Maliha Aqeel, Founder & CEO, The Ideas Collective & Chair, International Executive Board, IABC

Maliha Aqeel, PMP, SCMP, MC, is the Founder & CEO of The Ideas Collective Inc., an independent strategic consultancy in Toronto, Canada. She has worked in corporate and agency roles for 20 years, connecting the dots between brand, marketing and communications to drive business objectives. A well-connected global professional, she is Chair of IABC’s international board of directors. Her work has won several industry awards, including two IABC Best of the Best for employee engagement and COVID-19 crisis and response management. In 2021, Maliha was named IABC Canada’s Master Communicator for her contributions to organizational communication. She’s pursuing a doctorate at Royal Roads University, and her research focuses on social purpose brands.

Recently, in an exclusive interview with CXO Outlook Magazine, Maliha shared her professional trajectory, the inspiration behind establishing The Ideas Collective, the top qualities required to become successful entrepreneurs, future plans, pearls of wisdom, and much more. The following excerpts are taken from the interview.


Please tell us about your background and areas of interest.

I started my career right after high school as a freelance features writer for a magazine in Dubai, UAE. Over time, I expanded my services to include scriptwriting for corporate videos and TV productions and writing and designing client newsletters and promotional collateral. I didn’t have a clear plan for pursuing a career in marketing and communication. However, I found myself intrigued by what makes people choose one brand over another, especially when there’s little difference between similar products or services. During university, I took a few advertising courses, and they gave me a better understanding of how powerful brand experiences and storytelling can drive business objectives.

Over the last 20 years, I’ve worked in agency and corporate roles, have been responsible for PR and corporate communications, started thought leadership programs from scratch, and developed or refreshed several brands, from identity to strategy. I absolutely love the balance of strategy and creativity in my work, which keeps me going in this field. One of my primary areas of interest is purpose-driven brands. I’m pursuing doctoral research in this area because I believe sustainable business strategies informed by social purpose can address systemic issues and create value for all stakeholders and society.

What was the inspiration behind establishing The Ideas Collective? What sets it apart from other market competitors?

The Ideas Collective was inspired by a conversation I had with someone that the best ideas come from collaboration and co-creation. I was still working in a corporate role at the time but was seriously considering returning to consulting life. I interviewed with a few agencies but soon realized I was more interested in bringing to life my vision of the ideal consulting partner for corporates like me. As a senior executive in global matrixed organizations, one of my biggest challenges when hiring outside consultants was that they didn’t always understand the complexities of corporate life, navigating politics and the multi-layered process for moving a project from ideation to business case approval to execution. What sets The Ideas Collective apart is that we have worked as in-house advisors and strategists with direct experience managing vertically and horizontally. We use that expertise to collaborate with our clients and co-create the right solutions for their business. We’ve been in our clients’ shoes and know how to help them socialize their business case for change.

Due to my interest in social purpose, I also wanted The Ideas Collective to be a purpose-driven brand from its inception. This means being thoughtful about the kinds of consulting projects we undertake and the brands we work with. Our brand purpose is “to elevate socially conscious brands so they can do their part to transform our world.” Customers, employees and many shareholders expect brands to use their resources to address complex societal issues through sustainable solutions. Therefore, we’re interested in supporting brands with a sustainable business strategy, a social purpose and a strong commitment to operating and growing in a socially responsible manner to engage meaningfully with their stakeholders and demonstrate their positive societal impact.

You are Chair of the International Executive Board at IABC. Can you please tell us about this network and your role in it?

IABC is a global membership association for communication professionals and has a presence in North America, Europe, Africa and Asia Pacific. I joined the association after I moved to Canada because I wanted to connect with like-minded professionals in a new country, build my network and help find jobs. I found volunteering the best way to achieve my goals, and I have served on local, regional and international committees and boards for over a decade. In 2019, I joined the global board of directors and was elected Chair last year. As Board Chair, I’m responsible for leading the governance of the association, working with my fellow board members to provide oversight of our strategic plan, and collaborating with our staff to deliver value to our members and volunteer leaders.

IABC is my community in the real sense of the world. I’m connected to communicators from around the world with whom I can share best practices, learn from the experiences of others globally and give back to the profession. IABC’s purpose is to “use the power of communication to deepen understanding, inspire action and transform our worlds.” This purpose resonates with me and what I believe is the value of professional communication.

