Leadership is a journey rather than a destination. It is true that some people are more natural leaders than others, but in order to truly make an impact, every leader must embark on a journey to expand their skills and knowledge. Some of the necessary skills include being a good communicator, deferring well, being prepared and willing to learn and adapt, and having both emotional and social intelligence.
There is a natural cycle of learning when it comes to developing skills and knowledge in any human endeavour. You learn, you apply what you’ve learned, you adapt based on the results, and then you repeat the process. And while this process takes some time to perfect, you cannot achieve a level of mastery without repeating such cycles. There is always more to learn, grow, experience, and continue the journey.
It takes a lifetime to develop into a great leader. It’s easy to focus on the golden fruit—the benefits of success and leadership—rather than the journey—the failures, lessons, and sacrifices along the way. Focusing on the destination gives the impression that success is the ultimate goal. In reality, it is the result of a successful journey.
To understand the intricacies of this journey we spoke to Nerissa Thakurdas, Head of Cyber Security Operations Centre at Falanx Cyber an enterprise-class cyber security services provider, which supplies a full suite of cybersecurity solutions to its customers. The goal of our conversation was to learn how a leader understands and energizes herself and aligns her capabilities with her core values. Something we know our readers would find highly illuminating, especially those who are on their own journey of leadership
PerceptivX (P): Hi Nerissa, it is such a pleasure having you here. Let’s dive in, shall we? Let’s first discuss your journey in your company. Why did you decide to join Falanx Cyber? Tell us a bit about your background within your company.
Nerissa (N): Glad to be here… (smiles). Gosh! Where to begin? I was drawn to Falanx Cyber because the IT Security industry is such an exciting place to be right now, and interest in it is growing at an exponential rate. Falanx Cyber was founded in 2014 and operates from the UK with the headquarters and the Security Operations Centre (SOC) which is based in Reading It is the first SOC in the UK to be triple ISO-certified. Falanx Cyber deliver end-to-end cyber capabilities, either as specific engagements or as fully managed services. Their services include, Managed Detection & Response (MDR), Endpoint Detection & Response (EDR), Retained Incident Response (R-IR), penetration testing, ethical phishing, red teaming and Continuous Vulnerability Scanning (CVS). Having a SOC guarantees business leaders peace of mind, knowing our human analysts, are watching their network 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, providing an added layer of protection to the artificial intelligence or machine learning most companies solely rely on to pick-up and combat threats.
Working in IT Support & Operations for 15 years for some large, well-regarded and well-established companies both in the private and public sectors such as Harrods, IBM, European Space Agency, De La Rue, The Royal Air Force, London Luton Airport, and the NHS, I gained a wide range of transferable skills, but what I remained the most passionate about was service delivery & continuous service improvement. I wanted to apply these skills to a growing company where I could be more involved in shaping and moulding the overall service.
Falanx Cyber was looking for someone with my experience who could apply it to maturing the delivery of cyber security services, and that is exactly what I have been doing since joining the company in February 2022.
P: It is often said that leaders are products of their deepest desires and motives. Was there a pivotal moment that encouraged you to get into the position you are in currently? How does your background affect you as a leader today?
N: Above all, I want to give my future children the life I never had when I was growing up. I had a difficult childhood growing up with little money, and my parents were unsupportive at the time. I desired a stable career that would enable me to achieve my life goals.
My uncle gave me an Apple Computer when I was a kid, and it was the first computer I ever used. I quickly figured out how to use it. We got the internet at home in the early 2000s. When the router stopped working, I quickly learned how to troubleshoot it and self-taught myself how to repair it, right down to the hardware. At the tender age of 14, I became deeply involved in website design. I taught myself HTML and this is where my interest in IT and technology began. I took on the role of technical support for my entire family, assisting them in setting up their computers, internet, printers, TVs, and internet.
While I went to school and finished my AS Levels, I wasn’t connecting with any of the subjects I had chosen. I then looked for something else and discovered an IT apprenticeship programme for people my age. Boy, was I so excited! ...(laughs).
I then decided to drop out of college to pursue my passions in information technology. I was completely engrossed in all of the content, eager to learn more, excel, and continue to grow as a person. When I discovered how in demand IT was across all industries, I was energized to do everything possible to succeed.
Today this background manifests in me having a strong work ethic and demonstrating deep dedication and commitment; I consistently go above and beyond my role to ensure operational needs are met.
I find joy and satisfaction in being immersed in the world of technology, which is constantly changing and therefore very interesting. I’m constantly learning about new systems and ways to improve the service we provide as an organization.
P: How did you pivot from information technology to the management sides of things? Was it always part of your plan to become a leader? Lots of people confuse being a leader to being an entrepreneur. Our readers will find your transition particularly illuminating.
N: When I first got into IT, I quickly realised that there are two paths to take: technical or management. I quickly realised early in my career that I had a natural talent for management but lacked confidence.
Within my 15 years of experience, having held both permanent and contract roles, I felt that spending three years on short-term contract roles was the most valuable. This provided me with excellent exposure to various companies in such a short period of time. This experience taught me how to tailor operational processes to a company’s size, maturity, mission and vision, values, and overall culture.
