Ms. Juliet Morris of International Banker interviews Ms. Nahla Khaddage Bou-Diab, Deputy General Manager and Chief Operating Officer of AM Bank.
Today, International Banker is joined by Nahla Bou-Diab, Deputy General Manager and COO of AM Bank, to discuss the bank’s approach to customer service, the take-up of digital banking in Lebanon and the “opportunity gap” for women employed in the Middle East banking sector. Nahla, welcome.
AM Bank has received a lot of recognition for its innovation. What is the biggest single way, do you feel, that you are more innovative than your peers?
I think we recognize that innovation is not something that can be dictated by top management. Innovation is triggered by a certain foundation. Innovation is the outflow of people’s passion and people’s creativity. When you recognize that, then you must recognize that there’s a certain way of managing your organization and laying down the foundation to be able to trigger innovation, passion and creativity. And we recognize that, and we consider that to be one of our core functions as senior management of the bank.
Would you agree that some other businesses struggle to recognize innovation and allow such innovation? And if so, why?
Managing in a way where you give instructions is much easier on people than managing emotions and creating a sense of belonging and triggering passion. Leadership historically is not use to that. And, so, there’s huge room and an opportunity for leadership evolution when it comes to this. And this is where people must, leaders must move to if they want innovation.
During our last conversation, you mentioned that you were more concerned with the opportunity gap for women rather than the gender-pay gap. What is, in your opinion, the best way to ensure that more women enter this sector? And not just enter it, but thrive within it?
I think the first step is the actual recognition by organizations that this is not a social responsibility; this is an organizational need. Because those two different directions are dealt with totally differently by organizations. So, if I understand why gender diversity is an organizational need, I’m going to adjust my processes, my structure, my way of managing things to accommodate this need. Because I need gender diversity in my organization. So, the first step is the recognition that this is a need. And we can talk a little bit about that in terms of why it’s a need.
Well, absolutely. I mean, that begs the question, Why is it such a core need within an organization?
Well, we all recognize that today, we compete in a global environment. So, you’re no longer competing in your geographical boundaries; you’re competing with the globe. This means that you have to be able to have a wider view of the globe, of the pressures that are happening, so that you can adjust your decision-making processes, you can adjust your strategies, along with the possibilities presented by the global environment. Gender diversity enables you to see a wider view. Because if you look at how humans make decisions, you would understand that the strength lies in how wide your vision is. If I may elaborate on this. So, people will be presented with information. And everything that happens after that, in order for them to behave or to make decisions, stems from the information they see. So, if you’re only seeing this much….
From a male perspective.
From a male perspective, then all… you’re going to miss out on a whole different, really a wide view that you’re missing out on. And that you’re not going to be including in your decision-making processes. If you want to be able to make proper decisions, you have to ensure that the input information that you’re receiving is complete. It cannot be complete if it’s limited only to one gender, whether male or female. For it to be complete, it has to represent the perceptions of both genders, men and women.
So, how do you get more women into this sector?
When an organization recognizes that this is a really important need for them, and then when they recognize that this will give them a competitive advantage, they’re going to adjust the way they recruit; they’re going to ensure that part of the recruiting process, especially at the C level, includes options that include both genders, men and women. Once you actually cross that step, the rest is easy. So, the problem is, we don’t encourage, or we don’t trigger, women applying to this organizational level simply because we don’t think it’s a need. So we don’t make the effort. When it becomes a need, when we recognize that this is needed for us to be able to compete and to do well in this global environment, we’re going to adjust our decision-making processes to ensure that we get the diversity that we need.
Are there enough women out there, in your opinion, that would want to take on those senior managerial roles?
I think there are a lot of women out there that would be willing to take on these senior roles. However, we need to show them that we need them, and we need to be fair to them. And, so, once you recognize as an organization what women and men can do together, if they are both present within your strategic level, then you’re going to be more flexible in your recruiting strategies to ensure you get…. I mean, it’s just like everything. Anytime an organization has a need for a certain skill, they adjust their recruiting processes to ensure they actually attract this skill. It’s exactly the same. But it has to start with the organization’s recognition that this is needed for them to be able to compete within the global environment.
Let’s talk now more about the bank specifically. Security is massive in this digital age. What do you do at AM Bank to ensure that security is never—or in the absence of it never being able to be possible to guarantee 100-percent security—that it’s not compromised?
