Connecting with Suraya Yahaya on Creating Your Authentic Career

Suraya Yahaya is the founder of Khazana, Inc, where she provides fractional COO services for several companies. Her story proves the value of boiling your business down to fundamental values as a means of creating satisfaction and success at the same time. 

Episode Notes and Bio at

Credits: Raechel Sherwood for Original Score Composition. 


Credits: Raechel Sherwood for Original Score Composition.

YouTube Channel: Uncover The Human






Alex: This week on Uncover the Human, we are joined by Suraya Yahaya, the Founder of Khazana, Inc., a Fractional COO firm. I was struck over and over again in this conversation about how Suraya proves that there is a vast difference between the number of hours you spend with the company and the ownership you take over yourself and your impact on the company. On the show, she discussed her approach of starting with values to create the best relationships with clients for growth, morale, and long-term health within organizations. Suraya is truly living proof that we can use our personal authenticity to create growth for ourselves, our businesses, and our clients. I hope you enjoy the conversation as much as we did. Thanks.


Alex: Welcome to Uncover the Human, where every conversation revolves around enhancing all the connections in our lives. 

Cristina: Whether that's with our families, co-workers, or even ourselves. 

Alex: When we can be our authentic selves, magic happens. 

Cristina: This is Cristina Amigoni. 

Alex: And this is Alex Cullimore. 

Cristina: Let's dive in. 

Alex: Let’s dive in. 

Group: Authenticity means freedom. 

Authenticity means going with your gut. 

Authenticity is bringing 100% of yourself. Not just the parts you think people want to see but all of you. 

Being authentic means that you have integrity to yourself. 

It's the way our intuition is whispering something deep rooted and true. 

Authenticity is when you truly know yourself. You remember and connect to who you were before others told you who you should be. 

It's transparency, relatability, no frills, no makeup, just being. 



Alex: Hello and welcome back to this episode of Uncover the Human. We are here with our guest, Suraya Yahaya. Welcome, Suraya. 

Suraya: Thank you so much, Alex, and Cristina, for having me. 

Cristina: Thank you for joining us. 

Alex: Thanks so much for being here. We're really excited to talk to you. You've actually just started out your business a couple years ago. Then you just said you're kind of going through a whole reinvention, and we'd love to talk about that process a little bit with you. Do you want to start us out with what you do and how you got into it?

Suraya: Yeah, sure. So I'm a fractional COO, fractional Chief Operating Officer, and I started out on my own in 2018. I was in big business for a long time, first as an attorney and then in operations and strategy, different roles, growing and scaling businesses. In 2018, I branched out on my own. I was very excited to do that. So I got my company started. But really, I had to kind of rebuild and reinvent, like you said, Alex, so I started from bare bones. Bare bones, that was me for 20 plus years. How do I want to show up? How do I want to serve people and companies? How can I add value, not just to other people into other companies but to myself as well and my family? 

It was truly almost like a restart in a lot of ways. But now restart with hindsight of what are the things that matter, if you will. Just really sat down, really opened up everything and examined and said, “What are my core values, what are my strengths, and when do I show up best?” I actually had a friend who is an Ayurvedic specialist, and she often – I'm a half Indian and half Malaysian from Malaysia, and so Ayurvedic treatments. The approach is huge in Malaysia. She uses that as a format with her clients in the practice of your Ayurveda to really ask yourself, when do you show up best? So I thought, “Oh. If one can do that for one's health, what doesn't stress you out? When do you show up best?” Foods make you show up best or don't show up best. Do you show up better when you sleep or don't sleep, those types of things? Or when you have alcohol or don't have alcohol. 

I thought that's interesting. If that can work for your own health, maybe that can actually work for your career and how you show up as a leader. So I really kind of worked with that and played with that and then kind of developed a core offering, I should say, and from there whom I want to serve, what kind of leader I want to be for myself and for my team. Yeah. Fast forward three years later, so here we are. 

Cristina: That sounds like a wonderful journey. I love the comparison too. If we can do that for our health, why shouldn't we be able to do that for our careers as well?

Suraya: Yeah. Right? Interesting because she said when patients come to her, “Should I do yoga? Should I do this? Should I stop eating this food? This was kind of making me feel terrible. Am I allergic to it?” So she kind of backs them into “when do you feel your best?”. So that was a really interesting approach I think because I don't – Well, certainly when I started out my career 20 plus years ago, no one was like, “So when do you think you show up or feel your best?” 

Cristina: That was not a popular question as part of the interview process. 

Suraya: No, right? Yeah. 

Alex: This is when you will show up best. 

Suraya: This is how you're going to show up. This is what you’re going to do. Yeah. Totally, totally. Also, I think, again, a lot of people – We’re fortunate now because the economy's slowly reopening, and there appear to be a little bit more options for people now in terms of jobs. But I noticed certainly last year, when it was super tough, super tough, a lot of people didn't have that option. So when you don't have that option, I don't want to trivialize the fact that sometimes you just don't have a choice. You just have to take a job because you have bills to pay. But if given the opportunity or if you can get past that and then have a little bit more room and space to think about it, I think it really helps. 

