Wisdom Stories Ep.52: Sonny Iqbal

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Cultural expectations surrounding the elderly are being challenged today, and with good reason!

While it was the norm to slow down and retreat into a quieter life post-retirement, more men and women are finding purpose and joy in doing the opposite.

WisdomCircle honours such men and women by shining light on their journey through an inspiring series called “Wisdom Stories”. These people have successfully smashed stereotypes, and their stories remind us that life should be lived to the fullest, no matter what age or stage.

There have been 4-5 turning points in my life that have had a very significant impact. The interesting thing is that when most of these took place, I never realised the impact they could (and did) have. One was with one of my (eventually) mentors PRS Oberoi, where I was exceedingly polite but kept holding my view. I was 19 years old then and he was interviewing me. I never understood the impact of my words and manner till he later alluded to it. And, how it led to my career growth at the Oberoi Group.

Another was a passing conversation with Anuroop (Tony) Singh who was the CEO at American Express and later went on to be my second mentor. Tony was at an Oberoi property and was unhappy about something. I helped address the matter and we ended up having dinner. A year later, he offered me a job at American Express.

At Egon Zehnder, there have been 2-3 very significant turning points. Each one has contributed to my vertical growth and horizontal expansion. Who would have thought that a 19-year-old who joined the Oberoi Centre of Learning & Development would end up writing several articles that have been published in international journals including 6 in the Harvard Business Review! Honestly, more important than each event is the insight I have derived. I have tried to live the behaviour that helped bring me success.

My discipline and focus on getting things done – perfectly – were shaped by my career in hospitality and financial services. This became an obsession that would sometimes cause distress in teams that I worked with. It took a degree of unlearning to work my way through that. I am still trying.

Wisdom Stories cover of Sonny Iqbal
Sonny Iqbal

We learn skills as we go along in life and that is an important part of our development. We also attain knowledge and both of these are very meaningful till about mid-career. The challenges that arise after mid-career cannot be addressed by knowledge and skills alone. They remain important but other dimensions creep in. The most important factors contributing to my growth have been “true” self-awareness (takes time, needs vulnerability and acceptance); understanding what really energises me and the most difficult – being sensitive to the feelings of others who I am interacting with (at work and at home). In other words, what value am I adding to the person on the other side of the table.

A lesson I hold closely to is  “No one pigeonholes us better into limiting roles than we do ourselves. We operate in comfortable patterns of thoughts and actions that exist from our past”. We define an identity and wish to stay within the comfort of that. I could have stayed a hotelier had I not challenged myself to “break away and not pigeonhole myself in the comfort and success of that world”.

I have succeeded in staying relevant to my work and my family by doing new things every 4-5 years. I love my work and am proud that it is a far cry from the work I did a few years ago which was also different to the work I did a few years before that. And more importantly, others tell me that they have seen me evolving, which is most gratifying.

Our identities are not fixed, but rather evolve and change over time. My message to the Wisdom Generation is to keep developing yourself. Tinged with a degree of realism (self-awareness),  you will find a fantastic balance at each phase.

Sonny Iqbal

Interview and photograph credit: Saonli Sen Choudhury from WisdomCircle

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