a lot of opportunities, channels, and vehicles at our fingertips, but it does require one to, which is foreign to a lot of us, by the way, to put that same fervor, that same energy into doing something for you that you actually do every single day for your employer. And they don't have to compete. That's not what I'm implying. What I'm implying is you have to be just as intentional and methodical about that as you are at work. We know we have to deliver our work. We're being measured, where there's a year-end bonus at stake, all these other things, respect from your peers, so on and so forth. If you apply that same fervor, that same commitment to building your brand, because you have something to share that is of value, I think then you'll be on your way, particularly using all of the mediums that are at our fingertips today. Because it's not hard today at all. It's not hard.

Ramon Icasiano 23:36
Right, right. Yeah. I want to add just a kind of a bonus topic discussion here because of your unique experience working at Facebook under the Oculus kind of organization. There's a lot of talk about the metaverse. I just read an article today where Google actually has to invest in that now or they might be left behind, which they're doing already, I believe. But in terms of just customer experience in the metaverse, just two or three trends or thoughts that you should have people think about in terms of safety or compliance or anything that comes top of mind there. We'll close it out with that.

Ahmad Shabazz 24:29
Yeah. Because you and I, we've talked about this, and so let me put clarity, too. So when I was at Facebook, we did the Facebook portal, from ideation to shipping. And then Oculus, we partnered and became the hardware team, period, with both Oculus and the Facebook portal, which by the way, you're talking about AI cameraman, AI boom men, sound from a sound perspective, and then Oculus, you already know it's VR. So those were both cutting edge or leading the way kind of products, which lends itself nicely to the metaverse. And particularly you start talking about Snap where AR is king. And so bridging that gap and getting into VR. So one, the metaverse is, in its infantile state, is so new that I think people are having a hard time conceptualizing it, making it tangible. It seems too far off, still. But if you go back in history and take a look, anything, whether you're talking about Web3 and metaverse, anything that was technologically advancing seemed far fetched initially, and then it took off.

And so that's the difference in an early adopter versus the masses. And so just at the very least, educating yourself about the metaverse will help these couple things that I say land better. The first one is the metaverse, it's another universe. Even if you take the etymology of the word, it's greater than the universe you're in today, meta universe. And so if we talk about customer experience in our universe today, our world today, our interactions today, but there's going to come a time when people are able to jump into an entire, another metaverse, it's only common-sensical that you're going to need some experience, some customer experience, focal points there, whether that's governance, trust and safety, or even experience.

Because if the metaverse is anything that it's being purported to be, you'll experience the same issues and/or challenges in that universe, you might be a bitmoji, but you're going to experience it, that you do here. And so that's one. How do you provide customer experience in that? Because there's going to be commerce there, we already know. In time there's going to be commerce, barter, the exchange of goods, interactions, any of those things require an experience. The big one I think that folks are not thinking about is what happens to toggle back and forth? What happens there? That's an experience in and of itself, going in and out, in and out.

That's an experience in and of itself. I'll give you an example and I'm just thinking, top of my head. Crypto. Crypto gets hacked today or you might have some money that disappears and you don't know where it went and so on and so forth. There's some form of governance in that. If you are physically in this universe, you have crypto, you decide to go into the metaverse. You want to buy something using crypto, but you get your crypto wallet hacked in the metaverse and when you come back out, you don't have anything. What happens? How is that governed? Who's going to help you navigate that? Who are you going to call? Do you got to go back into the metaverse and call somebody there? Or do you come out and say, "Oh hey, I know it didn't happen in this world but it did happen in that world. Can you help me?" And so these are questions that we absolutely... and I think there is a buzz around CX is starting to churn and pick up some steam. But now is the time to start thinking, what the hell does CX mean in the metaverse. And so I think about it all the time over some keys, I believe.

Ramon Icasiano 28:40
Well, look, two things. One, my head is spinning based on this thought of going back and forth to different metaverses. That's interesting. Two, I'm going to have you back. I think this is worthy of another discussion as this metaverse kind of expands. I want to definitely have a 2.0 discussion, maybe in the metaverse with both of us wearing VR goggles, who knows?

But with that, I want to thank you so much for this session. I've learned so much. Every time we've talked, I've always been inspired and you've always helped me think forward. And then we're also going to include your LinkedIn profile. So if anyone has questions, obviously you're post Snap, so available to just talk, write, consult, do whatever.

So please reach out to Ahmad. We'll include his LinkedIn profile there as well as mine. But again, thank you for joining us in this podcast CXPERTS. It's, again, run by operators for operators, and we hope you've learned something today. So thank you.

Ahmad Shabazz 29:52
Appreciate it. Thank you for having me. It's been an honor and a privilege.

Ramon Icasiano 29:55
Thank you.

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