Alex: So I’m curious and I don't mean to dig in too much if it's a painful memory, but what led to the impetus of feeling like you wanted to reset and go more from where do I show up best?

Suraya: I think just burnout. Again, I go back to the health care thing. I think it's just burn out and just sort of being on the grind of push, push, push. Push hard, push hard, push hard. There's always that next level. There's always that next level. There's always that next level. I think along the way, a lot of stuff gets left behind. I'm not knocking any of that big company stuff at all. I think it's great for people who want that. But I think, again, if you have the space to consider another option, it's a luxury I think to be able to do that, to be able to really sit down and figure out when you show up best. 


Cristina: Definitely. How was the journey of – You mentioned in the health part, it’s about how did you sleep, what did you eat, did you drink alcohol or not, which exercise is best for you. How do you do that for a career? What do you look at?

Suraya: Yeah. I think that I started out with values, I guess. For me, service has always been an important value, giving back to the community. So I started exploring some relationships and some opportunities in nonprofit. Then I like leading people. I like leading teams. I'm a pretty social person. I like talking to people and getting to know people. So the people aspect of it was important. But I think that the biggest thing for me is I wanted to add value, serve people, but also build a structure that would support my family. 

When I was in big business, there was a lot of travel. There was a lot of weekend work and stuff like that. I wanted to build a structure where I could be there for my companies that I serve but also for my family, so my three children, my husband. It was a literal design of a value that I could offer companies based on my strength around my own personal core values, my family service and helping people. So that was kind of the journey, which is interesting, right? Because you’re sort of like, “Okay, I want to design something where I can be of service, help people, but also be there to serve my family.” Then you kind of back into what are my strengths, what can I bring, what does my experience bring, what are my skill sets. 

I remember talking to several people who are now my mentors and said, “Here's kind of what I want to do. Here's what I'm good at. What do you think?” I think having a lot of different sounding boards really helped. From there, I remembered actually talking to this gentleman who's still my mentor today. He said, “Well, it sounds like you're a COO. You run big functions, and you're driving the company and the strategy forward. You’re creating strategy, working with the teams.” From there, it became this idea of a fractional COO because the fractional piece allows me to work with a variety of different companies, serve people in a variety of different areas, work with a variety of different teams, and still have enough flexibility to show up for my family.

Alex: That makes sense. When you're – I mean, COO is a great plugin to be able to go touch all kinds of aspects of the business, be able to really instill values and how people use values in other companies. Do you find yourself driving some of the values that you have in with your clients? Is that a helpful selling point as well?


Suraya: Yeah, both ways. I tend to work with companies and pick clients who share my core values. So off the bat, when I'm talking to a CEO because it's typically the CEO who's hiring me, we immediately have a connection around values. I tend to work with a lot of leaders who have their own families and/or who have reinvented themselves and/or who are first gen and immigrants like myself and/or who are a diverse and minority group, self-starter types, a lot of women or even a lot of males who just reinvented, started from scratch who didn't know anything about this. But I thought I'd start this thing. I'm like, “Oh. Well, I could relate to that. Let me just help you with that.” 

A lot of people across the spectrum from shared experiences and shared values, so it's just two ways. I tend to, I guess, be attracted to those people, kind of scrappy, make it happen, smaller companies, small budgets, but really great people, really great ideas, great values of family and respect and working together and kind of everybody pitching in. Part of my job as COO, you're absolutely right, Alex, is to infuse the company with values, value structures. I'm responsible for culture as well, typically, along with the CEO. I work in the EOS model, amongst other operating models. I work in the EOS model. Part of that is having a set of core values that everyone in the company is able to embrace and adopt.

Alex: For people who don't know, what is the EOS model?

Suraya: It's the Entrepreneurial Operating System model. There are many different models out there. It's basically a model of creating a very crisp strategy based on a shared vision, creating a very crisp strategy to grow and scale the company and hit an end goal. My job as the COO is to make sure the strategy is on track, implement the strategy. A part of that is, okay, well, it's not just all about numbers. It's not just all about metrics, but how do you ensure people move along in that journey, embracing and leading with core values?

Cristina: That's a great model. So what does a best day as you showing up as your authentic self look like?

Suraya: I serve several different clients right now, and a best day is problem-free, but that never happened. A COO is never problem-free. 

Cristina: They probably wouldn't need you if they are problem-free.

Suraya: Problem-free, there’s no such thing. So I would say a good day is- I have honest conversations with people, and they show up with trust and with honesty on their sides that we can truly problem solve because you're right. There's no problem-free day. Problems are going to come up, but we can only solve them if people are honest. I think you have to build enough trust and credibility with the people so that they can say, “Hey, I don't know how to fix this,” or, “This thing happened, and now we're stuck or we have this bigger issue than we thought.” That, to me, is a good day. 

