«Living in a different culture is a challenge»
Shiva Roofeh is an international facilitator, speaker, moderator, program designer and educator who teaches people how to discern, understand and control their own mental programming. A way of thinking and acting that comes from the different cultures in which we all grow up and are immersed in.
Shiva is of Iranian-American, Muslim-Jewish agnostic origin and has lived in six different countries. All this intercultural mix of hers made her someone with a great capacity for observation, analysis of social environments and adaptation to change. A knowledge she applies daily by helping people improve themselves and their relationships in their professional environment.
In this interview we learn about an intelligent, strong and determined professional with a quite interesting experience.
– You are of Iranian descent and grew up in the US from the age of five, how do you live between two cultures and what has it meant for you to grow up in this environment?
That is a wonderfully triggering question. Living between two cultures sometimes seems sexy and exotic but in reality it’s very hard. Like a lot of immigrants I grew up in a system where inside the house I was one identity – Persian – and outside the house I was another identity – North American. This wasn’t a conscious decision, it was survival. In a culture like the USA society doesn’t give you permission to be not American. When we first moved to the US I was Iranian, both my internal identity and my external identity – the identity that society labeled me, was “from Iran”. As I got older my internal identity shifted, I became Iranian-American but my external identity stayed the same. Always being asked “where are you from.. Where are you really from?” forces you to identify as other, as non American in this case. At the same time, the longer we spent in the USA the less my family and other Iranians considered me theirs. So you enter a sort of in-between space where you’re not one or the other. And for me that constant disconnect between my internal identity and my external identity meant that I just didn’t belong, that’s how I internalized it. So growing up in that environment I constantly felt the need to belong, anywhere. I felt homeless. But in that in-between space there’s also a freedom. If I’m not fully Iranian I don’t have to follow all our unspoken rules like having a poet’s heart and also becoming a doctor or engineer. Not being fully American meant I also don’t have to follow all the unspoken rules of the US like excessive competition while following your dreams. Cultures are full of contradictions. By not being from one or other I was able to create my own culture, choosing which values, norms and behaviors were aligned with me. And that is the biggest gift living between multiple cultures has given me.
«I constantly felt the need to belong, anywhere. I felt homeless. But in that in-between space there’s also a freedom»
«Cultures are full of contradictions. By not being from one or other I was able to create my own culture, choosing which values, norms and behaviors were aligned with me»
– You have lived in different countries such as Iran, Italy, the United States, England, Ireland and Spain, in what way have they changed you personally in addition to your perception of the world and of people?
I lived in three countries before the age of five. I was born in Iran and lived as a refugee in both Italy and the US. As a kid, simply knowing, really knowing, that other cultures existed was a lifesaver. And when I say “know” I don’t mean cognitively – we all know other countries exist. For me “knowing” is living. Having lived in other countries, met its people, eaten its food, seen its streets and experienced it meant that I knew there was always a way out. There was always an escape. I realize this sounds super survivalist but really it was the start of mindset that concretely knew that other realities were possible. Another change that a cross culture life has given me is constant energy and need to explore. I honestly don’t know if my intense curiosity about the world is something natural to me or something that happened because I lived abroad so much as a kid. As an adult I also choose to keep moving. I’ve lived in England, Ireland and now Spain and all of those experiences have helped me become a better person, consistently and continuously. Every single day living in a different culture is a challenge – in a good way. Every day I come across something new, sometimes it’s a new word and sometimes it’s coming face to face with a part of my mindset or identity that I didn’t know was there. If you take advantage of all the challenges and regular newness and if you choose to face who you are and not who you want to be during these challenges, then you have the opportunity to change the worst parts of you and continuously grow into a better person.
«experienced it meant that I knew there was always a way out. There was always an escape»
– What does the ability to adapt mean to you?
It means make small shifts in the way you think, questioning your assumptions, and changing some habits. There’s this fear that if you adapt to other people or other cultures (which is fundamental for real inclusion), then you lose yourself and your identity. That’s complete bullshit. Adapting doesn’t change who you are, it doesn’t change your values or religious beliefs and it doesn’t make you less patriotic. There are two general parts to adapting: adapting to behaviors and timetables and adapting mindset and attitude.
