Name: Cyrus Z. Kazi
For more than two decades, Cyrus has passionately pursued social impact through systemic changes and technological innovation in emerging communities. Born in Bangladesh, and a new immigrant to the US, Cyrus has worked with tech companies, nonprofits, NGOs, philanthropies, and governments in over 25 countries, has successfully launched and scaled multiple ventures, and advised hundreds of organizations on sustainable social impact. He has a BA in Economics from SUNY Purchase, an MPA in Public Policy & Evaluation from Marxe School of Public & International Affairs, and an Executive MBA from Zicklin Business School. He's the CEO/Co-Founder of Quantibly, the first platform to operationalize impact data for the global impact ecosystem.
Thank you to the 2,000 leaders who’ve generously done the 7 Questions on Leadership!
I hope Cyrus's answers will encourage you in your leadership journey. Enjoy!
1. What have you found most challenging as a leader?
Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, "Do not follow where the path may lead. Go instead where there is no path and leave a trail." To me, defining your path and leading, guiding, and empowering your team to walk that path, often a difficult path, is the most challenging task of a leader. For every million remarkably successful managers or executives, there's one leader who breaks convention, thinks beyond the time, defines a future that s/he believes will add value, and then sometimes goes alone to pursue that vision.
Leadership is a paradox. A leader needs to maintain integrity and purpose, even when everything is going against them. A leader needs to portray almost "inhuman" qualities of resilience and perseverance, but at the same time remain very human, learn from one's mistakes, and exhibit humility. This blend of responsibilities, constant adaptation, and the weight of informed decision-making are some of the most challenging aspects of a leader, in my opinion. You don’t need to be perfect, as a leader or as a human being. But you need to be competent, consistent, and compassionate to be an effective leader.
2. How did you become a leader? Can you please briefly tell the story?
My journey to a leadership role is purely accidental. Back in 2006/07, I was part of a task force created by former NYC Mayor Bloomberg to reform NYC's child welfare system, the largest in the country. I led a subgroup that investigated how organizations were collecting, analyzing, and reporting data on children to protect them from abuse and neglect. I began to understand the systemic and technological challenges that these organizations were facing and how critical this data was for providing effective services. Fast forward to 2014, I gathered a group of an incredibly smart, experienced, and diverse group to start a research project or proof of concept for Quantibly. We wanted to validate our hypothesis about why the market needs impact data globally.
My team started to rely on me for my educational background and expertise in evaluation methodologies, and soon I found myself leading a globally distributed team comprising technologies, machine learning experts, development consultants, investors, and others. Between 2014 and 2020, we talked to thousands of organizations in 50+ countries to understand the digital divide that exists in the social impact sector and the technical and technological challenges of impact data reporting.
As a leader, I had to develop and improve our vision, create a culture that supports individual innovation, make mistakes and be accountable, learn from each other, and continue to build a category-defining platform like Quantibly. I owe my leadership skills and personal development to my team, mentors, advisors, and most importantly, my children.
3. How do you structure your work days from waking up to going to sleep?
I am, what neuroscientists call an "Elite Sleeper". Typically, I sleep between 4 and 5 hours every night and my day begins early. I help get my kids ready for school, and then I dive into my work. I set aside 8 am to 10 am to plan my day, and create a realistic to-do list of immediate priorities and ongoing priorities. I block time to cook for my kids when they return from school. This is when I can catch up with them about their day, life, school work, and anything else. Unless there's an emergency, I don't book any calls during my time with the kids.
My regular day is usually between 8 am to 6 pm, with intermittent breaks, when I solve 2/3 crosswords or play a round of chess against an AI. From 9 pm to midnight or past midnight, I schedule calls with my team or clients in Asia and Africa so that the communication cycle has minimal gaps. Sometimes, I attend sales or strategy calls at 1 am or later depending on the timezone.
My bedtime is when I unplug and reorient my thoughts. I'd often read about topics that are completely out of my comfort zone. For example, I'd start reading about a clinical study about a rare genetic disease, or understand how a quantum drive would work, or how to build a wooden chair. Studies have shown that by regularly engaging in unrelated activities for an hour or so, a person can retain more information and maintain brain health. By 2 am, I meditate and fall asleep and plan to wake up at 6 am. The cycle begins.