A bad day is when we have a problem. We don't know why. No one kind of wants to talk about it. Or something has blown up because of bad communication or bad relationships. So there was no trust somewhere up in the process. Finger pinpointing starts. People start running behind each other. In a smaller company, I think what I like about working with smaller companies is you can really – Like you'll figure it out very soon that, “Oh, wait a minute. Here's where the issue is.” There's nowhere to hide, right? I mean, to figure it out. What? How did this happen?

In a smaller company, typically you can figure it out like, “Oh, that's what happened. Oh, okay.” So in a smaller company, just because you know where the problem is and how it started, the goal is to try to have that trust and that relationship that you can actually fix it. That would be a good day where you come out of it relationships are intact, maybe even some humor in there, right? At the end of the day like I guess that was, “We shouldn't do that again.” 

Alex: Actually, vulnerability and trust. 

Suraya: Yeah, right. Right. And you kind of move on.

Alex: I love the idea of reinvention. I love the starting with the values, and the EOS model sounds very much similar to Start with Why idea. Like let's get a vision here, let's get what the goal is, and then move towards that. So having done this reinvention process, where you've gone from feeling like you didn't have all the values defined or weren't as physically focused on those to now having that focus, what do the days feel like? What's the difference?

Suraya: I think that it drives the question of how you want to show up drives a lot of my decisions. Again, bigger company, sometimes, you've got this sort of ROI, the margin, the numbers, numbers, numbers. People are just a numbers sort of thing. Smaller company, I think, of course, especially a small-growing company, because all my clients have fast-growing companies. They’re trying to get to a point sale, acquisition, merger, whatever. Margin, ROI, profit, all these things are still incredibly important. But I think what's interesting now is there's more of a conversation around how you want to show up. 

So you might have to make a tough decision to make some changes because it's jeopardizing a project, or it's jeopardizing cost or jeopardizing revenue. But you do it in a way that I think has a lot more compassion, empathy, respect, and consideration for how you want to show up. You don't want to be remembered as the jerk who did that. Yeah, right? I think sometimes that gets lost, right? Just make the decision, and it's like, no, you don't want to be remembered as the jerk who did that. Or you don't want that to be the culture. You don't want other people in the company to feel exposed because of a decision that was made without considering the values. 

Also, when the core values are something I think that you have at the top of your mind, again, there's no place to hide. For example, as a person, if you said that you were going to do blah, blah, blah, and then later down the road, either you realize or someone's like, “Hey, that was not kind of how you operated,” then it's like, “Oh, you're right.” It's kind of a lot more obvious. Or in a company, if we make decisions that are misaligned with our core values, other employees are going to be like, “That's not who we are.” 

Alex: I love that definition. There's nowhere to hide. 

Suraya: There's nowhere to hide. So I think, for me, the difference has been, yes, I could do that. It would be easier, faster, quicker, better result, less dragging it out or whatever. Or maybe I just kind of drag it out a little bit. Do a little bit more coaching, a little bit more conversation, a little bit more investigation. Maybe try to find a different option. It forces us I think to just slow down a little bit and consider some other stuff.

Cristina: That's such an important cultural difference, right? Ready, shoot, airm mentality versus the, “Well, let's think about this. There's a human on the other side of this. How do we actually think of the impact two weeks from now, six months from now, two years from now, instead of this quarter today? This is bothering me, so I'm just going to do it.”

Suraya: This is bothering me. I don't want to deal with it anymore. I'm just going to do it, right? Of course, no one wants to keep dealing with these situations. But if you have a different, more compassionate option, take it. Another interesting thing too, and I think, Alex, to answer your question, is when we're going through our strategic planning, if the goal could have been x plus, so let's say 10% margin is the goal, could we do maybe 8% this year but spend some extra time building stuff for culture, stuff for people, some other type of stuff, which I think is an interesting, scary, and I guess sometimes just unusual proposition. Sure, we could do 10 but can we do 8? Because if we do 10, we're going to push so hard that it's going to be at the expense of our people. 

Cristina: That’s a very good point of view. 

Suraya: Yeah. It's not a popular one, but I'm fortunate that I'm at this table where I can have this discussion. I'm fortunate that I can have this discussion and really try to change and influence change and try and drive some different conversations.

Alex: It’s much easier. What you're saying, you kind of start the value alignment, even with the client from the very start. It makes it a lot easier to have the conversations and then course correct if there's ever drift on it because remembering like we had this similarity and this overlap ahead of time, rather than trying to train it or teach somebody that.

Suraya: Right, exactly. Yeah. We said we were going to – It’s very tempting, right? I think as companies get bigger and more and more successful, and you start chasing the profit number and all that, it's very tempting to veer off course and to be able to say, “Well, that's not how we said we want it to be, right? We didn't want to be that company.” It's pretty interesting. Now saying that though, at the end of the day, I don't want to paint the picture that it's all roses and bunnies, right? Because, for example, if a company is on the path for acquisition, it is tough. It is tough. You've got to show those numbers. You've got to show the ROI. You’ve got to show cost management, execution type processes. I think the challenge is how do you do that in a humanistic way.