OK, so there are… my answers always encompass mental processes. So, first, there’s the understanding and the recognition that banks manage people’s money. And this by itself places a huge responsibility on banks not to be lenient when it comes to security. Because we’re managing people’s money. When you have this recognition, then when it’s time to invest in technologies, your focus cannot be only on functionality and user-friendliness. It has to be on security. And this is going to cost more. So, the objective when making a decision of what technologies to implement cannot simply be the cheapest technology with the highest functionalities. For us, it starts with the highest security, the credibility of the organization, and then we move to functionality and user-friendliness. So, this is the first, this is the first step. It’s actually in acquiring the technology. The second step is to ensure that the team that manages the back office of the bank are very qualified. This is why for us, most of our back-office managers come from the top four audit firms. They are, they think controls, and they understand how they need to manage risks. The third item is to have a culture that is always aware and open to being inquisitive. So, watch what happens, and be triggered. Understand the red flags. So, when you put all three layers together, you will end up with a very high level of controls and security for our clients, which is our main duty.
So, are there any services or banking products, either digital or more traditional, that you’ve introduced that you feel specifically work for your organization?
I think when introducing services and banking products, the core requirement is being close to the customer so that you hear the needs. You must listen, and you must hear your customers’ needs. If you’ve set yourself up to be able to understand what the customers’ needs are, then you’re going to end up innovating all the time. So, it’s an ongoing thing. I’ll give you an example. For us, we launched a service called Save the Pennies, And Save the Pennies is a basic service that enables communities to help each other by saving the pennies of the transactions they do in the bank. So, the bank adds value to them assisting each other, and you end up supporting whole communities. But we do a lot of unique services and products that we launch. All of them are triggered by the identification of a customer need that basically the organization picks up. So, any employee at the organization can actually report a need, an issue that happened with a customer. And that could end up in an innovation on a product level or service level.
How much does technology play within your organization for the overall customer experience? I mean, is that an integral part?
Lebanon actually is very much into technology. Banks in Lebanon have done a tremendous job investing in technology. What is key for us is to follow our customers. You have some customers that welcome technology; you have others that are not comfortable with technology. So, for us as an institution, we invest a lot in technology. But we never ever want to lose the interpersonal components. So, we believe that it’s the technology and the interpersonal components combined together that would actually create an incredible platform for our customers to use and to be satisfied with.
Yes, I think I’m right in saying that when you introduced digital banking into your institution, you realized quite a lot of people weren’t actually ready. …
So how did you… how did you then step back and make sure that you still complied with their needs and delivered on their needs?
We actually introduced digital banking a few years back, and at the time, we knew that not all of our clients would be interested in digital banking. We tend to, we love education. We love being part of the community. We love being part of society. And so, we tend to do a lot of activities and events to teach customers and to make them comfortable with the technologies. In fact, at one point in time, we opened up three classrooms in our branches to help customers and their children come and learn how to use the internet. And I think this is what organizations must do. We must recognize that it’s not, there isn’t an organization on one side and a customer on the other side; there are an organization and customers living together to form a community that is healthy and evolving together.
And that it is a broad church, as we would say in the UK. It’s made up of all sorts of different people. And with that in mind, I mean, how much emphasis do you place on the bank’s social-media presence? Clearly, young people are all over social media. But do you expect that a lot of others will be, too?
Actually, we’ve… when it comes to social media, we’ve had a success story at our bank, We use it heavily. We’ve done incredibly well. Because we talk to customers not as a bank; we talk to customers as members of the same society, the same country, the same community. And that makes a huge difference. So, first we thought it was only the youth that’s going to be very active with us. We soon realized that that’s not the case. Everybody is active on social media because it presents a platform where you can stay in touch, communicate. And you can choose to be loud, or you can choose to be just a listener. And it’s been a tremendous experience for us. We’ve done incredibly well. In fact, we received an award from World Union of Arab Bankers for best website, and we’re very proud of that. And I think the reason for that success is we’re always down on the ground with the customers. We don’t see the customer at a different level; we’re both components of the same equation.
You recently stated that AM Bank, and I’m quoting here, “is driven by a chairman who doesn’t see the boundaries of geographical locations and who sees the globe as the limits of the competitive environment”—i.e., there are no limits. So, have you got any recent specific examples of this kind of global mindset? And how it’s worked?