Both of those together means looking at your surroundings – the people who choose to spend time with and love, the organization where you work, the community you choose to keep, the society you live in – and understanding the people that make up those groups. What is common sense for them? What is “normal” for them? Some things like timetables and dress codes might be rigid and that means you have to change your behaviors and habits. Other things, intangible things, like communication, trust, respect, friendship and leadership are more flexible and mean you observe and learn about the people so you can treat them how they want to be treated, not how you want to be treated.
«There’s this fear that if you adapt to other people or other cultures (which is fundamental for real inclusion), then you lose yourself and your identity»
«Adapting doesn’t change who you are»
– What is mental programming, why did it start to interest you, and how do you work in this area?
Mental programming is all the unwritten rules, so called common sense, assumptions, values, beliefs and behaviors that we inherit from our national cultures, our religions, families, friends and communities while we are growing up. We didn’t actively choose any of these assumptions, values, rules, etc. They were given to us, programmed into us, from when we are children. I became interested in mental programming when I got into the world of Cultural Intelligence. Learning that each culture had its own “common sense” and that there are different definitions and beliefs around things like trust, respect, “good” leadership, and even different perspectives of time, made me realize that we’re all just trained in our culture’s assumptions, values and beliefs. We aren’t asked as children what mental model of the world we want to use. We are given a mental model and commanded to follow it – that command is never explicit, it comes in the form of rejection – “if you don’t follow how we work here, then you don’t belong here.” This made me realize that even smaller cultural units like families, communities, schools are made up of people who follow a similar mental model between them. And guess what? All these people (meaning you, me and everyone we know) end up in jobs – CEOs, politicians, factory workers, hospitality workers, medical workers, etc and continue living in their mental models of how the world should be, but the problem is that 1) none of chose our mental model so a lot of times what’s normal for us is not actually natural for us and 2) no one shares the exact same mental model as us but we think they do. My work is helping senior leaders understand and unpack their mental models to get rid of assumptions, beliefs, unwritten rules and behaviors that don’t serve them, their teams and their organizations.
«We didn’t actively choose any of these assumptions, values, rules, etc. They were given to us, programmed into us, from when we are children»
«My work is helping senior leaders understand and unpack their mental models to get rid of assumptions, beliefs, unwritten rules and behaviors that don’t serve them, their teams and their organizations»
– How is the work you do as a facilitator like and how do you apply it to your work?
When I’m working as a facilitator and not a trainer, my role is to create and moderate processes where people come together to discuss a topic, generate ideas, make decisions, etc. In my facilitator role I’m not an expert in any specific content – it’s the participants who are the “experts” or who hold the knowledge. So my role in context is to create a psychologically safe space where participants feel they can share openly, discuss without getting off track, not take things personally and get insights along the way. I use my facilitation skills all the time – in meetings with clients, in debates, when training… while arguing with my partner. It’s like a magic tool.
«My role in context is to create a psychologically safe space where participants feel they can share openly, discuss without getting off track, not take things personally and get insights along the way»
«I use my facilitation skills all the time – in meetings with clients, in debates, when training… while arguing with my partner. It’s like a magic tool»
– You design education programs for companies, what kind of programs do you design and what are the results?
I teach people how to not be assholes. I realize this sounds offensive, but I mean it with the best intention. My definition of asshole is someone who is unaware of the mental programming that is driving their decisions, behaviors and attitudes. So I teach people how to discover their hidden mental programming so they can be better humans first and better leaders second. And a better human is simply someone who knows enough about themselves to not put their problems (their insecurities, fears, anger) on other people.
I do this through programs focused on Cultural Intelligence and Leadership and, more importantly, where those two meet – self awareness and leading by design not default. When you start living and lead by design not default you become aware of your problems – the fears, insecurities, old beliefs and assumptions that have been driving your behavior. You realize how your worst part has helped you in some ways but also how it’s hurt your leadership, relationships and career.