I think it's understanding, well, two things. I think, first of all, it's truly building trust with the teams so that people do feel like they're able to say, “I don't know how to do this. I can't do this.” But it's a balance also where you want to encourage them to grow. So mentoring folks and coaching folks to say, “Okay. Well, that's okay. But can you go back and think about it?” People give some suggestions to help them grow as leaders, so they can feel like they're part of the solution and come back, have them – Their growth journey is for them to think through, “Okay, all right. So I'm not in trouble that I admitted I don't know how to do this, which is important. But now I've been asked to go back and think about it and given some space to think about it. So let me think about it and then come back with some suggestions and solutions.” You grow as a company. They grow as a leader from that. 

The other thing too is I think how you do it in a humanistic way. You always have an option where it's not just the cost that shows success, right? It's not just profit that's a measure of success. Other elements in the journey have to be a measure of success as well.

Alex: Have you found interesting ways to kind of tie those ROI models? Because there's a lot of good examples of people sticking around companies a lot longer when there's investment in the people. Of course, turnover can be very expensive, and everybody knows it's a lot of time and a lot of money. Have you found any cool models to help people identify like, “Here's one even focused just on monetary gains. Here's a reason like this is the right investment to make long term.”? 

Suraya: Yeah. I don't think there's a specific model out there, unfortunately, that tells companies, “Slow down your path.” There's no model that says, “Don't grow at 10. Grow at 8.” All the models are like, “Grow at 10. Push hard.” 

Cristina: Grow at 20. 

Suraya: Grow at 20. I think – So it's interesting, right? You as a leader, you as the senior team or the VP or whatever it is, wherever everyone is, you as the leader have to be the one to say, “I don't think that all of the numbers side is the be all and end all.” That's not the be all and end all. The leaders have to be the one to say, “We've got other stuff, how we show up in the community, how we respect and support each other, how we onboard new people. We don't just leave them hanging in the wind. All that stuff. How we coach interns to be successful.” All of that stuff adds up, and those should also be measures of success because you're absolutely right, Alex. You take care of your people, and the ROI will come. But I don't think there's a model up out of the gate that says, “Slow down your growth so that your –”

Alex: They might but they might be less popular. 

Suraya: I know. Exactly. No one's running towards that model because it is tough. I know a lot of PE firms and VC firms, they want to invest in high-growth companies. They want to invest in companies that are showing 20, 30, 50 percent margin consistently. But what other things can we show as measures of success?

Cristina: How has the pandemic impacted the shift, if there has been one from numbers only to, “Oh, maybe the people matter too.”? 

Suraya: Yeah. I think very much so. I think a lot of companies who survived last year survived frankly because of people, both sides of the fence. I mean employees and customers hung in there with them. That's why a lot of companies survived last year. So I think for the employee side, a lot of us worked from home, had kids at home, and still showed up, right? Still showed up, still took care of the companies. The companies kept going. I think a lot of companies did PPP loans in order to stay afloat, keep as many employees as possible and then customers too. 

I know a lot of my work last year during the pandemic was helping companies restructure their cost model and their operating model, and work with their vendors and their suppliers to restructure some contracts, etc. So it was sort of a chain reaction. The vendors were treating companies with care. Companies were treating employees with care. Ergo customers were treating the companies with care, who showed up well, right? Because the customers might have been like, “Hey, I can't pay but I really need the service. Can you help me?” So there's kind of this chain reaction of companies sort of taking care of each other, and their employees, and then the customers kind of responding to that.

I think this year, coming out of that, I'm grateful to see that the shift has not been dramatic away from that, right? Maybe it's still the continued uncertainty. I think the summer has been great to be very aggressive in terms of growth. But we were just talking before we started the show. We don't know what's going to happen in the fall and the winter this year. The hope is that we’ll keep going. So I think there's still, in my experience, a humanistic approach towards leadership I think. 

Alex: So just two questions, one looking back and one looking forward. Looking back, what are some of your favorite initiatives you've been able to put together with COO that are more humanistic driven? Then as a follow up, looking forward to the unknowns that are coming in the fall and winter, as you're talking about, what are you thinking about helping people with, and what's your thought on how to guide people through that, what is going to definitely be an uncertain few months?

Suraya: Yeah. I think last year, looking back, I would say it's creating equity and space for working parents and caregivers last year to have a flexible schedule. That's probably one of the biggest things I think coming out of last year that I'm probably most grateful for having been able to influence. It was just a very uncertain time. Kids were back home more than they were back in and then came back out. Even if you didn't have kids, you had elderly parents or you knew someone or a family member who had COVID. So people were still trying to keep their jobs and be a caregiver last year. 

I remember talking actually to a couple of different podcasts and for an article where I said the economy can actually open up until we solve the caregiver dilemma, which is how do you provide adequate, affordable, and safe care for children, as well as elderly parents, etc. because the majority of the workforce has this as a big stressor. If we truly want people to show up and really help drive the businesses and drive the economy, we really need to solve this problem. So I was grateful to be able to create some of those structures in a non-penalizing way to have people take time off or work four hours during the day and work a 10-hour day when their spouse could be home or whatever it is. Just kind of figure out your structure, right?

