Monday, January 13, 2014

BADLISYAH: Career prerequisites in Islamic finance

As far as Islamic finance is concerned, one could say that I have been around long enough to know a few things about it. As a result I have been asked to give many career talks to students at universities around the globe which I gladly do as part of CIMB Islamic Bank Bhd’s engagement with the academia and on personal basis beyond office hours.

During these talks, I am often asked by students and their teachers on what it takes to succeed in the Islamic finance industry. Do they need strong academic qualifications? Do they need to have a strong command of English? Do they need to have a lot of extracurricular activities to give them an edge? Do they need to do practical training? There are also other questions, including how they can become a CEO of a bank like me.

I find their enthusiasm very refreshing and inspiring and my response to them is, in a sense, fairly straight forward and typical for those line of questionings.

Yes, academic qualification is important but it is not the “holy grail” for success. Yes, they definitely need a good command of English as without it they will be handicapped.

Yes, they should have strong extracurricular activities as these give them good life’s experience that they will never get in a classroom.

I emphasise that between someone who has a first class honours degree with little or zero extracurricular activities, and someone who has a third class honours degree or even a diploma for that matter but is active in extracurricular activities giving him or her priceless managerial and leadership experience, I will choose the latter. Of course there will be other considerations to take into account for making that choice but extracurricular activities often time trounce pure academic qualifications.

Hard skills can only help them build a bridge over a ravine but it is the soft skills that will help them convince people to use the bridge that they built. Islamic finance is that bridge they need to build if they join the industry.

The academic qualifications or theoretical knowledge will help them build the industry by creating products and services but it will not help them grow it. Growth will come when people use it. It is the soft skills that they learn through extracurricular activities that will allow them to succeed in getting lawmakers to enable it, securing the regulators to govern it, persuade the investors to invest in it, convince their management to do it and to assure their customers of its attractive value propositions.

And yes, having practical training will also give them an advantage to succeed in a dynamic industry like Islamic finance although it is not a prerequisite for fresh graduates. Notwithstanding, it is always something good to have.

I personally do not really care what kind of practical training people get. It does not have to have anything to do with Islamic finance. I shared with them that I personally worked in a launderette for a few years after school and during school holidays. I was washing, folding and ironing clothes, manning the reception desk, handling the till machine, managing customer complaints, doing inventories, dealing with suppliers, maintaining the washing machines and dryers, etc. Yes, I have done everything including all the “icky stuff” of handling someone’s dirty underwear. The experience served me well in my career.

To me practical training must be real. It cannot be something done for the sake of having a good curriculum vitae or undertaken for the glamour of it. To draw an extreme example, if becoming a janitor gives you valuable practical work experience then do it and put that in your resume. Don’t think that practical training must only be a cushy attachment with an Islamic bank in an air-conditioned office, sitting at a desk and assisting in a multi-billion sukuk deal. It is all about slugging it out and really learning how to work hard and work smart.

However, after everything that’s been said, if there’s no perseverance, there won’t be success. When I first joined the industry in 1997 when it was in a “bagai kerakap hidup di atas batu, hidup segan mati tak mahu” (or in other words, in a limbo stage), my friends called me stupid but I persevered. So people interested in Islamic finance must have perseverance to succeed. It is about accomplishing things even when there seems to be no hope at all of us ever succeeding. I guess my perseverance has allowed me to be part of the most exciting and fastest growing component of the global financial market.

On the last question about becoming a CEO, my advice to them is to never aspire to become one. I never did. I always tell them to just focus on doing a good job and deliver more than what is required of us at all times. To do things purely for the good of the organisation we serve to the best of our abilities and to never shy away from doing what is needed and required of us so long it is consistent with Shariah.

Any position including the position of a CEO comes simply as an enabler for us to do what we need to do; doing more and doing it better. Positions should never be the reason why we do things.

At the end of the day, I will continue to speak at universities and engage with the academia to build a stronger and better Islamic finance industry for as long as I am able to.

Islamic finance needs more talents and I encourage all those nubile young men and women in universities to join an “old timer” like me in this exciting and fast growing industry.

[Badlisyah Abdul Ghani is ED and CEO of CIMB Islamic Bank Bhd]