Think of it like tools for leadership and life that nobody teaches you. That’s what I teach and facilitate. The results are amazing (very humble of me, I know). Yes, there is always a percentage of people who resist and reject but the majority are open to the idea of stretching who they are and how they show up. In those cases some of the results have been: unconventional next generation leaders getting a seat at the table; a white supremacist undergrad embracing multiculturalism; senior leaders leaving high profile and high paying jobs to launch purpose driven community projects; General Managers in major pharmaceuticals actively working to become better ancestors and; my favorite – senior leaders across countries and industries facing their fears and insecurities of not being good enough, smart enough and just enough.
» A better human is simply someone who knows enough about themselves to not put their problems (their insecurities, fears, anger) on other people»
– You work for different international companies such as Novartis, ABN AMRO, Gestamp Automotive, Generali, Accenture, Rolls Royce, Samsung, BASF, Merck, Repsol and Unilever, among others, of which projects are you most proud?
If I had to choose I’d say that the project I did with Generali is the one I’m most proud of and of my absolute favorites. It had a lot of layers to it as a program and I was lucky to work with a great team and a super smart, sharp client. On a personal level though, I was not in a good place. The program involved a few week-long face to face sessions in Italy and on day three of the first session I realized my marriage wasn’t working and I wanted a divorce. I cried that night and every night until I got home. But during the day I was able to get on the stage, command the room and do a kick ass job. And I loved every minute of doing it – I didn’t suffer through it, it felt like exactly where I needed and wanted to be in that moment. Living in that space between the passion of doing what I love to do and the terror of knowing that my life will have to drastically change unlocked something in me. Living that I knew that I could break down and move forward at the same time.
I’m extremely proud of that program in general – the client, the participants, my co-facilitator – these are some of the best professionals and humans I’ve ever worked with. But I’m also proud of myself because I didn’t just make it through a bad time, I excelled during a bad time and I even enjoyed it.
«I’m also proud of myself because I didn’t just make it through a bad time, I excelled during a bad time and I even enjoyed it»
– You are a teacher in different business schools, such as DukeCE, Headspring (formerly Financial Times – IE Corporate Learning Alliance), The Geneva Business School, BSpark and ICADE, how is your relationship with your students and what do you try to instill in them?
I’m a no bullshit teacher. I also have little patience and high expectations. But I also want to teach them all the life and leadership tools that no one ever taught me and those around me. I want to instill in them a need – not a desire or a want but a need to be better and do better. I think I can actually answer this question better by quoting an old student (you can find this in my LinkedIn): “Before contacting Shiva, think twice. And carefully… Only do it if you are ready to know the worst part of you; only do it if you want to be aware of your deepest assumptions and prejudices; only do it if you want to treat people as they would like and not as you would like; only do it if you are ready to know that you are the same as everybody else in the world but everybody else is different as you. Do it if you want to change. But especially do it if you want to be a better human being. Shiva has changed me and has changed my life. People like her make the world a better place”
– What do you like most about your profession?
I love the amount and diversity of humans I meet and the variety of opinions, worldviews, beliefs, stories and assumptions they have. I love traveling, meeting and working with leaders across the world and realizing they all have the same central fear: that they are not good enough. I love that I can face powerful people as equals because I know that as complex as we are, as different as our realities are, we are all just children pretending to be adults because none of us really know what to do.
«I know that as complex as we are, as different as our realities are, we are all just children pretending to be adults because none of us really know what to do»
– You collaborated in a selfless way with organizations that help immigrants and refugees, what kind of work did you do in them?
I worked as a Cultural Intelligence trainer for staff members and volunteers of refugee organizations and also as a Cultural Intelligence trainer for their clients.
– What projects would you like to do in the future?
Professional development through personal development is a really powerful service that isn’t so available for the general public. The chance to meet other next generation leaders who want to be better and do better, who are all from different companies, industries and roles, and working together on their professional development on their own terms – that is something very special. That is what I want to bring into the future. I want to help globally minded next generation leaders take control of their career and leadership so they can bring forward a healthier culture and leave behind a legacy they can be proud of. In short, I want to take the trainings I do for companies and open them up to the general public.
– A wish that you would like to come true
For more and more people to actively practice being better humans.
«For more and more people to actively practice being better humans»