Then I think going forward, it's a couple of things. One is continuing the equitable care model. The other thing too I think is rebuilding relationships. A lot of us have been remote for so long. Most of my clients are remote, and it's weird to go back and be like, “Oh, hey. I haven’t seen you in like 10 months.” 

Cristina: I can see you in 3D. 

Suraya: I can see you in 3D but I haven’t seen you in 10 months. Like, “Ah, what do we do?” I don't know what either of you think, but it's strange reconnecting with people. Again, because I think a lot of issues can be resolved, and teams work a lot better when they trust each other and are vulnerable with each other and have great relationships and can laugh together. So something that I'm thinking about is, well, geez. I hope we don't go fully remote again. But even if we do or if we’re semi-remote or even if we can do outside events or whatever, how do we build back? Especially in a small company, it's so important. The collaboration, the relationships, the connectivity, that's so important.

Cristina: Yeah. That makes me think of, also, besides the remote and together piece that's very challenging because even getting together with friends or just socially, it’s this familiarity of like, “Oh, I know how to do this.” Then almost, am I supposed to be doing it differently? Is it supposed to be feeling the same way as it used to? What happened to the last 16 months? Was there kind of a wormhole that took them away? There's definitely some weirdness there. 


But as companies grow, because you mentioned especially because you work with a lot of high-growth, fast-growth mergers and acquisitions companies, how do you maintain that connectedness, those relationships because that's where we usually see them kind of fade away, because it becomes all about the numbers and it becomes much more siloed and much more, “Well, you've got your three people and you’re siloed. Why do you need to be connected to anybody else?”

Suraya: Yeah. I think it comes from the top. I work with companies about, I don't know, 2 million or even slightly sub 2 million to about 80 million. Once it gets up there, it gets pretty hard, like you said, to maintain those relationships. Then sometimes, even before an acquisition, the company can be buying another company. Yeah, they'll be buying. So they're the acquirer of another company, and then you have this whole other organization you're absorbing. What does that do to culture? I had one client buy a company overseas during the pandemic times because we can’t fly there. I think it might have been in Italy, if I'm not mistaken. So it's like we can't leave to go see you. It was very challenging. 

Yeah. I think I'm not going to lie. There's a danger. There's a danger. You get to 80 million. You get to 100 million. There's a danger. So I would say a few things. It's very important for the leadership team to set that culture and not just have it be lip service. You see too often that it's lip service, so they'll throw a barbecue thing. There’s no true value there in terms of actually connecting with people. I also think it's showing up, honestly. If you say you have a commitment to diversity, if you say you have a commitment to minorities, then you actually have to act it and do it because it's so easy, like you said, as the companies get bigger or they buy someone else to just start to get diluted. So I think keeping your eye on that is very, very important.

Alex: Yeah, the common theme of basically just are you going to show up with core values and commitments. You've said them. You've put them in posters. You put them on the wall? Are you actually going to be able to deliver on that? That becomes such an important part of just relationships, in general. It is the basis of trust. Are you going to be able to deliver on what you say you're going to deliver on? If you can, if you can instill that culture, that's when you get people to stick around. You can get people to be a lot more creative in their problem solving. They want to be there. They want to see these commitments through because they’ve probably joined because they liked the commitments they saw that you wanted to make.

Suraya: Right, exactly. That's a leader. Again, I go back to the leaders. If leaders aren't really asking the tough questions, and they don't feel like it's safe to do so, then that's not great. I remember this, and this is not a client that I had. But I remember a case study where this company had a commitment to diversity. Yes, the diversity numbers looked great; minorities, women, folks with disabilities, etc. The numbers looked great. But then when you peel back the onion, most of those folks were at a certain level. After you get – Once you're past like, I think it was Director, there weren't a lot of people in those groups. Maybe a few tokens here and there. Word got out. I'm pleased we're talking like, “Oh, yeah. You're a minority. You can only expect to get to here, right? You're not going to get past that.” So that's not great. That's not how you want to show up.

Alex: It's a perfect example of why people would leave and why the commitments become important because it's going to be found out. It's going to be obvious enough at some points. Then if that gets shared, then there's no fault of the employee. The employee is just trying to work to, “I would love to get to a level beyond this, and this just doesn't seem possible here, so I know I'm going to have to leave.” At which point, you know, you're going to be losing your workforce.

Suraya: Yeah. It’s funny. Again, this wasn't a client. I remember reading this case. I was like, “Oh.” So what I was grateful to be able to do was when I was in my senior leadership team meeting, I asked the question. I said, “Hey, there's this case study about this company. We don't want to be like that, right?” They’re like, “Oh, yeah. We don't want to be like that.” So it kind of raises awareness that – Again, I think as leaders, you have that responsibility. You can't put the burden on others. You have to take the burden on yourself. You have to be the one to do it.

