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Navigating a difficult and occasionally toxic business landscape? Sonal Trivedi is well-acquainted with such challenges. As a leadership expert and co-founder of the Dallas-based boutique management consultancy The COMO Group, armed with a Global Executive MBA from the WU Executive Academy, she is a powerful practitioner of transformation strategies. In what follows, she shares her lessons learned focusing on: Clarity, Ownership, Mindset and being One of a kind, that make up The COMO Factor.
In 2022, the average EU worker devoted approximately 1,800 hours a year to their profession. Through these, many employees have subtly or overtly felt the pressure of challenging workplace dynamics or diplomatically put, have grappled with an overbearing leader.
The reasons for challenges at the workplace may be manifold, as may the solutions. So, one starts with questions, aiming at gaining clarity: “What do I want to do, how do I want to do it, whom do I want to do it with, and what kind of impact do I want to make on society,” asks Sonal Trivedi, WU Executive Academy graduate, author and leadership expert. Having navigated such challenging environments in her career, she emerged victorious.
As she, together with her co-author and business partner Christine Strobush, wrote in the dust jacket of their book, “The F Place”: “It is not simply our capabilities and talent that bring us success, but the holistic mindset with which we approach transformation.”
Her own metamorphosis, which fortunately didn’t involve waking up as a cockroach like Franz Kafka’s Gregor Samsa, has largely been molded by this quest for clarity. “Upon that light bulb moment, when you lend an ear to life’s shifts, clarity nears,” she observes, invoking the author Peter Marshall: “When we long for life without difficulties, remind us that oaks grow strong in contrary winds and diamonds are made under pressure.”
In collaboration with Strobush, Trivedi paved a path, establishing a Dallas-based boutique management consultancy The COMO Group, launching a podcast, creating a method of transformation, “The COMO Factor,” and a business game, “Murder at the French Farmhouse.” Not least, this path brought Trivedi’s long-overdue dream to life in ink with their business thriller called “The F Place.”
Trivedi is not your typical executive or consultant. In the corporate world, many matters are swept under the rug; Trivedi unveils them. “What we need more of in the corporate world today that no one talks about is: empathy, authenticity, and a focus on problem-solving.”
Despite her analytical, problem-solver attitude, she not only speaks of numbers, but of meaning. She does not shy away from making emotions a matter of communication and puts emphasis on human connection. As Trivedi highlights over and over again: there is no clear-cut distinction between personal and professional life. “People have two personas: professional in the workplace and personal when they turn off the lights and go home.” She disagrees: “But, in the end, you are the same person, and these aspects are just two sides of a coin,” she says.
This holistic framework has one very crucial implication: what Trivedi offers to an executive is not much different than what she offers employees. “Though our consulting typically begins with the CEO or the CHRO, our secret ingredient is ensuring the voices of employees at all levels are genuinely heard and integrated,” she asserts. While Trivedi can produce numerous examples to articulate this perspective, her approach is perhaps most vividly depicted in the book she co-authored with Strobush: “The F Place.” The narrative selection itself is telling: a fictional tale through which the duo tries to pull back the curtain on the internal struggles and external conflicts often encountered in corporate environments, exemplified by the battles faced by a fictional executive working at a fictional pharmaceutical company, called “The F Place.” The epigraph, “Please don’t let fear dictate your next right move because fear is a liar,” establishes the tone of the book. It was conceptualized in a way to transcend a mere chronicle of challenges, evolving into a dramatic narrative with practical leadership insights. The objective: weave a story as relatable as it was informative, particularly for women leaders navigating their own professional labyrinths.
Arriving at these insights was not as straightforward as it may sound. In what led to the start of The COMO Group, Trivedi and Strobush were working for a large, multinational oil and gas company. Trivedi was serving in an executive role that focused on driving change across the enterprise, which required her to travel to 50 countries in any given calendar year, meeting with people at all levels, assuring them that the change that they are driving is positive and is really going to make things better. “Because I believed it,” she says. But, when Covid hit, and the company decided to lay off the entire transformation leadership team, “it was incredibly shocking considering how much we had done for the company,” she remembers.
But Strobush and Trivedi knew what they wanted to do when their time came. Six months prior to their lay-off, they were at Lake Como for an executive leadership conference with the top 200 executives from the company. The week, while filled with its share of politics, was high-pressure but had its merits: “There, we committed to a future devoid of the toxicity we’d experienced.” The early seeds of COMO were sown, even though the realization had to wait for half a year. “We wanted to create our own company, where the culture was not just lip service but was lived and breathed,” she says, “our values were developed in that very conversation.”
