Hajjah Rosmah Ismail, international banker with more than 25 years comprehensive experience across conventional and Islamic banking highlights the importance of empowerment in order to strengthen teams
Driven. Visionary. Down to earth.
These attributes come to mind when describing Hajjah Rosmah, an international banker who shows no sign of slowing down, having recently embarked on a PhD in Banking Law and Islamic Finance with research interest in Waqf. Although her banking experience encompasses both conventional and Islamic banking, Hajjah Rosmah is best known for setting up Islamic banking operations from scratch.
Her latest banking milestone is the recent establishment of United Overseas Bank’s Islamic Bank. This project was, globally, the largest Islamic Banking implementation within a short timeframe – it was launched two weeks ahead of the Central Bank’s deadline. In this exclusive interview, Hajjah Rosmah talks about her leadership journey, leadership success factors, how she manages conflict and what it takes to lead people and teams.
Of leadership and success factors
In prior roles, you developed Islamic banking operations from ground zero, looking at licensing activities, obtaining the necessary regulatory approvals, drawing up policies on risk, credit and investment as well as leading in branding development, client marketing and acquisition. With so much to oversee and lead, what do you consider to be the three primary factors for success in the initiatives you take on?
Rosmah: The bank’s strategy for Islamic Banking is the first thing I consider. Why does it want Islamic Banking? ‘Must have’, ‘nice to have’, ‘everyone has it’, shareholders’ directive versus senior management’s commitment, business strategy, vision, mission – these are the points to quickly assess.
Some answers may be uncovered along the way. Hence, the mandate given to me at the onset is important. It has to be a fully-fledged mandate to ensure that the Islamic Banking entity is prudent and Shariah compliant by the Central Bank’s standards.
Focus is crucial. At all times, we must stay focused on the tasks ahead and the decisions to be made in alignment with the tasks. Naturally, there may be dynamics that tend to derail certain aspects (though rare) of the project altogether. One must, therefore, have strong project team pillars who are professional as well as a committed senior management team and board. Resource commitments for this new business must be assessed and confirmed.
The most important element, aside from leadership, is people. The team is what makes or breaks a project. Putting the right person in the right place takes experience and skill. Critical technical knowledge in the respective fields is important when interviewing candidates. Project implementation is not for everyone. The team must not only have technical knowledge in their various functions but each one must be a team player and have sustainable energy to go the extra mile to get things done. There will be long hours ahead, unexpected turns and blocks, as the implementation gets underway from a conceptual framework, planning, drafting, approvals, right until systems parameterization, testing, audit and go-live.
Candidates, including those for the Shariah Committee, are briefed upfront on what to expect as their personal lives may be affected from time to time during the implementation phase; for example, having to be in the office throughout the evening until the wee hours of the morning for system testing. They must know what they are in for in exchange for the experience of a lifetime, careerwise. Therefore, my direct and indirect pillars must not only be reliable, dependable, trustworthy, transparent and dedicated – resilience is also very important. The project charter and reporting lines must also be effective so that each team member can perform his/her tasks. In all the implementations I’ve worked on, the team members and staff were excited to take on the adventure.
Choosing the right Islamic core banking system is key. An evaluation must be done for the shortlisted vendors for a set of key criteria according to the bank’s policy to ensure that all requirements are being adequately assessed and there are minimal surprises once implementation is underway. This contributes not only to the prudential operation and management of the Islamic Banking business but also ensures Shariah compliance for its products and procedures according to the Central Bank’s guidelines.
On a personal level, health is very important. I remind my team to eat healthily and space themselves out from time to time as we will usually be running a marathon till the launch. Nutrition provides energy. I get reminded by my teammates too, as we are all in the same boat with not much sleep and timely meals as the implementation gets deeper. But fun we did have!
You’ve led multicultural and also large teams of 500 people and more. What have you found to be a good leadership style that works across rank, culture, language and personality?
Rosmah: Regardless of race, religion, gender and nationality, a leader must be professional and sincere, inspirational, motivational, approachable and nurturing. But at the same time, very focused on the tasks ahead, bringing the team back to the path from time to time.