This is a very important point because how far the organization can go is actually limited by the vision of the chairman. So, if you have a chairman that’s always out there—he sees the global environment; he sees the opportunities; he sees the potential. As an organization, you have to live up to his expectations, which means the whole organization has to be in inquisitive mode. You’re always probing; you’re always watching; you’re always checking to see what else can be done. You’re always in touch with your customer. And the chairman is… his position is crucial. We’re very lucky. We have a young, brilliant, dynamic chairman who pulls the whole organization into that mode. And everything we do, actually, is because of that state of mind. There are plenty of examples of AM Bank doing things beyond our size. We were the first bank to launch and implement gender, a charter for gender diversity in the Arab world. We were the first bank to introduce multiple products. The first bank that brought credit cards into the country; first bank that launched mobile banking, sorry, digital banking a few years back. Payment breaks. Services that have never been copied within our industry. And we do this because we’re led by a chairman that doesn’t suffocate thoughts, a chairman that lifts all limitations and pushes the organization to be constantly dreaming and thinking and implementing.
And is that, in your opinion, how you deliver excellent customer service? I mean….
Of course, because it is that expectation that puts us at a totally different standard. I want to give you an example. If you limit yourself and benchmark your services within a small geographical area, your services will never be higher than that particular area. But when you have a chairman who is all over the globe and who wants his organization to be the best, then he’s comparing that best not to the best in that geographical area; he’s comparing that best globally. And that is amazing for us because it pushes evolution on the level of every employee at the bank.
So, what do you consider to be the most important factor in cultivating a really long-term, healthy relationship with a customer? What’s the key?
I think three things for us. First, care. You have to care. And care stems from the culture and the way the organization is managed. The second is transparency. Transparency will ensure that you establish trust with your customers. And this is crucial, especially in banking. And the third is openness. So, if I care about you as a customer, I’m transparent with you, and I’m open to hearing your thoughts, your issues and your needs. I’m going to bring all that back to the organization. And I’m going to innovate. And I’m going to produce excellent customer-service results.
Is it realistic to believe that all of your employees will always care?
No. But it is realistic that the whole management team, who has tremendous influence on all employees at the bank, will always care. And I have to be fair. We have a big part of our employees who truly care, and we see it. They send ideas for improvements; they send ideas for new products; they send ideas for new services. So, yes, the majority of our employees truly care.
When we last spoke, you mentioned that one of the bank’s biggest challenges was to try and create a different culture to that of the social culture that dominates Lebanon. Have you achieved that? And in what way is your culture different?
We achieved that. But I have to say that this is a journey. This is not… it doesn’t have an end date. It’s not a project that you do, and you finish. Culture is life. You have to keep managing it; you have to keep working with it; you have to be constantly scanning the environment to detect any issues that may create obstacles in front of this culture. So, yes, we’ve achieved it. It’s a full-time job for the chairman, myself and the management team. How have we done it? I want to give you some examples. So, we live… we are privileged to be in a beautiful country called Lebanon. However, some of the downsides of events that happen there is that you have a lot of negative noises that are driven politically in the country. So, you have employees that work in our bank. But at the end of the day, they leave, and they go home. And in their social settings, they’re hearing a lot of negativity about what’s going to happen to Lebanon, what’s going to happen to the sector, what’s going to happen to this. And that negativity is part of their life. They come to the bank, and they see the opposite. They see positivity; they see dreams; they see innovation; they see excitement about reaching a journey. And those are two very opposing worlds. And, so, there’s a lot of work that we need to do that we do, and we have to continue to do, to get people to believe that this is actually the reality. And what they see socially is just noise that has no impact. So, that is a beautiful example of this conflict that we have to manage.
Clearly, there are always going to be challenges. But what do you consider to be the priorities in terms of the way you manage the bank and what you would like to see over the next 12 to 18 months?
Our priority is to keep doing what we’re doing. It’s to ensure that this style of leadership drills down to everyone in the organization: our middle-management team and employees. We are very proud of the slogan that we actually deliver every day with every interaction, and it’s called the Can Do. And it’s all about positivity; it’s all about dreams; it’s all about our ability to do the good things, to make changes. So, that’s something that we’ve done already. We need to continue with this; we need to keep it; we need to keep it, to sustain it in the long-term. But I think there’s a bigger challenge for the industry as a whole in Lebanon. We are privileged to be in an industry that is very solid. The banking industry in Lebanon has had tremendous credibility. We’re so privileged to have a very strong central bank driven by a lot of wisdom that has been able to maintain a healthy sector. The challenge is for all banks to collaborate and to ensure that we instill trust in the consumers towards not only my bank or another bank, towards the industry. And this is going to be the challenge of how do we keep this collaboration to actually deliver on the support we get from our own central bank and ensure that we instill the trust values within our customer base.
Nahla, thank you very much.