As senior vice president of Allied Fidelity Group, Sameer Ismailzada wears a lot of hats. He handles legal and compliance issues, manages partner relationships, makes marketing decisions, and functions as chief financial officer for the company, which provides process improvement consulting services. His staff increased from three to more than 50 over the course of four years, leaving Ismailzada and his fellow shareholder wondering how to navigate such exponential growth. As more and more unanswerable questions arose, Ismailzada decided to pursue an Executive MBA (EMBA) from the Robinson College of Business. He graduated this past winter.

Ismailzada said the EMBA program transformed how he looks at himself as not only a leader but also a person. Before undergoing a major change, one must first self-reflect. The EMBA program facilitates students’ introspection through a 360-degree analysis. Ismailzada requested feedback from 12 former colleagues comprising a mix of subordinates and bosses, helping him land on two areas for growth: perfectionism and indecisiveness. Ismailzada was paired with a Professional Certified Coach to tackle those weak points.

“When you want everything to be perfect, you can’t make a quick decision. You think and think, get paralyzed, and mess up work/life balance,” Ismailzada said. “Through my coaching sessions, I developed a road map to fix those problems. I’m much happier than I’ve ever been.”

Now, Ismailzada is equipped to ensure his company’s growth remains sustainable, mainly by motivating his team. Energizing the workforce is one thing, but maintaining momentum is another beast. Under program director Nathan Bennett’s guidance, Ismailzada explored concepts such as spearheading change management, implementing processes and procedures, addressing resistance to change, and building company culture.

During the final semester, Ismailzada and his cohort completed a 12-day international business residency in South Africa. The class toured companies such as Tshimologong Precinct, an entrepreneurship incubator; Discovery Limited, a financial services group; IsoMetrix, a provider of risk management software solutions; Gold Fields, a gold mining firm; IDM, a debt management organization; and Project Playground, a foundation aimed at improving the lives of vulnerable youth.

Project Playground made such an impression on Ismailzada that he has provided a year’s worth of education and food for two South African children, with his two sons officially listed as sponsors. The decision was a family affair. Ismailzada and his wife set aside annual funds for charity. With their sons acting as treasurer and controller, the family votes on how to distribute the money. This year, they agreed on Project Playground.

“My children were born in the United States, and that’s their merry luck. They could have been born in South Africa or my home country of Afghanistan,” Ismailzada said. “It’s my responsibility to touch the life of someone who hasn’t had the same good fortune.”

The excursion also included plenty of sightseeing, such as tours of the Nelson Mandela National Museum and Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela spent the first 18 of his 27 years in prison. Mandela happens to be Ismailzada’s childhood hero.

“Historic sites contain both darkness and sweetness. There are so many lessons to be learned,” Ismailzada said. “For example, Mandela demonstrated perseverance, and that justice and tranquility eventually win. Everywhere we went during our trip to South Africa, we experienced pure joy and striking moments.”

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