What are the top qualities or skills you believe entrepreneurs need in order to be successful?

Being an entrepreneur is not for the faint of heart. It requires tremendous sacrifice and being comfortable with uncertainty. Therefore, resilience, adaptability, and a strong sense of purpose are essential qualities for anyone considering entrepreneurship. Resilience helps you to recover from setbacks that are bound to happen in any venture. Adaptability means being open to change and being ready to adjust your approach based on what you’ve learned from your experience. This might involve changing your product, service, or business model. Make the executive decision to pivot quickly because there’s a short runway for experimentation. Lastly, a strong sense of purpose helps you stay focused on why you started your business in the first place. Your passion and vision drive you forward, inspire your team and attract customers. As an entrepreneur, you should be able to confidently answer the question, “Why you?”

If you could have a one-hour meeting with someone famous who is alive, who would it be and why?

Many years ago, I picked up Simon Sinek’s book, “Start With Why, ” which changed my perspective on how brand purpose can be a competitive differentiator. His work inspired my interest in purpose-driven brands and purpose-driven leadership. I follow him on social media but would love to meet him someday and have an intellectually curious conversation about myriad topics.

Is there a particular person you are grateful for who helped get you to where you are?

I am grateful to my parents for always supporting my ambitions and letting me believe I could do whatever I set my mind to. I couldn’t do what I do without the supportive environment that my family provides. They are my personal cheer squad!

During my career, I’ve also been fortunate to have had many mentors and sponsors who supported me, gave me advice and opened doors of opportunity. Sponsorship is incredibly valuable and essential for advancement in the workplace, especially for women.

What does the term “authentic leadership” mean to you?

Authentic leadership is all about leading with honesty, sincerity, and compassion. It means staying true to your values and beliefs and letting them shape your approach to leading others. A true authentic leader is self-aware and acknowledges their own strengths and weaknesses. I’ve always believed that authentic leaders recognize their limitations and their superpowers. They are authentic in their interactions and build trust by being consistent in their words and actions. This approach helps create a positive, open workplace culture where everyone feels valued and motivated to give their best. At the same time, they are open to feedback and adjust their words and actions to improve the team and culture.

How have you kept yourself motivated in difficult times? Have you developed any new skills, or a focus on personal well-being?

Staying motivated during difficult times has required me to apply a combination of self-care, kindness to myself and others, and embracing new opportunities as a chance to learn and grow. The saying, ‘control what you can control,’ is apt in these situations. I have learned the importance of acknowledging the challenges without being too hard on myself, as this approach helps me navigate through challenging phases more easily. Additionally, I have focused on my personal well-being by setting aside time for activities that rejuvenate me, such as reading, writing, spending time with my family and doing things that interest me. On the professional front, I have viewed challenges and setbacks as opportunities to develop new skills or deepen my knowledge in my field and other areas. Every year, I plan what topics I want to learn more about and find ways to deepen my knowledge and experience. This planned approach adds to my abilities and keeps me engaged and forward-focused.

What are your plans for the future?

My focus for the next five years is twofold: first, continue to work on my doctoral research about social purpose and customer engagement in the hotel industry; and second, grow and scale my consultancy to help brands become purposeful. I’m also working on a book proposal about purpose-driven marketing and communication, leveraging some of the desktop research I’ve done for my academic studies and adding practical guidance and examples that can help brands and their marketing teams bring that purpose to life.

What is your advice for newbies who are looking at building a career in your industry?

For those who are new to marketing and communications and our industry, my suggestion would be to start with a learning mindset. Curiosity is key, so don’t hesitate to ask questions and absorb as much knowledge as possible. Networking is also essential. Establishing relationships with peers, mentors and other industry professionals can help you discover opportunities and receive valuable support and guidance. When I moved to Canada, I had to rebuild my network from the ground up, and it was daunting at times. However, it was also necessary. The effort netted results in the long term, and now I try to pay it forward. Also, don’t be afraid to take risks or make mistakes—each setback is an opportunity to learn that brings you closer to your objectives. I mentioned before about adaptability as an entrepreneur. Marketing and communication are rapidly evolving fields and require professionals to be able to pivot, embrace change and navigate ambiguity.

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