Cristina: You mentioned that part of the reinvention was realizing that you like to lead teams as one of the many things that you love to do. How do you lead on a fractional basis?

Suraya: I actually don't think of myself as fractional. So I'm not like, “Oh, really? You have that issue.” Sorry. I’ll talk to you on Monday.” 

Cristina: My time for this fraction is done. 

Suraya: No, I wouldn’t do that. I mean, obviously, I have to balance all my clients but I make myself available on a reasonable basis. As emergencies come up, people text me, “My mother's in the hospital. I have to leave.” I don't respond with, “Sorry, I'm with someone else right now. I can't talk to you.” Again, when you pick the clients who are aligned with your own core values, so if I'm on the phone with someone and I get a call, and there's an emergency, another client has something, I say, “Hey, can I call you guys right back? I have to attend to something.” So I'll take that emergency, handle the issue, and then come back. 

I don't think of myself as fractional. A lot of the time, other than the leadership team and the CEO and maybe some directors and stuff, the rest of the company doesn't know I'm fractional. I'm on the company website. I make an effort to know every employee in the company. I usually go around and introduce myself to every employee in the company because we're small. The employees are around between, I would say, 10 or 12 to 400 or whatever. Eventually, I'll get to all of them. Then it’s not long conversations. I just want to introduce myself. So when people see me on employee calls, or I write something for the blog, they know who I am. That's the whole company. 

I think for the people, my immediate direct reports, one of the reasons I like leading people is I like getting to know people and getting to know what is important to them. I have three children. So I had to sort of build my career and grow my career when I was pregnant, when I had my kids, when my kids were babies, etc., etc. So I talk to a lot of mothers who have the same struggles that I had, and we kind of figure out how to problem solve those things, work stuff, work and balancing kids or just stuff going on at home. I like to travel. So I get to know people I guess. Then personally and then from a career standpoint, sort of what motivates them, what they want from their job, what annoys them.

I often ask people if I'm interviewing someone, “So what is not going to work for you, right?” Because usually, it's all about – I don't know if you've noticed. But when you check someone's references, they're always like, “This person's great.” But then it's, “Okay, what's going to annoy this person? What's going to make them frustrated?” I asked that of my team, “What's not going to work for you?” So they're like, “Well, sir. Just because you're willing to text on a Saturday morning, this isn’t going to work for me. My son is in soccer on Saturdays.” So I'm like, “Oh, okay. Well, that's good feedback.” Whatever it is, find out what your employee needs, what annoys them. I think it's so interesting to find out what annoys people because your boss never asked you, “Hey, Cristina. What annoys you?” 

Cristina: I don't think they've ever asked me, but they find out pretty quickly. 


Suraya: They find out quickly, right? Or they find out in a way that’s not like the best way. 

Cristina: I try to be open about it. Sometimes, it turns into passively aggressively and then –

Suraya: Right. Or you march in there. You're like, “Okay, fine. Take this report.” 

Cristina: Yeah. I had one boss once who gave me a transcription. He gave me the task to transcribe a phone call or a voice message, something like that. It was back in the early 2000s, so there was no transcription software at that point. It was completely manual, me listening and rewinding. 

Suraya: Oh, no. Stop and rewind. 

Cristina: It was a 20-minute-long voice message,“Who leaves a 20-minute-long voice message?” It took me I think two entire days to do and it was so bad for me of an experience that when I finally handed it over, my boss was like, “Note to self. Never to ask you to do this again.”

Suraya: Yeah. That is terrible. Again, I don't want to paint the picture that all of this stuff has come easy. I have learned a lot of this through trial and error mistakes, the hard way, people telling me to my face, “You messed up.” Then “Oh,” because you just don't know. You just don't know. Most people are well-intentioned, right? You have blind spots. That’s why I spend a lot of time now learning the people and the culture versus anything else. 

It's funny, right? You join a new company, and we’ve all had this “Alex, what's your 30, 60, 90-day plan?” Do you get that, right? You join a company, “So tell them what your 30, 60, 90-day plan is.” I often tell them because I get interviewed all the time, because clients are approaching and talking to me all the time, right? People are trying to ask for services all the time. I say, “I don't have a plan. No plan. My plan is to learn.” It’s a good answer to understand if that's going to be okay. Because if they're like, “What? No. I want this, this, this, this, and this,” then “I’m not your person.” 

Alex: The intention is, of course, understandable when people are like, “What's your plan for this?” But it is kind of funny when you flip it on its head there and say like, “Well, I'm going to have to learn about this,” because the person is asking “What's your plan,” either they already have a plan in mind, which is why one would need to learn that plan. 

Suraya: Right. Yeah, exactly. 

Alex: Or what are they expecting? You just jam your one-size-fits-all solution on them?