I don't schedule any calls or other work on the weekends (anymore) and spend time with my kids and family.
4. What's a recent leadership lesson you've learned for the first time or been reminded of?
People often believe that to achieve great things or even small milestones in a team, you must have “buy-in” or some sort of consensus within the team. I have come to realize that it’s a false dichotomy. Collaboration is paramount to success, and successful leaders learn to collaborate even in the absence of consensus.
At Quantibly, the leadership team and all stakeholders are encouraged to have respectful, informative discussions and debates regarding matters of the company. The criteria are rather simple; they must provide a solution to a problem and not just state the problem, the proposed solution does not have to negate someone else’s idea, and state how their data-driven ideas support the overarching goals that we’re trying to achieve. This empowers our teams to discuss ideas collaboratively, even if one or more in the team have a differing opinion on the tactical execution. It must be noted that our team is smaller in size, and this may not be practical application in large organizations that are more top-down in their command and control.
In 2022, we launched our flagship product and aggressively reached out to customers all over the world, members of our leadership and product team proposed radical changes in the platform that would separate the platform and impact-measurement framework, overhaul the data processes, and most importantly, would mean that we won’t be able to onboard new clients for at least 6 months. As you can imagine, marketing, sales, engineering, and the other members of the leadership team were completely against “temporarily shutting down” after years of R&D. After much debate, not all were convinced that this was the right strategy, but a plan was developed for the teams to collaborate on this radical plan. All the teams collaborated on their deliverables and a new version was released within the deadline, and it turned out to be the right decision.
5. What's one book that has had a profound impact on your leadership so far? Can you please briefly tell the story of how that book impacted your leadership?
I read a translation of “How the Steel Was Tempered” by Nikolai Ostrovsky in high school. I grew up in Bangladesh in the late 70s, and we had tons of Soviet-era literature available alongside American and European classics. I am aware of the underlying political and philosophical messages, mixed with a tinge of former Soviet propaganda, but I found that book to be a brilliant masterpiece, a narrative on the metamorphosis of a man. In some ways, I think this book had a profound impact on how I see myself, as a person as well as a leader.
The book, in vivid detail, describes how a wide-eyed idealist finds himself at war, both literally and spiritually, first turning him into a cynic, and then a pragmatist. The book teaches how one must be resilient even when faced with immeasurable adversity. The protagonist, Pavel Korchagin, transforms from a malcontent youth to a disciplined adult, a soldier in his own struggles. The book taught me how one must persevere, find purpose, and love what one does. Another interesting lesson of the book, in my opinion, is the truth that in order to be a good human being or a good leader, you must be at peace with yourself. If you’re looking for transactional happiness, you will not grow as a person or as a leader.
6. If you could only give one piece of advice to a young leader, what would you say to them?
Your people are your biggest assets. Not your product, investors, or partners. Cultivate your team members so that they also have the same vision and can march alongside you. Most importantly, stand up for your team. Your success depends on their success. Not the other way around.
7. What is one meaningful story that comes to mind from your time as a leader, so far?
Earlier in our startup journey, due to some unforeseen circumstances, we found ourselves dangerously low on our runway and there was not enough time or resources we could tap into right away to secure funding. We tried to borrow and call in favors, but it was going to take months. So, I had an emergency call with my leadership team. Everyone asked me not to disclose this to the team, but I felt it would be the right thing to do. I called up an emergency meeting and gave my team a true picture of what happened, the steps we are taking, and the fact that we may not succeed in securing additional funding. I offered to help them transition to other jobs and shared a written IOU that we would honor once we received funding. Not a single person on the team wanted to leave to find other jobs. They discussed and let me know that they were going to ride it out with me, they trusted my intentions and efforts, and most importantly, they loved what we do at Quantibly. We went without any funding for more than six months and they continued to dedicate their time without missing anything. This was one of the most meaningful moments of my life.