This gave me the confidence to lead and make suggestions in my next permanent role. When I began making small improvements and leading the team in my managers’ absence, I knew I had found something I enjoyed and that I would continue down this career path.
P: The journey of being a leader is often referred to as the path of the solitary one. In moments of melancholy, how do you continue to motivate yourself to keep growing, not just professionally but also personally?
N: When I discover that I am no longer learning in my career or job, or that my learning has slowed, I will seek out alternative sources to re-accelerate my learning. Whether it’s learning what another team does in the business and how they operate, taking an external course, or reading articles online to see how I can apply what I’ve learned to the benefit of my own team. If that is not possible, I know it is time to move on to a new challenge. There are always opportunities to improve, develop, and learn. Something is wrong if I am not learning.
P: While most people focus on the successes of great leaders, both of us know that leadership is a road that is littered with obstacles and setbacks. Philosophically speaking, what lessons have you learned from your greatest failures?
N: Any failure, no matter how large or small, contributes to growth. I’ve learned far more from my mistakes than I have from my successes or professional training. The lesson I had to learn was that everyone makes mistakes, but how they handle those mistakes defines a person’s character. Do they take responsibility or pass the buck?
Being able to own, learn from, and quickly recover from mistakes demonstrates your ability to grow and improve your skills, and is a key mindset for success. To me, a great leader is someone who communicates openly, listens carefully, makes decisive decisions, and incorporates the advice of others into their strategic plans.
P: It takes a long time to earn the golden fruit. As you mentioned before it takes persistence and dedication to succeed as a leader. In your leadership journey so far what has been according to you, your greatest achievement?
N: My greatest accomplishment to date has been receiving an award for Outstanding Transformation at the Women in Tech Excellence Awards, which are held annually by Computing in London.
I didn’t think I’d win with the calibre of talent all around me, so I was surprised when they announced my name as the winner.
P: Many of our readers who want to be leaders in their field will find your journey inspiring and educational. But, who was an inspiring leader to you growing up and who inspires you now?
N: It was members of my own family, my two uncles, Ronnie Khan and Asif Dean that inspired me to succeed. I saw how they started their careers and lives from nothing. And I thought, if they can do it, why can’t I? They both demonstrated to me what can be accomplished through hard work and dedication. As a child, I looked up to them and looked to them as role models.
Later in life, it became clear that men had an advantage. I knew many successful men, but I noticed a significant imbalance in the number of successful women. That however changed when my Aunty, Elaine Khan, entered my life during my adolescent years and married my uncle. She was not only kind, loving, and caring in her personal life, but she was also excelling in her professional life. She was smashing through glass ceilings. I had convinced myself that senior positions would be unattainable for a girl like me, but her example showed me that it is possible through her own lived experience.
People in my family who inspire me now are my mother, Shakaina Khan, my grandmother, Julie Tinson, my stepfather, Tehseen Gul Khan, my Aunty, Suzie Dean and my family in the USA. They are all so strong, resilient & have taught me right from wrong. I wouldn’t be where I am today if it weren’t for the guidance of these key figures in my life.
In the public eye, people who have created something out of nothing motivate me; Gordon Ramsay is one of my idols; the way he has built his empire through sheer talent and determination is phenomenal, and I have been in awe and following his career since his show ‘The F-Word’ debuted in 2005.
P: A hallmark of a leader is someone who is constantly exploring new avenues and initiatives. What is your most exciting project at the moment?
N: I am the Founder and Vice-Chair of a UK-registered charity whose mission is to assist the homeless or those at risk of becoming homeless. While the Covid-19 outbreak slowed down operations, the charity’s Chair and Co-Founder, Paul Lock, and I will resume building this in 2023.
P: In the above paragraphs you shared with us how the people in your life inspired you to be a leader. We can all agree what they shared with you as people played a major role in shaping your journey as a leader. What will your legacy be? How will you shape the next generation of leaders?
N: My legacy will revolve entirely around giving back. I’ll give back by volunteering, making financial contributions to causes I believe in and care about, such as lowering carbon emissions, and by sharing my knowledge and experience.
I’ve already been able to give back my time and experience by using my voice to advocate for greater workplace diversity and inclusion, whether for gender, race, religious beliefs, neurological conditions, disabilities, or even sexual orientation.
Today I feel honoured to mentor a diverse range of women in technology from various cultures and social backgrounds to help them advance in their careers, and I will continue to do so for the rest of my career. I want to do for them what my aunt Elaine did for me, inspire them through my successes and failures to become great leaders.
P: If there is one thing you would like to share with leaders wanting to advance in their industry or grow their businesses, what would that be?
N: I believe Steve Jobs put it best when he said, “A lot of people in our industry haven’t had very diverse experiences. So they don’t have enough dots to connect, and they end up with very linear solutions without a broad perspective on the problem. The broader one’s understanding of the human experience, the better design we will have.” I believe those are the qualities a leader striving for growth must acquire.
When it comes to organizations, diversity is the key point to incorporate. Numerous studies have found that a diverse workforce, particularly diverse leadership at the Senior Management and Board levels, is directly related to improved financial performance and profit growth. Therefore, diversity, inclusion, and equity must be prioritised in every organization’s strategic plans and roadmaps.
P: Nerissa, thank you very much for your time and insight