Suraya: Yeah, right. Yeah. No, some of them are like, “No, I want this by this date.” I’m like, “Okay. Well, maybe. I don't know. I don’t know if I can do it by that date.” You're exactly right. They have an idea in their head and they want to hear your answer against that or they're comparing you against other candidates, which is totally fine. Or they want something super sexy, super aggressive, and that's just – I have learned the hard way, aggressive, push hard. Initially, when you don't build that trust is the wrong answer.

Cristina: Completely agree. So how do you deal with somebody that comes to you and says, “Well, no. You need to have a plan,” or, “Here's the plan or something that's more than you can’t just show up and learn. I'm not paying you for that.”

Suraya: Yeah. I get that all the time. I can't just have you sit there for 90 days and learn. I say, “Well, part of my learning will be to give you an honest assessment of the people, process, culture, gap, and then give you my recommendations. So I'm not going to act. I'm going to learn, talk to people. Maybe 90 is too long. Maybe it's a 60-day plan, right?” Learn, talk to people, and I do it all in a confidential manner. So I don't like to go at the end of 60 days and be like, “Oh, well. Cristina said this, and Alex said that.”

Alex: Gossiping always becomes stressful. 

Suraya: Right? Yeah. No one's going to talk. It's always confidential. I'm like, “So do you know that you have a tendency to work with your people between 6:00 and 8:00 PM, and that's when it’s family time or whatever? But for whatever reason, the nature of your business requires you to be constantly on and responding at that time.” Folks don't like that. Or that's why you have a high attrition rate. Or maybe it's not shown up yet at an attrition rate, but there's a lot of stuff brewing. Also, do you know that there are challenges with a particular leader on the senior team? Maybe no one felt comfortable raising that, but that's something that if you want to really build a high functioning company, we have to look at. 

That's what usually happens. I don't act on anything. I'm not coming in guns blazing. Like you said, Alex, pushing a one size fits all. Okay, we need these reports and these metrics, and we need this process or sales force or whatever it is, right? Push, push, push. Maybe we need a CRM, but that's usually in my assessment. Yeah, there's a lot of manual stuff right now. People are running around, taking customer information manually. To make life easier, consider this.

Cristina: Yeah. That's definitely the way I would prefer to approach things, and it's the successful way, honestly. There's no success in just going in, jamming down somebody's throat the one size fits all or whatever cookie cutter because it was all about execution and knowledge about learning first. Then you're going to backpedal anyway. You're going to end up having to redo it all, and it’s going to be three times longer, four times more painful, and five times more expensive.

Suraya: Right, exactly. Again, because I don't look at my clients as fractional, I look at them as a whole company, I tend to stay long with my clients because you've built that trust, you've built a strategy, you build a momentum, and you're in there, saying that I'm not a fit for every company out there. There are companies that are like, “Look, I've got one year and I've got to do this in one year.” Then it's a conversation about whether that one-year accomplishments are reasonable, given where they are. Because I usually look and see, “Okay. If you're here, and you need to get here, is that reasonable, and what is that going to take?” If it's going to push at the expense of people, then I'm not the right fit for that. Yes, clients have walked away from me. I have walked away from clients. No hard feelings. We’re just not the fit.

Alex: That's a really good example of the power of just leading by your own personal values. That's a great fit.

Suraya: I'm not that leader who's just going to come in and just rip it straight off. If they want to get there 12 months, whatever it is, for whatever reason, bank covenants, loan commitments, PE firm commitments, etc., that’s totally fine. A lot of companies, I think maybe even now, coming out of the pandemic, are under extreme amounts of stress, so they've got different considerations.

Alex Absolutely. I really like that. That's how Cristina and I, whenever we talk to vendors or have to bring people in to do any piece of work, one of the ways we tend to evaluate it is how willing are they to ask questions and learn about what we’re trying to do first before they just either jump in and already have a sales pitch or after we've had one email, and you're like, “I don't know you. I don't even quite know what you do. You don't know us or what we do. But, okay, I guess we'll hear this one out for a little bit.”

Suraya: I know. Isn’t that terrible? 

Cristina: It’s horrible. 

Suraya: It’s horrible. I know.

They never ask you anything about yourself. They just start talking and then – I actually had a friend. It’s a funny story. He told me he actually had one of these like reach out on LinkedIn, and this guy was like, “Can I get 30 minutes of your time?” He had kind of an interesting business model, I think the person who reached out. So my friend is like, “Yeah, sure. Okay.” The guy he said talked for 25 minutes. It got to the end and finally said, “So tell me about yourself.” My friend says, “This is what I do.” The guy is like, “Oh, we’re not a fit.” He’s like “Yeah, I know,” at the end of 25 minutes. 

Cristina: That's so bad. 

Suraya: I said to him, “Why did you sit there for 25 minutes?” He's semi-retired and he’s like, “I just kind of sat there and let him talk.” 

Cristina: We have a funny sales story that we may have to share offline. But it reminds me a little bit of that because of the 25 minutes of us sitting there, and we're like, “We just sat there for entertainment at this point. It’s pure entertainment.”

Alex: I mean, we're getting the value. It’s just a totally different value. 

Suraya: Yeah. So let me guess. They weren't a fit. 