However, there are several times when the leader must allow the team to discover things for themselves as this empowerment will strengthen the team members and provide meaning to their tasks. The ‘feel good’ factor is important to keep the project spirit running high throughout. Being certified in brain technology has helped me to gain a more scientific understanding and approach in the various aspects of people performance management. Flexibility in approach and having an open mind are important in multi-cultural teams as different cultures have unique operational and relationship vibes. See the good in all cultures. Look at things from all angles. Put ourselves in their shoes.
I believe in helping to bring out the best in each team member – this is one way for us to develop future leaders in the industry.
What to focus on when in a new role
As a leader and doer with proven results, what are two or three key things you pay attention to and focus on, in the early stages of a new role?
Rosmah: Firstly, it is important to get to know the institution, its aspirations, vision and mission as well as its internal and external relationships. It’s important to know the people – every one is an individual and has a role to play.
Personalities are various; so it’s important to identify the right person in the right place, to assess that each team member is happy to be in his/her spot because the people dynamics needs to be right. Good relationships are also extended beyond the official project team as it is a bank-wide new initiative and everyone should be excited about it. But of course, nothing is perfect so we need to manage certain oddities as we go along. Again, having a clear mandate from the board is supportive.
The rest for me is technical. Equipped with adequate, fit and proper resources, the plan is laid out to meet Central Bank’s deadline. Implementing end-to-end Islamic Banking is a highly complex project. Depending on the project size, it can be, at times, complicated due to technical and non-technical factors.
In a large project comprising retail, corporate and global markets as well as asset management being implemented all at once, it can be overwhelming to the team to try to envision the gigantic and daunting task that lays ahead. Therefore, I guide my team to focus on each milestone within the time planned until we reach the finish line. In other words, we look at each tree yet never lose sight of the woods. Confidence and discipline must be instilled within the team – we must believe in what we are doing.
Corporate culture varies, some are more formal than others. In any case, the team must feel comfortable approaching me at any time with any issues. We are as strong as our weakest link and having an open door policy helps the process. So much of what I am today is due to what I have learnt from the working relationships that I have had with the CEOs, Managing Directors, Chairmans, fellow colleagues, the training from the organizations that I have been with as well as indirect mentors from the industry.
Can you share two tips about building your own network of peers, mentors and leaders that you can tap into?
Rosmah: Always be professional and sincere. As we work alongside one another or as our paths cross, even briefly, people who are genuine and grounded will tend to be in touch and we learn from one another and friendship grows. This is the brotherhood of mankind. Each one of us is not absolute, there is no point in being arrogant. Only The Almighty is absolute in everything.
How do you typically manage conflict situations?
Rosmah : Conflicts are technical or non-technical, machines or people. Talk.
What else is there to do but talk it out? People are important as they are the ones who can solve the conflicts. The brain technology instrument is a proponent of human behaviour. Hence, performance, including communications, is determined by the structure of the four quadrants of our brains. This means that each individual behaves or performs according to how his/her brain is ‘wired’.
For example, we may come across a situation where two individuals or two groups of people do not see eye to eye, we often refer to this as ‘different wavelengths’. This is because each is dominant in the opposite quadrant of his/her brain, resulting in opposite thinking patterns and, therefore, each person’s focus clashes with the other.
Dialogue is important. Each one addresses his/her concerns separately and then we have a session to brainstorm the solutions after work so that each one understands the other’s thinking patterns and the issues at hand. At the end of the day, we are in the same team working towards a common goal – nothing is personal.
Having been equipped with an all-round banking, Islamic banking, consultancy experience and knowledge over my twenty-seven year career, this has helped me speak in all the ‘languages’ of mediation, from operations, credit, risk, products, branding, legal, systems, compliance, audit, consultancy, Shariah etc. It’s great to bring people together. Not to mention that free branded coffee, curry puffs and great chocolates always help to ease tension. A great nasi lemak works well too.
Dealing with challenges
Self-development and continuing professional education are obviously things you’ve prioritised, as evidenced by the number of qualifications and professional certifications you hold. How do you manage your time and space so that you enjoy a good professional and personal life?
Rosmah: Truthfully, for many of us, there is no such thing as a balanced life, at least not throughout anyway. There are only twenty-four hours in a day and a list of priorities. We try as best we can to juggle work and non-work related matters. I am fortunate in that I have had ample time for my work commitments. Health must be taken care of, for without it, nothing much is possible.
What do you consider to be your biggest professional challenge so far? Why do you think so?
