Suzan Barghash is a Fortune 500 Human Resources Executive, currently VP HR at Applied Materials in Santa Clara California.
How did you get started in your career?
I grew up in the Middle East and during high school I was living in Kuwait. My grades were quite good and although others in my family went to universities in the West, I went on to study at Kuwait University. I chose to focus on computer science. Given this focus of study, there were not many opportunities for females to be very social or have much fun at that time, so I rushed through and graduated early. I then entered the workforce at a fairly young age. I got my first job through networking and became a commercial analyst at the Commercial Bank of Kuwait. I was sent to training in the UK and they really invested in me and my development. I grew into an IT Department Manager, expanding my critical thinking and my process skills which would be hugely helpful to me later in life.
I then met my husband who was a US expatriate and we began our family. I had two young boys at the time when Iraq invaded Kuwait. That changed everything and that’s when we decided to move to the U.S. We exited, crossing the border in a bus, with our two babies and landed to settle on the East Coast. Shortly after, my husband’s company, ABB, offered him an assignment in Malaysia which meant another significant life event. We moved to Malaysia and for a couple of years I lived an expat life as I was unable to work in the country. After that assignment, we came back to the U.S. and I asked myself: now what?
I had a very successful early start but now needed to think about things differently. I borrowed books from the library and studied and absorbed whatever I could. I then applied to a business analyst role at DLJ and got an offer. This was a really difficult time trying to balance career and family. I was fortunate to have support from family as well as access to daycare to help me care for the children in order to work. I continued to network and build my contacts and through this I was offered a Financial Services Consultant opportunity at Barclays on Wall Street. They were interested in leveraging my computer science and background on systems related to HR. At the time I didn’t know much about HR and began a period of self-study and certification to learn as much as possible. That is when I realized that this was the functional area I was most interested in. I continued to work hard and benefited from great sponsors along the way. When I became pregnant with my third child, it was clear that managing this type of commute and demanding role would be quite challenging. I sought out an interesting opportunity at Allied Signal Corporation (today Honeywell) which I drove by every day and it seemed to be a perfect opportunity because it allowed me the life balance I needed.
I joined the HR Benefits team and started growing again. I took on more responsibilities and was part of the team that worked on the Allied Signal acquisition of Honeywell. I was asked to lead a significant HR systems/process integration across the two companies in Europe. This new role enabled me to apply my computer, data analytics, process, functional HR knowledge and experience to action. My family and I moved to Brussels, Belgium and I became the regional Employee Services leader in Europe, the Middle East and Africa (EMEA) for Honeywell. After an amazing 5 years of success, I accepted a job with Cargill as the EMEA Regional HR Director, we ended up staying in Europe for 10 years. It was a huge growth opportunity for me and my family as my children went to international schools and gained cultural experience and a network that would also serve them well throughout their lives.
One of my sponsors and former managers then tapped me to leverage all that I had gained and to bring it to another company in a different industry. This required yet another family move from Brussels to San Jose, California, where we now reside. Initially, I led HR Operations and then over the past 11 years, I moved on to more strategic HR business partnership and broader HR leadership roles.
All of these pivots were key, and I would never regret any of these moves. For me, it was about continuously learning, growing, embracing change, and great sponsors who fostered my development and opened doors. I also had a very strong work ethic which served me well.
Is there anything you might have done differently as you look back?
An area that I would have loved to have done differently was to learn to collaborate with others better and earlier. Perhaps because of my background or culture or competitive spirit, I have had to recognize that we don’t win despite others, we win with others. I learned along the way to be a great individual contributor, but I also had to learn to be a great team member and leader. I truly believe that it is not about individual success, we only win when we win together. Early on in my career I was lucky to get the feedback and coaching to help me work on it to turn it into a strength. I’ve been working on it since because realistically under stress, we can fall back on old patterns. I try to stay self-aware and quite mindful of it so I can manage it in the moment as well. I’ve also learned to let go more and to realize that we don’t have to win at everything and that true winning in the end is if you brought others with you along the way.
There is a great Ruth Bader Ginsburg quote that I saw recently which really sums it up for me: “Fight for the things that you care about, but do it in a way that will lead others to join you.” That continues to inspire me.
What’s still on your career bucket list that you would like to do someday?
I am still very much on the journey of my career. I would love to translate some of my greatest strengths and skills and take them to the next level. I would love to work and have even greater board experience. I would also like to be able to partner and influence more at the CEO level and be part of a successful executive team.
What few bits of advice would you give someone regarding work or career?
From my personal experience shared earlier, I would say that nobody can solve everything. Focus on the few things that really matter and let go of the rest.
Sponsorship is key. Welcome it, embrace it and leverage it. Foster those relationships continuously as they are sources of great learning and great support that can lift your career in so many ways.
Also, really importantly, it is OK to be different and to forge a different path. I was always outside the norm; however, my uniqueness made a large difference. Find sponsors who see your greatness and don’t align yourself with those who don’t.