Cristina: No. 

Alex: It didn't end up being a fit. 

Suraya: I think the listening piece is so important.

Alex: Suraya, I really love your approach to all of these things. You talked about listening and connection, and you've given like 40 examples of exactly why those are so important in the daily operations of a business. Thank you so much for joining and sharing these because these are all wonderful, concrete examples of how this matters and why this matters. It can be hard to sometimes give people models for, you're talking about you can't have the, “Yeah, we're going to pitch you growing an 80% model.” But I do love the examples you've given because these are why it becomes important. It doesn't always reflect immediately in the numbers but it does reflect overall. I thank you so much for having all these examples and sharing them all with us.

Suraya: Yeah, for sure. Thanks for having me. It's great conversation. Again, I'll just say this one thing too, I've made a lot of mistakes, but I've learned from every single one of them. So don't be afraid to own your mistakes like, “Oh, I did that badly.” But then you learn from it. So I will just say that. 


Cristina: Wonderful addition. So one of the things we ask at the end to all of our guests, and this is very fitting to your overall theme that you have of living your authentic life by building an authentic career, is what does authenticity mean to you?

Suraya: Authenticity means that when you go to sleep at night, you know you've done right by yourself and the people who depend on you. 

Cristina: Wonderful. 

Alex: That's really nice. I like that a lot.

Suraya: Nothing fancy. Just when you go to sleep at night, you know you've done right by yourself and the people who depend on you. For me, it's my children. I want them to – If someone were to say, “Oh, that’s your mom? Oh, she’s blah, blah, blah,” and I want that to be a good story and a good message for them. Then I know I've showed up authentically.

Cristina: Yeah, that's beautiful. It's that forward thinking of what I do actually matters for the future, not just for now. 

Suraya: Correct. Yes. That I could have done it this way but I didn't. I did it this way, and people remember that.

Alex: So where would people find you, if they want to like sync up, talk with you, maybe hire you, anything? Where would they find you?

Suraya: I'm on LinkedIn, Suraya Yahaya on LinkedIn, Fractional COO. Then my company's name is Khazana, K-H-A-Z-A-N-A, That's a Malaysian word. It means treasure. You'll know immediately it's me because it's full of Malaysian colors and all kinds of things. So, again, part of that is showing up as who you are, as you wanted to. Even though everyone when I started the company was, “It’s so hard to pronounce. No, go with something else,” I'm like, “Nah. People will remember it?”

Cristina: Yup, they will. 

Suraya: Yeah. 

Cristina: Excellent. We’ll add all these to the show notes. 

Suraya: Okay, great.

Alex: Thank you so much for joining us, Suraya, and thank you everybody so much for listening.

Suraya: Thanks so much for having me. Take care. 



Cristina: Thank you for listening to Uncover the Human, a Siamo podcast. 

Alex: Special thanks to our podcast operations wizard, Jake Lara, and our score creator, Raechel Sherwood. 

Cristina: If you have enjoyed this episode, please share, review, and subscribe. You can find our episodes wherever you listen to podcasts. 

Alex: We would love to hear from you with feedback, topic ideas, or questions. You can reach us at or at our website,, LinkedIn, Instagram, or Facebook. We Are Siamo is spelled W-E A-R-E S-I-A-M-O.

Cristina: Until next time, listen to yourself, listen to others, and always uncover the human.



Suraya YahayaProfile Photo

Suraya Yahaya

Fractional COO | Fractional Integrator™ for Companies Running on EOS™ | Board Member | Small & Med. Co. Advisor | Entrepreneur

Suraya Yahaya is Founder and CEO of Khazana, Inc a firm offering Fractional COO and Fractional Integrator for EOS services to growing enterprises. Suraya is passionate about helping companies grow, scale and simplify their operations. She brings over 20 years of expertise in strategic alignment and process simplification to help clients successfully go from vision to execution.

Suraya is skilled at partnering with CEOs and leadership teams across a variety of industries and business stages to identify common goals, and to create and execute a plan to get there. She draws on her experience having worn many hats – attorney, strategist, market builder, transformation leader, P&L owner and entrepreneur / operator to identify areas of risk and remove roadblocks for growth.

As an EOS™ Integrator, Suraya loves to lead teams and help them grow. She believes in the power of people, process and systems working together as the basis for traction and execution. She enjoys the process of building and creating alignment around this. To that end, small- and medium-sized businesses are her passion. They present an opportunity to create operational elegance and set a culture of seamless collaboration and success.

Suraya is committed to giving back to the community and to mentoring and coaching the next generation of leaders. She is an active speaker on the topic of women leadership, diversity and inclusion in the talent pipeline, and serves on nonprofit leadership teams. She is also active in several entrepreneur and start-up communities, and provides advice to companies who are mission-driven to change the world.

Having lived and worked internationally after starting out from her native home country Malaysia, Suraya now lives in Colorado with her husband and 3 children, where they enjoy hiking and camping in the beautiful Rocky Mountains, cooking and continuing to travel and explore the world.