Rosmah: My biggest professional challenge so far was to fulfil the board’s ambition of implementing and launching an extensive Islamic Banking platform with multiple products across all segments of a commercial bank, namely retail, corporate, global markets, asset management and infrastructure setup within the typical twelve-month deadline set by the Central Bank. The challenge was, of course, the super-tight deadline, the mammoth task and working with a team of largely conventional bankers which meant that knowledge transfer had to be immediate and ongoing throughout. Along the way, of course, family lives continue. Accidents, births, deaths, a rescued kitty, illnesses among family members may occur. So, backup plans have to be maintained during project team placement. Compassion must never be lost.
How did you resolve this challenge?
Rosmah: Strong and inspirational leadership with clear direction and focus. Being nurturing and motivational. Having appropriate and adequate team empowerment and an open door policy. A few handpicked or nurtured pillars to plug and play, a professional and hardworking project assistance team, a supportive head office and good bank-wide relationships. Aside from sound technical expertise, being strengthened by universal human values, good relationships and integrity are important – without these, such projects will not be successful.
You’ve worked in a number of different cities, across culture, language and other barriers. What do you think is key to adapting to different organizations or cultures?
Rosmah: I don’t mean to sound cliché but I believe one must love life itself. One must believe that all of us are universal citizens, sans frontiers. In that way, we can overcome all obstacles or differences as we move towards a common goal. I come from a multicultural background, I believe there is much good to learn from all cultures. The international experience has enriched my life in more ways than one.
The Al Quran says, “ … We have created you from male and female and made you peoples and tribes that you may know one another… (Surah Al Hujurat 49:13)
The Dalai Lama says “Love and compassion are necessities, not luxuries, without them humanity cannot survive.”
Each of our hearts has to be big enough for the whole universe, if not more, to have a place in it.
What motivates you?
Rosmah: I believe in giving my best in all things that I am involved in so that there are no regrets later on. There are only two days in a year that one can’t do anything about – yesterday and tomorrow. So whatever good that I can do today, I try my best to get it done. I always plan for tomorrow and learn the lessons of yesterday.
I believe in searching for excellence in many things in life. The journey itself would be enriching. Sometimes, I arrive home like a wounded soldier, worn out, shortchanged or heartbroken.
Am I to give up? Am I to give up just because I feel a bit jostled today? Something reminded me once that whatever I go through was a speck of dust in the universe compared to what Prophet Mohammad (peace be upon him), his Companions, his family and all the other Prophets and messengers endured regardless of religion or faith. Sleep well and wake up tomorrow to a brand new day with brand new energy. I tell my team the same. This is our chosen path, this is our calling, we are not meant to be broken by it and we won’t, so rest and rejuvenate.
A non-Muslim colleague used to pop by my overwhelmed office once in a while to cheekily ask “Is God still on our side?” and receive a resounding “Yes!” from behind mountains of manuals, documents, charts etc. “As long as God is still on our side, we’ll be fine, InshaaAllah,” he said. “As long as the mess in here is less than the one in your office, I am OK!”. And we’d both laugh. Always have fun, be positive and the load seems lighter.
What activities do you engage in during your free time or weekends?
Rosmah: I used to volunteer with the MERCY mission – that was a very enriching experience. Over the years with time constraints, my free time is now dedicated to family, friends, the outdoors, Arabic classes, sporadic music lessons, the Philharmonic, movies and, of course, to my feline family at home.
Hajjah Rosmah Ismail has dedicated her life to establishing, developing, re-engineering and managing Islamic banking and finance entities across many geographies, wanting to contribute to the socio-economic development of communities through Islamic Finance. A member of the board of directors of the Arab-Malaysian Chamber of Commerce, Kuala Lumpur, she provides financial sector expertise and international liaison in order to promote business and trade between the Middle East and Malaysia. Formerly the Executive Advisor – Islamic Banking at Al Khalij Commercial Bank in Qatar, she led the Islamic Branch implementation there, exceeding the FYE 2009 revenue targets with a 45 percent contribution to overall bank revenue, winning an award for the Murabaha Deal of the Year 2009. Formerly, Executive Director, Country Head – Islamic Banking for United Overseas Bank (Malaysia) Berhad, she is currently a board member of AmBank Islamic Berhad.
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