It is not simply our capabilities and talent that bring us success, but the holistic mindset with which we approach transformation.
They encapsulated these values in The COMO Factor. It stands for Clarity about a company’s purpose and mission, Ownership in the mold of responsibility, maintaining a positive Mindset, and embodying being One of a kind – as a leader and employee alike. “My journey has largely been a quest for clarity,” she shares, “navigating the present and future, sketching the steps ahead.” She had recognized that in any realm, personal or professional, discerning individual desires and destinations is pivotal for forward motion, because “strategy goes beyond reliance on luck and circumstances.” This also underscores the vitality of ownership: “We often typecast ourselves as victims, assigning blame to circumstances, or others. But, initiating change is a distant dream without embracing ownership, without being your own advocate.” Here, the mindset is not just a participant but a crucial player: “For me, challenges, including bouts with impostor syndrome, highlight the importance of a mindset that echoes my values,” she explains in a genuine tone.
She is convinced that this genuineness, or authenticity, has been a beacon on her path to where she is now, which she does see as a success. Thus, a good leader is one who owns mistakes and shoulders the responsibility to transform ideas into action. Starting with the individual, a leadership with a solution-oriented, positive mindset, doesn’t just influence outcomes – it shapes them.
In 2021, amidst The COMO Group’s infancy and personal turmoil, Trivedi decided it was time for her to pursue an MBA. She did not need a degree. She had already climbed up the corporate ladder, so if this educational journey were to begin, it needed to deeply embed personal and professional growth. This was her value. “Sure, new knowledge and skills are entrepreneurially important, but it is not enough. The program had to be personally meaningful to me,” she says. Additionally, having undertaken her undergraduate studies at the Northwestern University, her expectations of an institution were high.
A friend’s recommendation unveiled the WU Executive Academy Global Executive MBA, which provides a dual-degree with Carlson Executive Education, University of Minnesota. “It felt like the perfect opportunity had presented itself,” she exclaims. Local U. S. programs, even at premier schools, paled against her desire for a robust, global experience. “The WU Executive Academy presented something exceptional and incredibly daunting – monthly travels halfway across the world amidst Covid, engaging in residencies across Africa, Europe, and Asia.” Blending educational and corporate vistas while soaking up the local culture, had meaning for her. Even if this were the only thing she got out of the program, it would have been worth it. But, it was not.
Recognizing the program’s alignment with her aspirations, with its 2nd rank in the DACH region (Financial Times Executive MBA Ranking 2022), she jumped in. The academy is shaping its programs to mirror real-world scenarios and emerging global trends, emphasizing crafting leaders adept at navigating present and future business environments. Not much different from Trivedi’s own vision. “Its practicality, international essence, and the unparalleled caliber of participants spoke to me,” she says.
Admittedly, this vision of meshing practicality and theory implies additional responsibility: merely imparting knowledge is not enough but has to be supplemented by enabling spaces for innovation and creation. Trivedi has been long ready to take on opportunities and create something out of it. So, this year, she started an investment club with several Global Executive MBA students: a Vienna-based venture capital investment club named Gemba Ventures with a starting capital of nearly 1,000,000 €. Conceived during an Africa Immersion trip and co-led by Trivedi who is a managing partner, the club aims to fund early-stage tech startups covering sectors such as healthtech, fintech and agritech, as well as regions such as Africa and India. “Just talk about who would have thought I would start something like this with my colleagues as a result of our executive MBA journey,” she says with a soft smile, “again, that just speaks volumes. It wasn’t like just getting another degree to check the box off, but really working and creating together. This bond that we’ve created is just so special and incredible. I love it.”
Now, at age 50, she feels “more alive than ever before”, she knows how to promote her self-appreciation and kindness, she wants to continue to inspire people, and show all participants of the business landscape that empathy in the workplace is not a weakness. “Having compassion and placing others alongside yourself is a strength,” she says.
Sonal Trivedi, a Global Executive MBA graduate from the WU Executive Academy, co-founded the Dallas-centric boutique consultancy The COMO Group and co-authored “The F Place” with her business partner Christine Strobush, with whom she also co-created “The COMO Factor” approach to leadership in difficult times.
Fotos: Sasha Charoensub